The power shift is complete
REACTION: Reigning champions New Zealand may remain the team to beat at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, but November’s internationals confirmed that Ireland is hot on their heels.
New Zealand top the world rankings but Ireland, Wales and England occupy the next three places in the standings.
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The 2015 World Cup saw the Southern Hemisphere provide all four semifinalists but, based on current form, it will be a major shock if no European side makes the last four next year.
Having waited more than a century for a first win over New Zealand, Ireland’s 16-9 defeat of the All Blacks in Dublin on November 17 was their second in three matches following a 40-29 success in Chicago two years ago.
The win over New Zealand helped Ireland win the world team of the year award on Sunday.
This month’s victory over the All Blacks was notable for an Irish defence organised by former England assistant coach and dual-code international Andy Farrell – the father of England flyhalf Owen – preventing the usually potent All Blacks from scoring even one try.
Afterwards, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said of Ireland: “As of now they are the number-one team in the world.
“So if you want to make them World Cup favourites, go ahead. I guess they are favourites.”
His Ireland counterpart and fellow New Zealander Joe Schmidt, a leading contender to succeed Hansen, was having none of it.
“We’ll take this win and we’ll leave the World Cup for 11 months’ time,” said Schmidt, who was voted coach of the year.
Ireland is the reigning Six Nations Grand Slam champions and lost just once in 2018.
Yet there are fears over how their relatively small playing base will cope should the likes of first-choice players such as outstanding flyhalf Johnny Sexton – who made it an Irish awards triple with the player of the year award – be ruled out through injury.
Another worry is how Ireland, who have never reached a World Cup semi-final, shoulder the burden of expectation.
Ireland has long enjoyed the role of ‘plucky underdogs’ but that is no longer a credible position for Schmidt’s men.
New Zealand does have playing depth, while the way flyhalf Beauden Barrett dropped goals against England and Ireland indicates a pragmatic edge is being added to their running game.
England finished 2018 with an impressive mix of forward power and stylish backline play during a 37-18 win over Australia, the 2015 losing finalists, at Twickenham.
It meant they had won three of their four November Tests, the lone loss an agonising 15-16 defeat by New Zealand.
This was all far removed from a run of five straight defeats earlier this year that spanned the Six Nations and a 2-1 series loss in South Africa.
England was without a raft of players against the Wallabies, including the Vunipola brothers and locks Joe Launchbury and George Kruis.
“We’ve got great competition,” said England coach Eddie Jones.
“To be the best in the world you’ve got to push hard,” added Jones, whose side still have problems over their often high penalty count.
Yet but for a seemingly dangerous tackle – a major problem for Rugby Union as a whole along with the use of replays – by Farrell in the dying seconds against South Africa going unpunished, they may have lost their November opener instead of beating the Springboks 12-11.
“It’s wide open,” said South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus of the World Cup.
“I’ve been involved in World Cups since 1995, but really this one I couldn’t put money on who’s going to be in the semifinals,” he added after his improving two-time champion Springboks ended an inconsistent year that yielded a memorable win in New Zealand with an 11-20 defeat by Wales.
By contrast, Wales completed their first November clean sweep and they have now won nine successive Tests.
But none of those matches was against New Zealand, a team Wales last defeated way back in 1953.
“We want to keep doing what we’re doing, slip under the radar as much as possible,” said Wales coach Warren Gatland.
France’s largely miserable 2018 ended with their first defeat by Fiji, who won 21-14 in Paris.
But both France and Australia, who also had a year to forget, have often put poor results behind come a World Cup.
“We have to start from scratch now and we’re at rock bottom,” said Mathieu Bastareaud, the France centre. “Because we’re pathetic, shameful, we have to be aware of that.”
Tier-Two nation Fiji’s win augurs well for the competitiveness of the group stages in Japan and will have been noted by pool opponents Wales – a team they knocked out of the 2007 tournament – and Australia.