The waiting is almost over with Japan hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup which will dominate the sports headlines over the next seven weeks. New Zealand are bidding to become the first team to lift the Webb Ellis Cup in three successive tournaments, although the tournament favourites come in with more questions against them than in the last two triumphs.

 

All Blacks aiming for three in a row

New Zealand obviously deserve their status as World Cup favourites but Steve Hansen’s side have not been at their invincible best over the last year. The All Blacks have been knocked off the top of the world rankings after several below-par performances and only managed to finish third in the recent Rugby Championship.

Their defeat in Ireland last November was a warning sign and the All Blacks suffered a 47-26 defeat in Australia last month. There is the sense New Zealand could be there for the taking this year and at short odds, the favourites – under pressure to create their own history – can be swerved at 5/4.

 

South Africa peaking in time for World Cup

New Zealand have an extremely tough opener this weekend and opponents South Africa could be the team to topple them both in their pool and in the whole tournament. The Springboks were in disarray a couple of years ago but the arrival of Rassie Erasmus, as a replacement for Allister Coetzee has sparked a huge transformation.

A series victory at home to England last summer marked the turning point and South Africa finished top of the Rugby Championship this year. The Springboks are unbeaten in 2019, which included a dominant win over Australia and a 16-16 draw in New Zealand. A stunning 36-34 victory against the All Blacks in Wellington last year has given them huge belief and suggests they have to be taken seriously as contenders at 4/1.

Led by captain Siya Kolisi, the Springboks have rebuilt their traditionally strong defence with their scrum and lineout ready to compete with any team. Their backline has the speed and flair to trouble the best sides with scrum-half Faf de Klerk and fly-half Handre Pollard forming a potent partnership along with the finishing power of Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi. The two-time winners appear to be peaking and look the best bet in the outright market.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 09: Siya Kolisi, (R) the first non white South Africa Springbok captain sings the national anthem with team mates Tendai Mtawarira and Bongi Mbonambi (L) during the first test match between South Africa and England at Elllis Park on June 9, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It would not be a surprise if South Africa had to contend with New Zealand again in November’s final and this is worth backing at 5/2. Two of the last three World Cups have seen teams from the same pool meet in the final and with the All Blacks and Springboks two of the most likely champions, a repeat showdown looks on the cards.

Looking at the top tryscorer market, Mapimpi looks a strong contender at 16/1 each way. The South African has made an explosive start to his international career scoring eight tries in as many games. This includes a hat-trick in the last warm-up game against Japan and the wing will have ample scoring opportunities against Namibia, Italy and Canada in the pool stage.

 

England could fall short in Japan

Eddie Jones has always insisted his target was to peak for the World Cup and the former Japan coach will believe his team are on track to lift the trophy at the start of November. England’s form over the last 18 months has lacked consistency but they have shown that at their best they are capable of overcoming any opposition.

With the dynamic forward power of the likes of Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola, England can compete with most teams and their backline, led by fly-half Owen Farrell, has plenty of prolific finishers and brute strength with Jonny May and Manu Tuilagi huge threats. The question is whether England can pull off a win against an elite team when they are not firing at their best. An extended run is anticipated but odds of 4/1 look pretty cramped.

BAGSHOT, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23: Eddie Jones, the England head coach looks on with Manu Tuilagi (L) and Joe Cokanasiga during the England captain's run at Pennyhill Park on August 23, 2019 in Bagshot, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

 

Ireland desperate to break through last-eight ceiling

It has been a tale of frustration for Ireland in the World Cup with the team yet to get past the quarter-finals of the competition. This is a huge underachievement and Joe Schmidt will be determined to put this right in his final tournament in charge.

Ireland were seen as the most likely challengers less than a year ago after winning the Grand Slam and defeating New Zealand. This year has been a big disappointment with a poor showing in their Six Nations title defence and a record 57-15 defeat to England last month. Their defence has been poor by their standards and the lineout is creaking. With Johnny Sexton running the show and Jacob Stockdale capable of starring on his World Cup debut they cannot be ruled out but may fall short once again.

 

Wales could contend in Gatland’s swansong

Wales dominated the Six Nations with their Grand Slam success built on an immense defence led by the outstanding captain Alun Wyn Jones. Shaun Edwards’ meticulous work as defence coach has made a huge impact and Warren Gatland has enjoyed great success during his 12-year tenure. The New Zealander will bow out at the end of the World Cup and a triumphant finale should not be dismissed.

The loss of injured fly-half Gareth Anscombe is a blow but Dan Biggar is capable of stepping up to the challenge and Liam Williams is one of the best full-backs in the game. Wales may need to be more expansive in Japan if they want to go the distance but their exceptional organisation and collective strength as a team can take them a long way. Wales have reached the semi-finals and the last-eight under Gatland and he may be able to coax even more from this group, including topping a pool featuring an unconvincing Australia team, although he is not helped by the departure of backs coach Rob Howley after an investigation into breaching betting rules.

Tips:

South Africa to win the World Cup

New Zealand to face South Africa in the final

Makazole Mapimpi to be top tryscorer Each Way

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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