World Cup 2019 schedule: The winners and losers
OPINION: It may seem like a small thing, but the scheduling of fixtures at the Rugby World Cup can be the difference between qualifying for the knockout phases or facing a humbling group stage exit.
The fixtures for the 2019 World Cup in Japan were announced on Thursday morning, with teams finding out the order of their games, how much turnaround they will get between those games and which cities they will be playing in.
We take a look at the early winners and losers from that announcement and what effect those decisions might have on their chances of emerging from their pools.
Unsurprisingly, the hosts did well.
They kick-off the tournament against Europe 1 which, if we use the world rankings as a guide, would mean Romania. It is an eminently winnable game and a good opportunity for Japan to get off to a fast start. Let’s just hope there are no empty seats in Tokyo’s 49,970-seater Ajinomoto Stadium.
They have also profited with their turnarounds between matches, with the six free days between matchdays against Ireland and Playoff Winner their shortest turnaround. Their other two turnarounds both consist of seven free days between matchdays.
No other team has as balanced rest periods between games as Japan.
It won’t be easy to qualify from a group also consisting of Ireland and Scotland, but the schedule has certainly helped Japan, as has their travel itinerary, which sees them visit Toyota, Yokohama and Fukuroi after their Tokyo opener. These are relatively small distances to traverse for the Cherry Blossoms.
Eddie Jones has very little to complain about in his return to the country that he coached at the last World Cup.
England does have a four-day turnaround between their opening fixture with Tonga and their match with the USA, but that has freed them up to have a full eight days prep before taking on Argentina and a very manageable six-day turnaround before taking on France in what could be the crunch fixture of the group.
Given the relative strength of Tonga and the USA, that’s a situation England can not only live with, but are also likely very thankful for.
The tournament starts thick and fast for the Azzurri, with Conor O’Shea’s men taking on Africa 1 and Repechage winner with just a three-day turnaround, but they then get a seven-day turnaround to take on South Africa, a fixture which they will realistically need to win if they are to have any chance of qualifying.
The Boks have only a four-day turnaround to prepare for the fixture and if Italy can escape those first two games unscathed, this match with South Africa will be particularly salivating, not least so because of the Azzurri’s win over the Boks in 2016.
Again, being realistic, Italy have little-to-no chance against the All Blacks in their last fixture of the group – unless New Zealand chooses to rest players for the quarter-finals – meaning everything is set up for them to target this game with the Boks.
Fiji has just three full days between their opener with Australia in Sapporo to their match with Americas 2 – likely Canada – in Kamaishi, with over 250 miles of travelling required, too.
They do then have a seven-day turnaround before playing Georgia, but that is followed by a five-day turnaround to play Wales – incorporating another 250-mile trip, this time from Higashiosaka to Oita – with their opponents enjoying a nine-day turnaround before the fixture.
In a group as tight as Pool D looks to be, Fiji vs Wales could be the decisive fixture and it certainly looks as if Wales will have a big preparation advantage heading into it.
Of all the Tier 1 nations, Scotland may have been given the toughest task.
They open with Ireland, arguably the most challenging fixture in the group, but do get a full seven days before taking on Playoff winner.
If Ireland wins that opening fixture, it puts Scotland’s final game of the pool stage against Japan under the spotlight. Playing the hosts is hard enough, but they will be doing it coming off a three-day turnaround following their game with Europe 1, whilst Japan will have had seven full days since their last match against Playoff winner.
The slight silver lining to that final fixture is that Scotland moves from Shizuoka to Yokohama, a relatively short and easy trip.
Another Tier 2 nation picking up the slack of midweek games, Georgia plays three fixtures in 11 days to start the tournament. They take on Wales, Americas 2 and Fiji, arguably the three fixtures they would need to take results from to have an outside chance of qualifying. They finish up against Australia eight days later in a fixture that could mean very little by that point.
Their 500 miles of travel during that 11-day period, from Toyota to Kumagaya to Higashiosaka, is not going to make the challenge any easier for them, either.
By Alex Shaw of RugbyPass