Japan ready to host World Cup
The Rugby World Cup is almost here. Just two days separate us from the opening game of the 2019 tournament as hosts Japan take on Russia in Tokyo, and although it may not be the most glamorous of beginnings, it is the start of six weeks and 48 matches of brutal physicality, stunning technique and palpable tension, right up until the showpiece final in Yokohama on November 2nd. Jamie Braidwood previews.
A champion will rise and the contenders will fall as Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, England, Australia, South Africa, the mighty holders New Zealand, and the remaining countries do battle in the far east. It’s going to be big, it’s going to be memorable, and it is almost here.
So much has changed since four years ago, when New Zealand defended their World Cup crown by defeating Australia at Twickenham. England have risen from the debacle of the last World Cup under Eddie Jones, and have fallen again. Ireland have secured their first win over the All Blacks and enter the tournament as the No. 1 ranked team in the world. Wales also held that honour and have developed strength and depth for the first time under Warren Gatland. All three teams have also won Six Nations Grand Slams since 2015.
Meanwhile, Scotland have entertained but have yet to develop that winning mentality under Gregor Townsend. France have ripped up their team sheet after falling to their worst ever World Ranking of 10th in an attempt to build ahead of hosting the 2023 tournament. While Italy have continued to struggle.
In the southern hemisphere, South Africa have emerged from a slump which saw them fall to their worst ever position of seventh in the World Rankings and look strong once again. Argentina are always a threat at the World Cup and the Pumas have reached the semi-finals in two out of the last three tournaments. Meanwhile Australia have been in a torrid run of form and have now lost nine matches in a year for only the second time in their history in 2018, but they did thrash the All Blacks 47-26 earlier this summer.
Which brings us onto the defending champions, who are seeking to win their third title in a row. Despite losing their No. 1 ranking to Ireland, New Zealand are still clearly the team to beat. But has their mask of invincibility slipped a little? The defeats to South Africa and Ireland in 2018, plus England pushing them close in a 16-15 win at Twickenham, has made some observers ask the question.
This will be the last World Cup for their head coach, Steve Hansen, who will be stepping down after the tournament. It will also be the end of the line for Wales coach Warren Gatland and Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. There will be no second chance for them.
And who could forget our hosts, Japan, the winners of the most stunning Rugby World Cup upset ever against South Africa four years ago. It’s the first World Cup to be held in Asia and it feels as if we are heading into the unknown.
As host nation, Japan will stage matches across 12 different venues, from Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido down to Oita on the southern island of Kyushu. Tokyo will host matches in a 50,000 capacity stadium while Yokohama’s International Stadium of 72,000 will stage the final.
Logistically, the effort of packing potentially six weeks’ worth of kit across the world has proved to be an almost military-like mission for the world’s top rugby countries, but they should arrive to find a nation keen to welcome them with open arms.
The question ahead of the tournament was whether that would transpire to sold-out stadia and on Monday we got a glimpse of an answer as 15,000 spectators flocked to watch Wales’ open training session in Kitakyushu. There is a chance rugby is going to bring out a different side to Japan, and there is a chance Japan is going to bring out a different side to rugby.
Elsewhere we have the likes of Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Georgia who are all keen to make an impression against the Tier 1 superpowers. Below them we have Canada, USA, Namibia, Russia and Uruguay, who will all be determined to not be embarrassed by superior opposition, but also keen to enjoy their opportunity to perform on the world stage.
There is admittedly a gulf between those sides and the tournament challengers, and it may feel like a long time until we get to the quarterfinals and experience some competitive, dramatic matches. But there are plenty of games to fire us up in the meantime, starting with New Zealand vs. South Africa on Saturday and Scotland vs. Ireland on Sunday.
This World Cup feels like one of the most open competitions we have seen for a long time, with very little separating those at the top. Although it does feel as if we are stepping into the unknown, ENRG Sport will be providing World Cup analysis throughout the tournament. Look out for our group-by-group previews on Thursday as well as Erin McRitchie’s preview column on Friday. Until then, get those wall charts ready, plan your TV schedule and fill out those fantasy teams. The Rugby World Cup is here!