Wednesday’s draw for the 2019 Rugby World Cup has already got us counting down the days until the flagship tournament gets underway. (It’s 863 days, if you were wondering.)
England’s formidable route through the pool stage as well as New Zealand’s group clash with South Africa caused the most reaction, but come kick-off in two years’ time, what are going to be the big issues and talking points that dominate the tournament?
“Japan delivers — or maybe not”
Japan players celebrate their surprise victory over South Africa 2015 Getty Images/2015 Getty Images
It’s an exciting time to be in Japan. Not only are they hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019, but the Olympics follow in Tokyo the year after. But with it comes expectation, and the fear that the rugby tournament could become merely a dry run for the big show to learn from.
Will the public embrace the first Rugby World Cup in Asia, in a country where the sport doesn’t rank in its top eight in terms of popularity? Can they get all their ducks in a row? Already we have seen construction delays force a change in venue for the final. There are signs though in attendance to Sunwolves games in Super Rugby, as well as the growing popularity of Rugby Sevens in the region, that the people can get behind this event.
As for the team on the pitch, they won’t want to add their name to the list occupied alone by England as a host country that fails to make it out of their group. Japan showed two years ago with arguably the most famous win at a World Cup event over South Africa that they can deliver on the day, but consistency will be key.
Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown led the Highlanders to Super Rugby glory, and under their blueprint one can expect the Brave Blossoms to throw the kitchen sink at Pool A opponents Ireland and Scotland in front of their endearing fans.
“The tier two nations deserve a fairer hand”
Georgia celebrate after defeating Tonga at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND LANGLOIS
After Wednesday’s draw you have to feel for Conor O’Shea. His mission to take Italy to the quarterfinals in 2019 just got a heck of a lot tougher having been drawn with current champions New Zealand and two-time winners South Africa. Yes, the Azzurri beat the Springboks last time they met in November, but it would take a brave man to bet against South Africa restoring some pride in their national game by the time the World Cup rolls around.
With Italy staring at a hiding to nothing, the opportunity is there for the likes of Georgia or Romania to pounce. Who knows whether either of those Eastern European countries will come any closer to Six Nations entry in the next two years, but a big scalp in Japan could pile more pressure on rugby’s powerbrokers in the north to reconsider their position. Georgia’s ship may have sailed, however, after the retirements of Davit Zirakashvili and Mamuka Gorgodze, coupled with their route out of pool play which would require at the very least a win over Australia or Wales.
Let’s not forget Fiji, Samoa and Tonga either, or the United States and Canada. At least one tier two nation should get a win over a tier one counterpart, which you would then hope triggers further support and investment in the second echelon to bridge the gap.
“The Southern Hemisphere’s grip is slipping”
Ireland bow out of the 2015 World Cup at the quarterfinal stage. Michael Steele/Getty Images
Put some money on it: there will be at least one northern hemisphere side in the semifinals of the World Cup in 2019.
In 2015, it was slightly embarrassing that we had a second Rugby Championship in England as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina contested the semifinals.
For starters, let’s consider the way Wednesday’s draw panned out. On current form and predictions you would expect England to top Pool C and Wales to finish second in Pool D which would see the two foes meet in the quarterfinals.
But it could and should go further than that. The way Australian and South African rugby has plummeted both internationally and domestically since the last World Cup, combined with the rise of England and Ireland in particular, the pendulum is gathering towards a swing north.
Whether Ireland can finally deliver is another matter entirely, but under Joe Schmidt they have the coach to lead them to the semifinals for the first time in the tournament’s history. You can count on the All Blacks being there or thereabouts (Beauden Barrett will be 28, brother Jordie 22) but this time round its quite feasible Steve Hansen’s side will be the only Southern Hemisphere country standing in the final fortnight of the tournament.
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