2019 Rugby World Cup – previewing the big six

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As the Rugby World Cup 2019 gets underway in Japan, the world’s top nations are concluding their preparations and will be raring to go this weekend.

In this article I’ll take a look at the top six teams heading into the tournament, which are made up of the ex-Tri Nations teams of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, and the leading Six Nations sides of this World Cup cycle: England, Ireland and Wales.

It may seem harsh not to allow any room for Scotland, France or Argentina in this group, but there is a sizeable gap between sixth and seventh in the IRB rankings, and seventh placed Scotland are yet to go deep in a World Cup.

France have made two finals and a further three semis, whilst Argentina have made the semi-finals in two of the last three tournaments, but both have had poor form in the last few years, and a conveyer belt in and out of their respective starting XVs.

New Zealand

RWC best: Champions 1987, 2011, 2015

Key Player: Beauden Barrett

One to watch: George Bridge

Where else to start except with the reigning triple world champions? Despite recently losing their number one ranking, through no real fault of their own, they will still enter the tournament as favourites, although maybe not as heavily fancied as a couple of years ago.

Beauden Barrett will be key as always, as despite having started at fifteen in recent times to make space for Richie Mo’unga, he has since demonstrated his role as the premier playmaker and most reliable and influential member of the team.

In hot and humid Japanese conditions, where fatigue will be a factor, skillset, fitness and ability to play in a broken field will be key, and Barrett possesses all three in abundance.

With the injury to Brodie Retallick, who will probably miss the start of the tournament, New Zealand will need leaders across the pitch, and Barrett will relish the opportunity to play a major role in the World Cup, having played second fiddle to Dan Carter in 2015.

Elsewhere, George Bridge has made a lightning start to his test career having been a regular scorer for the Crusaders in each of their last three victorious Super Rugby seasons.

He enters the World Cup along with teammate Sevu Reece as the in-form wingers in the squad, with Reiko Ioane seemingly a bit short of form. His four tries against Tonga also won’t have done his selection hopes any harm, either.

A deceptively strong ball carrier, who always seems to pop up in the right place, could make a real impression in Japan if given the opportunity by Steve Hansen.

Australia

RWC best: Champions 1991, 1999

Key Player: Samu Kerevi

One to watch: Reece Hodge

Despite being two-time champions, and two quarter final defeats to England being their worst results, Australia enter the tournament as the least fancied of all of the top six.

A huge 47-26 in Perth over the All Blacks in early August couldn’t be backed up the following week, but we know a performance like that is in this current Wallabies team. However, weak form against the northern hemisphere powerhouses doesn’t bode well for them.

Captain Michael Hooper will be their key man in Japan. If he can dominate at the breakdown like he has done in the past, especially in tiring conditions where there will be plenty of opportunity to do so, he can give Australia a real foothold from which to dominate possession and games.

With David Pocock also set to retire after the tournament, and his true fitness unknown, Hooper will have to lead the Aussie forward pack.

In the back line, Christian Lealiifano has returned to take the ten jersey off Bernard Foley in recent times, and Nic White has been recalled after a stellar couple of season at Exeter Chiefs.

But the one to watch has to be Reece Hodge, a utility back who can cover almost any position in the back line except scrum half. His electric pace and long range kicking can have a huge impact on either a tight or open game, and he is certain to play in all games that are deemed important by Wallabies boss Michael Cheika.

South Africa

RWC best: Champions 1995, 2007

Key Player: Duane Vermeulen

One to watch: Cheslin Kolbe

South Africa enter the World Cup having won their first Rugby Championship this year and having beat England in last summer’s home test series. They play New Zealand in their first game on Saturday and are fancied by many pundits to topple the Kiwis.

After a few poor years after the 2015 tournament, South Africa have gone back to their traditional game plan of sheer power and it has worked a treat.

They probably possess easily one of the most imposing forward packs in the world, boasting the likes of Steven Kitshoff, Tendai (Beast) Mtawarira, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter Steph du Toit, and the biggest of all, Duane Vermeulen.

The powerhouse number eight will look to profit at the back of a huge scrum, and his ball carrying power will be vital, especially when close to the opposition line.

Cheslin Kolbe has been filling highlight reels in the Top 14 and Champions Cup since his arrival at Toulouse two years ago.

His electric pace, step and elusiveness on the wing will be sure to light up the World Cup and will be extra important for South Africa following a four-year drug ban for Aphiwe Dyantyi, their other electric winger.

