We’ve known it for some time but now this year’s Six Nations Championship has confirmed that the 2019 Rugby World Cup is wide open and will be the most hotly-contested ever!
This last weekend, South Africans marvelled at the jaw-dropping standard of the matches between England and Scotland, and Wales and Ireland. By comparison, Super Rugby looked amateurish, even bearing in mind it is a provincial competition and the Crusaders weren’t playing.
For so many years the Rugby Championship (formerly the Tri Nations) was regarded by the Southern Hemisphere as superior to the Six Nations, with justifiable arrogance, but after the 2015 World Cup the gap between the hemispheres quickly narrowed and is now, at the very least, on par with what New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina can dish up. Some would say it has surpassed the Rugby Championship for consistent quality, Italy’s poor showing notwithstanding.
In 2015, the World Cup semi-finals were between South Africa and New Zealand, and Australia and Argentina, a Rugby Championship clean sweep. Four years on, you would have to say there is virtually no chance of Europe having no representation in the semis.
Looking at the four Pools for Japan, the top two ranked teams in each Pool will have little problem advancing to the quarter-finals where there is the prospect of a banquet of mouth-watering clashes.
From Pool A, it should be Ireland and Scotland that advance, from Pool B, New Zealand and South Africa, in Pool D, Australia and Wales look good, and then in the ‘Pool of Death’, two of England, Argentina and France are expected to reach the playoffs.
It will be a last eight line-up where anybody can beat anybody. Even the All Blacks, so overwhelmingly ahead of everybody else in 2015, will be in danger in what will be an almighty bun fight.
That said, New Zealand remain the best rugby team on the planet and will be outright favourites at the World Cup. But the pack of pretenders to the All Blacks throne has grown, and the gap behind the Kiwis has shrunk.
Wales, crowned Six Nations champions after their dismantling of Ireland in Cardiff, are very much the real deal. They are on a 14-match unbeaten run and years of planning by coach Warren Gatland is coming to fruition. The British and Irish Lions coach has been with Wales since 2007 and his parting gift to the Welsh is a genuine shot at World Cup glory.
The Irish can hardly be discounted because of their dip in form in the Six Nations that saw them beaten in Dublin by England and then overwhelmed in Cardiff. To be fair to them, this last Saturday in Cardiff was very much Wales’ day. It was always going to be tough to beat a Wales team with one hand on the Cup and in front of 80,000 fans.
Ireland are brilliantly coached by another outgoing Kiwi, Joe Schmidt, and lest we forget that they have downed the All Blacks twice in the last two years. Schmidt will have his side peaking at the World Cup and they travel to Japan with Paddy Power, their army of fanatical supporters.
Scotland will make a decent fist of the World Cup but if they are to be serious contenders they need luck with injuries because their depth is fragile.
England are, well, England. They were magnificent in the first half against Scotland before being seduced by the 31-0 scoreboard, and you can be sure that cunning Eddie Jones will have the Red Rose army in fine fettle come Japan.
France were a Six Nations disappointment, their crushing defeat of Scotland in Paris the only thing they had to shout home about. It is difficult to see them shaping up consistently in Japan.
Rassie Erasmus will have watched the Six Nations with keen interest. He will have observed that the bar for international rugby has been raised and that the Springboks have to respond accordingly.
Forewarned is forearmed.