Pool A may look an easy group on paper for the home nations, but that may not be the case.
At the top of the pool, Ireland should seal top spot quite comfortably. With Joey Carbery seeming to have shrugged off an ankle injury just in time, Ireland should have the quality to see off their pool opponents, especially if Irelands 22-13 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield is anything to go by.
The real question in this pool is who qualifies second? On paper Scotland should be the side going through, but with a 2019 that currently has them with a losing record it brings Japan into the equation. Japan have won 6 of their last 9 games, albeit against lesser opposition, but the way in which they went about those wins breeds confidence. Putting 41 points past Tonga and 34 past Fiji, as well as scoring 31 points against New Zealand last year shows the quality they have going forward and is why I’m picking them to finish 2nd in Pool A.
Pool B is slightly more straightforward to pick, with New Zealand and South Africa expected to qualify at the expense of Italy, Namibia and Canada.
There are a few uncertainties in the New Zealand line-up going into the tournament. On the left wing, world star Rieko Ioane has been out of form and George Bridge has more than taken his chance, scoring 5 tries in his last 2 games. The Kiwis have also been experimenting with Beauden Barrett at full-back and Richie Mo’unga taking the reins at Fly Half. However, the sheer quality in the All Blacks squad should see them through to top the group at a canter, closely followed by South Africa. The Springboks are unbeaten in their last 5 games, but with 2017 Breakthrough star Aphiwe Dyantyi missing the tournament after a drugs ban, they are losing a huge piece of their puzzle.
Around 2 or 3 years ago, this pool would have been very difficult t predict, but recent performances from both France and Argentina have made it slightly easier. By the time the World Cup comes around, it will have been an entire year since Argentina last won a test match, a 23-19 win away in Australia, but since then, it’s all gone downhill. A 10 game losing streak, including one to the Barbarians back in December has given them plenty to think about if they’re going to get out of the group.
At the top, England should cruise home, only losing 1 of their last 6 games, a close fought 13-6 defeat away in Wales last month and if any debating needed doing between who should top the pool between England and France, the 44-8 drubbing of the French back in February should be enough.
Arguably the most competitive pool this year, Both Wales and Australia will have to be careful throughout to ensure qualification, with Fiji and Georgia both very much live contenders.
Wales have shown themselves to be a very strong defensive unit in 2019, winning the Six Nation grand slam with only 65 points conceded, an average of 13 a game. They’ve showcased their ability to grind out tough games which is exactly what will be needed out in Japan.
For Australia, it’s been an indifferent 12 months, losing 4 of their last 8 games, but also securing a huge 47-26 win over favourites New Zealand. For them, the worrying stat is that they have lost 4 of their last 6 away games, with the wins coming against Italy and Argentina, that record will have to be put to bed for them to have any chance in Japan.
Can Fiji or Georgia qualify? It’s definitely a possibility. Georgia have shown signs of promise against the smaller nations but when stepping up in class they’ve been second best, shown in the 2 recent defeats to Scotland. The shock may come from Fiji. They’ve won 5 of their last 7, as well as a 37-15 win over Georgia back in June of 2018. Their win over France in Paris shows it’s possible but Australia and Wales should have too much for them.
Pool A – Ireland 1st, Japan 2nd, Scotland 3rd, Samoa 4th, Russia 5th
Pool B – New Zealand 1st, South Africa 2nd, Italy 3rd, Namibia 4th, Canada 5th
Pool C – England 1st, France 2nd, Argentina 3rd, USA 4th, Tonga 5th
Pool D – Wales 1st, Australia 2nd, Fiji 3rd, Georgia 4th, Uruguay 5th
Rugby World Cup 2019 Winners – New Zealand
England(W) v Australia
New Zealand(W) v Japan
Wales(W) v France
South Africa(W) v Ireland
New Zealand(W) v England
Wales(W) v South Africa
New Zealand(W) v Wales
Top Tryscorer – Rieko Ioane
A month ago I would have said Rieko Ioane without even thinking twice, but with George Bridge being preferred against Australia and Tonga I’m not so certain. Jonny May and Jacob Stockdale are both worthy candidates alongside Mapimpi and Nkosi but I’ll hold firm and say that Rieko Ioane will be top tryscorer.
Top Pointscorer – Handre Pollard
Another tough one due to the uncertainty surrounding Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga. I think New Zealand will do some rotation throughout the group stage along with England, meaning Farrell may not start every game and for that reason I’m going with Handre Pollard.
Breakthrough Player – Sevu Reece
For me, this one came down to 2 players, Sevu Reece and Joe Cokanasiga. Both have burst on to the international scene in the last 12 months but Reece takes this one for me purely down to game time. I feel there is more competition on the England wings with the likes of Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Jonny May all performing well recently, and with Reece having a clear run on that Right Wing for New Zealand, expect him to be the breakthrough star.