The countdown to the 2019 Rugby World Cup is well and truly upon us.
However, although the match is missing the competition’s premier sides, like Japan’s tier one pool opponents Ireland and Scotland, the first match of the Cup could provide the event’s first upset on its opening day.
It’s unlikely, hence why it would be an upset, but Japan’s last clash against Russia ended in a tight 32-27 win in Gloucester last November, proving the Bears have the potential to foot it with the Brave Blossoms in front of their own fans.
But would that be the most likely upset in their pool, let alone the entire World Cup?
With multiple upsets taking place in three of the most recent World Cups – think Fiji v Wales and Argentina v France in 2007, Tonga v France in 2011, and, of course, Japan v South Africa four years ago – there’s no reason to think that a significant tip up couldn’t happen again in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Some nations will be looking to overcome some of the most decorated sides on the planet in search of a rare quarter-final berth, while others will simply be on the hunt for their maiden World Cup victory.
With recent tournament history in favour of the minnows, and if they provide enough luck and determination in seven weeks’ time, any one of the following fixtures could fall in favour of the underdogs.
Pool A – Scotland v Japan
The final match of the pool stage could well determine the other quarter-finalist from Pool A alongside Ireland.
This World Cup can be regarded as Japan’s best chance at qualifying beyond their pool for the first time in World Cup history, and after their efforts in 2015, there is every reason to believe that they could break their knockout shackles.
Three wins from four outings, including that famous injury time win over the Springboks in Brighton, catapulted the status of Japanese rugby worldwide, and although they became the first team ever to win that many games and not make the quarter-finals, the likes of Ayumu Goromaru, Michael Leitch and Eddie Jones were heralded as national heroes.
Four years later, the acquisition of Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown as head and assistant coaches has led to some meticulous planning for this, their home tournament, which the Japanese public are expected to rally behind.
The long-time coaching partners have embedded their famed up-tempo, creative style of play within the Japanese set-up, and the retention of key players from England 2015, such as Leitch, Amanaki Mafi, Fumiaki Tanaka and Shota Horie, has been complemented by the injection of new talent, including Lappies Labuschagne, Lomano Lemeki and Ataata Moeakiola.
All those factors culminate in a team that has the potential to really challenge some of the world’s top sides.
South Africa haven’t been the only tier one nation to feel the wrath of the Brave Blossoms in recent years, as France were held to a 23-all stalemate in Paris two years ago, while Wales and Scotland only escaped with three-point victories in 2016.
A prolonged training camp at the beginning of this year has been criticised as the Sunwolves battled without their homegrown talent throughout Super Rugby, but the national side has reaped the benefits of being in camp with Joseph, as seen via their entertaining 34-21 win over Fiji in Kamaishi last week.
Still, they remain underdogs against the Six Nations outfit, who themselves have impressed since the last World Cup through successes over Ireland, Wales, Australia and Argentina.
Conversely, the Scots have been just as prone to an upset during that timeframe, with shock losses to the Flying Fijians and the United States offsetting their good work.
It remains a significant challenge for the hosts to tip up a union of Scotland’s pedigree, but with a whole country supporting a well-coached Japanese team with a play-off spot likely to be on the line, who’s to say history couldn’t repeat itself four years on from the unlikeliest of wins in rugby history?
Pool B – Namibia v Canada
Heading into their sixth World Cup, Namibia are still searching for their maiden victory on the sport’s grandest stage.
It’s been a tough road for the Welwitchias, from their 142-0 drubbing by the Wallabies in 2003 through to one-point defeat at the hands of Georgia four years ago.
That tight loss in Exeter in 2015 was the closest the Namibians have ever come to claiming four points in a World Cup pool stage, and after dominating the African rugby scene for quite some time now, it appears they have been handed a prime opportunity to finally taste success in rugby’s premier event.
Despite not having played a nation of greater stature than that of Spain, Russia and Uruguay since the last World Cup, Phil Davies’ side have been drawn in Pool B alongside the bumbling Canadians.
Traditionally a powerhouse of Americas rugby, the Canucks have struggled in recent times, winning just 12 of their 35 tests since the 2015 World Cup.
A quarter of those victories came against minnows in the repechage round of World Cup qualifying last year, the final phase of the qualification process that they were forced into after suffering series defeats to the USA and Uruguay – two teams of which they have historically superior to.
Other losses to Russia, Romania and Brazil have left the Kingsley Jones-coached squad in a dire state so close to the tournament, and the USA’s 47-19 pummeling of their neighbours in Glendale last week emphasised the growing gap in quality between Canada and their rivals.