In a Springbok backline filled with power, especially in the centres with Damien de Allende and Jesse Kriel, Kolbe’s finishing abilities will be extra useful, and probably frequently called upon, out wide.

England

RWC best: Champions 2003

Key Player: Owen Farrell

One to watch: Manu Tuilagi

England enter the World Cup as arguably the most in-form team of all. They’re not quite on the same level as the fabled team of 2003, who were ranked first and without a doubt hot favourites, but they’ve had a very strong year since their disappointing 2-1 series defeat in South Africa last summer.

They’ve beaten Australia in all six meetings since the last World Cup, they beat South Africa in November, and only lost to New Zealand by a point in their last meeting due to a very harsh refereeing decision.

In their warm ups they managed to comfortably beat Wales with their second team, and the same team narrowly lost out in Cardiff before demolishing Ireland and producing a strong second half in a 37-0 win over Italy.

England are the only team to match South Africa in terms of power, and perhaps go above and beyond.

They have commanding ball carriers in the forward pack like Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola, and their defensive line speed is frightening when at its best.

Owen Farrell is the captain and without a doubt their most influential player. Without Farrell, you feel England’s chances are hugely reduced. His tactical kicking, placekicking, hard defence and distribution will be greatly needed by and England team fancied to go all the way by many.

Manu Tuilagi comes into the World Cup in red-hot form, having looked back to his powerful best in his most recent appearance in the 57-15 trouncing of Ireland at Twickenham.

Rested in the final game, and with Henry Slade recovering from injury and Jonathan Joseph out of favour, he looks set to play a huge role for England. Only at ‘80%’ for his barnstorming performance against Ireland, if he manages to reach 100% fitness and potential, he will strike fear into even the hardest of defences.

Ireland

RWC best: Quarter Finals (six times)

Key Player: Johnny Sexton

One to watch: Jack Conan

Ireland enter the World Cup as the world’s number one ranked side yet aren’t in the top three sides fancied to win, and you wouldn’t call them hard done by in that respect.

South Africa, England and perennial favourites New Zealand all look more impressive, but Ireland still have the same players that beat the All Blacks in Dublin last autumn and can be a force to be reckoned with.

Johnny Sexton will be key to any success they have and with Joey Carbery’s training restricted with injury, Sexton’s importance has been magnified.

The temperamental fly half is still reining World Player of the Year and is capable of taking the ball to the line and taking apart defences. However, if he goes down under some heavy tackles early on, Ireland’s game plan and chances will shrink swiftly.

Ireland’s undoing in 2019 has been a lack of a power game, which was originally unearthed in their humbling defeat on opening weekend of the Six Nations 20-32 to England in Dublin, and again in their convincing loss in Cardiff on the final weekend.

Ireland’s back row has looked a little light of late, but Jack Conan could be the answer to their prayers. The Leinster number eight is a big ball carrier and had a great season with the Celtic Champions and European finalists.

With his or CJ Stander’s ability to slot into the blindside, Conan could be the missing piece that Ireland’s pack have been looking for to help them compete with the best.

Wales

RWC best: Champions 1987, 2011

Key Player: Dan Biggar

One to watch: Jake Ball

Wales were the world’s number one team a month ago, yet now are down at number five. The team has recently been hit with another blow to add to their significant injury list, with assistant manager Rob Howley being sent home over a betting scandal.

Wales had the best defence in the Six Nations, conceding only seven tries, yet scored the fewest, tied with Italy. It’s no coincidence that four out of six key players are fly halves, and Dan Biggar will have a crucial role in any potential success the Welsh could enjoy.

With Gareth Anscombe injured, he is the only fly half in the squad with any decent international experience, and Wales need a cool head in the playmaker position.

Wales’ finisher in the Six Nations, Biggar will need to master the starting role too, and pose more of an attacking threat than he has done in the past.

Anscombe isn’t Wales’ only big-name injury. Second row Cory Hill won’t return before the knockout stages, and his inclusion shows how highly Gatland values him in the engine room.

Therefore, Wales are already a lock down in the group stages, and Jake Ball will likely have to fill Hill’s place in the starting XV.

The group stages will be of huge importance for Wales’s chances, as if they come second, they’ll likely face England in the quarters, as opposed to France or Argentina if they win their group.

Moreover, should Ball get injured, it leaves Gatland in a very sticky situation with his second row selection.

Image by Mc681 via Wikimedia Commons

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