All Change as Rugby Union’s Finest Jet off to Japan

With the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan just days away, the 20 teams arriving on the shores of ‘the Land of the Rising Sun’ are preparing for what could be the most unpredictable World Cup yet.

Whilst no team travels to a Rugby World Cup without the goal of winning the tournament, the 2019 edition is possibly the first tournament with no clear favourite to take home the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2nd.

This year alone has seen a massive shake-up at the top of the World Rugby Rankings. New Zealand, on top of the Rankings for over a decade, were finally unseated from their perch by Wales in August, off the back of the Dragons’ victorious Six Nations campaign earlier this year.

However, mere weeks later Ireland stole Wales’ crown as the world’s number one, following their two successive victories over Warren Gatland’s side in this summer’s World Cup warm-ups. Wales have fallen to a meagre 5th, with their poor summer compounded by a win and a loss against Eddie Jones’ England.

England are coming into form just at the right time, with Jones’ four-year plan of peaking in Japan looking likely, particularly after such poor performances and results in 2018.

Similarly, South Africa has also experienced a recent resurgence under new coach Rassie Erasmus, beating and drawing with New Zealand in the last year. The All Blacks, who always experiment with their squad depth before World Cups, have looked especially shaky in the last 12 months, hence their 10-year stranglehold over the World Rugby rankings has been ended, at the hands of two resurgent Northern Hemisphere nations.

Historically, Southern Hemisphere teams have vastly outperformed their Northern counterparts at Rugby World Cups (New Zealand 3 titles, Australia & South Africa 2 each), with England in 2003 the only Northern Hemisphere side to win a World Cup. 

Coincidentally, 2003 was the only year that a side other than New Zealand were seen as genuine favourites to take home the trophy.

Whilst picking a potential winner from the World’s current top 5 is difficult, numerous sides remain in contention to take home the Gold in Japan. Australia, runners-up in 2015, can never be discounted and are slowly rebuilding following the loss of Israel Folau, whilst Argentina will surely benefit massively from their Jaguares side finishing 2nd in this seasons’ Super Rugby. France, who traditionally peak at World Cups, are also outside contenders, despite a traditionally messy build-up to the tournament.

Another side that will be looking to cause an upset in 2019 are the hosts, Japan. After shocking the world in 2015 by beating South Africa in their opening game, Japan have built on their impressive showing under new coach Jamie Joseph, who has continued the blueprint Eddie Jones left behind to such effectiveness that the Cherry Blossoms are now amongst the world’s top 10 for the very first time.

With so many teams vying to take the Trophy from Tokyo this Autumn, Japan 2019 is set up to be the tightest, most competitive Rugby World Cup yet. 

The first tournament held outside Rugby Union’s traditional heartlands, and with no established favourites just days out from kick-off, perhaps we will see a new name on the Webb Ellis Cup, that could signal the dawn of a new era of International Rugby.