The All Blacks are bidding to win their third successive rugby World Cup and it’s no surprise to see them heading to Japan as 2.25*favourites to win the competition, but Steve Hansen’s side haven’t had things all their own way over the past 12-months or so.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to discount a team which thrashed Australia 36-0 last month, and then crushed Tonga 92-7 in their final Word Cup warmup game, especially as they boast the likes of Sevu Reece, who scored a try in just his second appearance, not to mention fly-half Richie Mo’unga and scrum-half Aaron Smith.
Even so, New Zealand have shown uncharacteristic weaknesses of late which might just suggest another Webb Ellis Trophy is no forgone conclusion. They finished third in the Rugby Championship, with just one win from three matches and were also toppled by Ireland in Dublin last autumn and with the reigning champions defending champions facing South Africa in their opening game, an early defeat can’t be ruled out.
The Springboks have enjoyed something of a revival in recent years having looked in turmoil when Rassie Erasmus replace Allister Coetzee as Head Coach in 2018 and now can be considered genuine challengers for the World Cup with the likes of Siya Kolisi, Etzebeth, Handre Pollard and Faf de Klerk at their disposal.
A 2-1 win over England last summer demonstrated just how far South Africa have come while a stunning 36-34 win against New Zealand in Wellington last September was a huge statement of intent from the two-time winners of this competition.
Unbeaten in 2019, the Springboks only enhanced their position as second favourites for the World Cup at 5.00* by topping the Rugby Championship after finishing unbeaten this summer, a run which included a 16-16 draw in New Zealand; a result which will only fill them with confidence as they prepare to face the holders in their tournament opener.
With two victories from four World Cup finals, there’s no doubting Australia’s pedigree in this competition and, although this side don’t appear to be a vintage Aussie crop, the 2015 runners-up certainly have the experience when it comes to going the distance once more.
Michael Cheika took Australia to the final in London in 2015 and despite their recent poor form, only a fool would discount them doing the same again in Japan, though to say the Wallabies’ have been inconsistent of late would be something of an understatement.
An impressive 47-26 victory against New Zealand last month was followed by a 36-0 defeat to the world champions in Auckland just a week later and although they have opted for experience – with the addition of Michael Hooper, Adam Ashley and David Pocock – Cheika’s side might find it difficult to finish above Wales in Pool D and are probably justified sixth favourites at 15.00.*
After a dismal showing at the 2015 World Cup England will be more than aware that the pressure is firmly on this time around as the 2003 winners look to emulate that famous victory and are currently 5.50* to lift the Webb Ellis trophy for the second time.
Eddie Jones, who took the reins after that disappointing campaign, guided England to back-to-back Six Nations titles during an 18-match unbeaten run which cemented their status as one of the best sides in the world once more, though after suffering a defeat to Ireland in 2017 have never really looked as dominant.
Jones has a dynamic group of forwards at his disposal with Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola providing both strength and athleticism while captain Owen Farrell will be key to the back-line and a record-breaking 57-15 win against Ireland last month would suggest his side have a lot to offer, though consistency may be the only concern for a team which has blown hot and cold a little too often of late.
The Welsh found themselves top of the world rankings briefly last summer and, although they no longer find themselves in such a heady position are still regarded as one of the teams to take seriously as they look to better their performances of 1987 and 2011 which saw them reach the semi-finals.
Wales boss Warren Gatland bows out after the World Cup and many believe this could be his ultimate parting gift after a 14-match winning run clinched the Six Nations championship and Grand Slam and a Pool clash with Australia will not faze his side having defeated the Wallabies 9-6 last November.
Much of Wales’ recent success has been built on an outstanding defence, which only conceded 65 points during their entire Six Nations campaign, and despite the loss of Gareth Anscombe, who has been ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury, Gatland’s men should have plenty of strength in depth to at least reach the last four.
When they beat New Zealand in Dublin at the end of last year Ireland looked like strong contender’s to the All Black’s crown, especially after completing the Grand Slam in 2017, but Joe Schmidt’s final year in charge of the team has disappointed somewhat with his side now looking some way off the outfit they were 12-months ago.
Probably the biggest concern is their defensive frailties having conceded 57 points against England recently, though they have won their last two warm-up games to improve their World Rankings, though the performances in this competition have been surprisingly disappointing.
A passage through to the knockout stages looks a pretty safe bet for Ireland who find themselves in a group alongside Scotland and Japan, though if they do make it to the quarter-finals their likely opponents will be New Zealand or South Africa, meaning an appearance in the final might escape the men in green once more.
Perennial disappointments at the Rugby World Cup, France will once again come to the tournament with plenty to offer though for once little expectation having endured something of a difficult 18-months with successive fourth-placed finishes in their last two Six Nations appearances.
Jaques Brunel takes a squad to Japan which boasts both youth and experience with Louis Picamoles competing in his third World Cup while Demba Bamba, Romain Ntamack and Damian Penaud make their World Cup bows having helped France win the Under-20 World Championship last year.
France have finished runners-up in this competition on three occasions and most recently as 2011 and have never failed to advance from the group stages, so despite being in a pool with England and Argentina you’d be foolish to back against them doing so again and after that anything can happen.
Scotland have made it out of the group stage in all but one of their World Cup appearances to date and Gregor Townsend’s side will once more be expected to reach the knockout stages this time around though that is certainly not a given judging by their inconsistent performances of late.
They blew hot-and-cold for much of their 2018 Six Nations campaign, though did stage an incredible fightback against England to force a thrilling 38-38 draw in their final game to show what they are capable of on their day, but once again it will be a case of what Scotland team turns up?
They face a tricky test in their opening game against Ireland while their final match is against hosts Japan and one which they might need to win to progress to the quarter-finals, but their downfall could just be their leaky defence which is bound to be tested on a number of occasions before they get that far.
*Odds subject to change