The dust has finally settled on an enthralling autumn of test matches.
Wales secured a cleansweep of victories, England restored the faith with three invaluable wins out of four, Ireland finally beat the All Blacks on home soil and elsewhere Scotland enjoyed mixed fortunes while France generously allowed Fiji to claim their first ever victory over Les Bleus.
It all sets up 2019's World Cup in Japan perfectly – the first on the Asian continent and what many believe will be the closest and hardest to call tournaments in history. But don’t tell that to the bookies, who can’t look beyond New Zealand’s World Cup pedigree.
The back-to-back winners – best priced at 6/5 with Betway – are clear favourites.
And for good reason. Head coach Steve Hansen will be orchestrating his second World Cup at the reigns and fourth as part of the Kiwi set up. He has a settled team, can handle the pressure of expectation and even knows how to navigate a crisis, such as when the All Blacks had to draft in fifth choice flyhalf Stephen Donald as emergency cover for the 2011 final.
And yet, two very significant recent loses to South Africa and Ireland suggest it will be far from a cake walk for the three-time champs. With a resurgent Springboks in their group it’s not inconceivable that the All Blacks finish their pool in second spot, teeing up a blockbuster quarter final with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.
The men in green have already proven they have their beating on neutral soil after their famous 2016 win in Chicago. Were history to repeat itself in Japan, an Ireland v England final – priced at a tidy 16/1 with Paddy Power – could be on.
For that final to materialise in Yokohama on 2 November, 2019, Ireland would have to do something they’ve never managed: win a quarter-final. It’s largely due to this major blot on their World Cup copybook that the Irish aren’t better priced.
But Ireland under Schmidt are making a habit of rewriting the record books. They ended a 111-year wait for victory over the All Blacks in Chicago and in November backed it up with their first win in Ireland in 17 attempts.
Ireland’s Kiwi-born coach has assembled a side with serious strength in depth, meaning a raft of injuries shouldn’t derail them like it has in past tournaments.
Plus they have two trump cards in World Rugby Player of the Year Johnny Sexton and defence coach Andy Farrell, two men who’ve masterminded six wins over the All Blacks in recent years.
Should Ireland overcome the Kiwis and South Africa continue their upward trajectory under coach Rassie Erasmus, there’s every chance they could meet in the final, making it extra baffling that an Ireland v South Africa final is so absurdly long at 110/1 with Betfair. Well worth a punt.
Ever since Eddie Jones’ first press conference in November 2015, the Australian has pinpointed World Cup victory as his complete focus. Everything else is purely building blocks and learning curves.
Even after a horror Six Nations threatened to derail England’s chariot, they’ve finished the year on the up and restored Jones’ win record to 80% across three years that’s delivered two Six Nations, a Grand Slam and a whitewash 3-0 series victory in Australia.
But the draw hasn’t been especially favourable to the men in white. France and Argentina will take some beating and love to turn it on come major tournaments.
Then there are two banana skins in Tonga and USA to sidestep. If England emerge unscathed, they’ll likely face a route to the final via Australia, then New Zealand, then Ireland. Ouch.
England will need every one of their big name, big game players firing, not least Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers, hence their tall task is matched by equally tall odds at 17/2 with Betfair.
Since the Springboks first competed at the World Cup in 1995 (an international sports boycott due to apartheid excluded their participation in the first two) they’ve reached the quarters every time, finished third twice and won the whole thing twice.
They’re serial big game performers. Even humiliation at the hands of Japan in the last World Cup didn’t stop them reaching the semi-final. Next year they could even lose to the All Blacks and still reach the showpiece final, given they’re in the same group as the Kiwis.
In World Rugby breakthrough player of the year Aphiwe Dyantyi, in-form Junior World Championship 2014 winner Handré Pollard at flyhalf and the inspired Siya Kolisi spearheading their resurgence, the Boks will take some beating come tournament kick off.
While Jones has been blustering and Schmidt scooping coach of the year, Wales’ Warren Gatland has been busy upskilling his players and expanding his tactical playbook.
In the process they’ve completed their first clean sweep of autumn tests, amassed an unbeaten run of nine matches and climbed to third in the world rankings.
You can get 9/2 with Betfair for the Welsh to live up to this billing and finish third in Japan. But with the vastly experienced two-time British and Irish Lions coach at the helm, 16/1 with Ladbrokes for them to go all the way offers great value.
To achieve this monumental feat and reach their first ever final, Wales would need to bypass a poor Australia in their pool, followed by a likely run of England, South Africa or New Zealand and the Irish in the final.
After 2015, Wales fans and players will feel reasonably confident of upsetting England’s chariot and rampaging into their first semi-final since a heartbreaking defeat to the All Blacks in 2011.
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