There will be twists and turns aplenty in the next three and a bit weeks of World Cup pool action but all four home nations will make it through to the quarter-finals.
A few huge stories will develop over the course of the pool stages with injuries and bans likely to play a major role, so anything can happen and it’s not going to go perfectly to form. But I do think the top eight teams in the world rankings now will make the knockout stage.
New Zealand versus South Africa is a mouth-watering match to have on the opening weekend but, to be honest, I don’t really think it matters who wins too much as they are both getting out of that pool and who knows which side of the draw will prove to be easier.
Scotland’s game against Ireland is far more important in reality as if they lose, that pool will build towards the epic crescendo of them facing hosts Japan and having to win to qualify for the last eight. They would have to do so just four days after playing Russia as well.
That would be tough but the Scots will have too much and Japan have got to beat Samoa before we get to that point anyway. I can’t see them beating Ireland first up, though, especially with the weather conditions expected in Yokohama.
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England are looking good on the back of some good performances and results in the warm-up games but things can change very quickly at World Cups and it’s not very long ago that they were surrendering a massive lead against Scotland in the Six Nations, so they won’t be counting their chickens.
I do expect them to top Pool C, though, so Saturday’s game between France and Argentina is massive. Maxime Medard has described it as “an all or nothing match”, which says it all really.
The Pumas are currently on their worst ever run, losing nine Tests in a row, and France have just started to find a bit of form, which has made people sit up and think that they might be able to make an impact in Japan.
‘There’s a lot of pride in how rugby is played, the camaraderie of players from different teams. That’s slipping. We’re getting some things we don’t need’
– Graham Henry with @JLyall93 on gamesmanship, mental health, All Blacks and @rugbyworldcup minnowshttps://t.co/sPvsN4ke5r
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 19, 2019
Both those teams normally turn up at World Cups but France have the edge with the likes of Antoine Dupont, Virimi Vakatawa, Alivereti Raka, Damian Penaud and co capable of pulling rabbits out of hats in the backline.
Wales were on top of the world a few weeks ago but back-to-back defeats to Ireland and now the Rob Howley bombshell mean there are a few more question marks over them. That kind of disruption does have the potential to unsettle the squad.
It all depends on how the players react and how adaptable they are because Stephen Jones is an awesome coach, so it could even improve their attack if they respond in the right manner.
Fiji look phenomenal on paper and they have been together for 12 weeks prior to this tournament, which hasn’t been the case in the past, so they could cause a scare or two in Pool D. Let’s not forget that they beat Wales and knocked them out, taking the pool runners-up spot behind Australia back in 2007.
Any team with Leone Nakarawa, Bill Mata and Peceli Yato in the forwards and Semi Radradra, Josua Tuisova, Vereniki Goneva and more in the backs has a chance and, having spoken to some people, the Aussies are nervous about that game first up.
I can see why they are worried but the greater structure in the games of Australia and Wales and their experience means they will have too much.
— Rugby Union Russia (@russiarugby) September 15, 2019
Last month I would have said that Wales were going to top that pool but the injuries that they have picked up, together with a bit of unrest and also the conditions in Japan, mean I have swung towards Australia to just edge it.
There could be red cards galore with the uncertainty around how the high tackle framework will be implemented by different referees, which would throw the most open World Cup ever even more wide open.
However, while predictions can make you look foolish, I don’t think you can go too far wrong with those eight teams and standout players.
MY QUARTER-FINAL LINE-UP
England v Wales
Australia v France
Ireland v South Africa
New Zealand v Scotland
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TOP TRY SCORER
There are a few other interesting areas to look at and if I were a betting man, I’d be having a few quid on George Bridge to be top try scorer, but I’d better be a bit careful after what has happened to Howley!
New Zealand wingers obviously tend to score a bucket load of tries and they have got Namibia, Canada and Italy in their pool. They have also really only picked three wingers in the squad and I can’t see Rieko Ioane and Sevu Reece starting together in the big games.
TOP POINTS SCORER
I’m going with Beauden Barrett to be the tournament’s top points scorer. Some people will question that given the uncertainty around whether Richie Mo’unga will start at 10 and perhaps do the kicking, but he is world-class and I’m backing him.
BREAKTHROUGH PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT
It sounds strange to call him a breakthrough player really, given what he’s done in the Top 14 in recent years, but France’s new Fijian Alivereti Raka hasn’t been seen on the world stage yet and he is one of the deadliest wingers in the game.
PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT
It’s pretty tough to pick a player of the tournament but you would have to go with someone from the team you think will likely win it. If they move him back to flyhalf, Barrett will stand out above the rest and win that award.
WATCH: Neil Back recalls England’s 2003 triumph in the opening episode of the new RugbyPass series, Rugby World Cup Memories
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