Namibia themselves don’t have the cleanest track record against tier two opposition since 2016, but if there was ever a chance to secure their first scalp after 20 years of World Cup rugby, their clash against the lowly Canadians in Kamaishi on October 13 would be it.
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Pool C – France v USA
France have long had a reputation for being possessed with an element of unpredictability at World Cups.
Shock wins over the All Blacks in 1999 and 2007, as well as an unlikely World Cup final showing in 2011, have contributed to that, but their credibility as a genuine force in world rugby has come into question with some uninspiring results over the past few years.
Les Bleus have a win percentage of little over 35 percent since being bundled out of the last World Cup in a 62-13 thumping by the All Blacks in the quarter-finals, and have won only five of their last 23 tests dating back to June 2017.
Two of their most disappointing results over the past 26 months include a 23-all draw with Japan in Paris in November 2017, and then a defeat to Fiji at Stade de France a year later.
Such a poor run of results has seen Jacques Brunel’s side lose that unknown quality that they have been renowned for, as losing is what most punters have come to expect of the three-time World Cup finalists.
That’s not to say that they won’t challenge for a quarter-final spot, but with title contenders England and the ever-improving Argentina in their pool, France’s odds of success in Japan don’t look flash.
The dull prospect of not advancing to the quarter-finals for the first time in their history could be worsened by the fact that their pool opponents, the USA, have been steadily improving over time, and could back themselves to pull off one of the upsets of the tournament.
The Eagles have established themselves as the premier side in the Americas – behind Argentina – with two America’s Rugby Championship titles and attaining the Americas 1 place in the World Cup ahead of Canada for the first-time.
Even more monumental was their shock 30-29 victory over an experimental Scottish team in their test clash in Houston last year.
It was the USA’s first win over a tier one opponent in 94 years, and although it was a weakened side fielded by Gregor Townsend, the win is one that would have installed a heap of confidence in Gary Gold’s squad.
That confidence has been portrayed in their first two Pacific Nations Cup outings of 2019, as their 47-19 thrashing of Canada last week was followed by a rare 13-10 victory over Samoa.
In stark contrast to France, the United States’ preparation for the World Cup is building smoothly, and with star men such as Harlequins’ ex-NFL running back Paul Lasike, Sale Sharks playmaker AJ MacGinty and promising Saracens front rower Titi Lamositele in their ranks, there is certainly potential for the Eagles to turn heads in Fukuoka on October 2.
Pool D – Australia v Fiji
This is a fixture many have already identified as the most likely upset – as much of an oxymoron as that is – to come to fruition at this World Cup, and it’s easy to see why.
The struggles that the Wallabies have endured since the last World Cup, and especially over the past year, have been widely documented, with 2018 producing just four wins from 13 attempts.
Head coach Michael Cheika has been rightly lambasted for such a poor return given the storied history and success of Australian rugby, but 2019 hasn’t started on a much better note.
Following the Israel Folau saga that erupted in April, the Springboks dished the Wallabies a 35-17 defeat at Ellis Park in their Rugby Championship opener two weeks ago, and that was followed by a scratchy 16-10 win over the Pumas in Brisbane last week.
Back-to-back tests against the All Blacks in consecutive weeks doesn’t look all that prosperous, and with just one test against Samoa sandwiched between the Bledisloe Cup series and this crucial showdown in Sapporo on September 21, there is little time left for Cheika to set the Wallabies on the right track.
As for Fiji, they are in the best shape they have been in for quite some time.
The last World Cup cycle has seen the reigning back-to-back-to-back-to-back Pacific Nations Cup champions score wins over tier one opponents Italy, Scotland and France, while pushing Ireland to the brink of a famous victory in Dublin two years ago.
Additionally, they have maintained their dominance over fellow tier one opponents, regularly dispatching the likes of Pacific neighbours Samoa and Tonga, as well as accounting for other nations such as Georgia and Japan.
Ben Volavola and Frank Lomani have joined forces to create a formidable halves partnership, while the presence of Leone Nakarawa, Viliame Mata and Dominiko Waqaniburotu should strike fear into opposition players.
Such a strong roster for a tier two nation makes the Flying Fijians an incredibly competitive outfit, and if they can direct the flow of the game and incorporate their style of play on this lacklustre Wallabies side in just seven weeks’ time, then they could put themselves in a prime position to make a third appearance in a World Cup quarter-final.
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