World Cup power rankings
SPOTLIGHT: Friday’s 2019 World Cup opener between hosts Japan and unfancied Russia is now less than 24 hours away, so it is time to unveil the power rankings of the 20 teams contending the tournament.
This year’s tournament is widely regarded as one of the most open – if not the most open – World Cups of all-time which adds a number of interesting debates as these teams jockey for spots at the top of the rankings.
For all the talk of how competitive this World Cup is, there are still not too many who dispute that the All Blacks are currently the best all-round team in the world. They have named their team to take on South Africa on Saturday and it is loaded with talent. If they can get over that hurdle, they will be sauntering to a favourable quarter-final for the rest of the group stage.
The resurgence under Rassie Erasmus has picked up speed and the Springboks arrive in Japan in solid form and boasting a squad that has unenviable physical gifts and impressive depth in a number of key positions. Like New Zealand, their entire group stage hinges on their result with the All Blacks this weekend. It’s a winner-takes-all contest for the better seeding in the knockout rounds.
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England sneaks in here ahead of European rivals Ireland and Wales with it feeling like Eddie Jones and his squad have timed their run very well ahead of the tournament. They had a strong warm-up period, their squad is largely healthy and they have a growing number of players in a genuine ‘world-class’ discussion. If they fire in Japan, they could go all the way.
Some of the gloss has come off Ireland in 2019 after a stellar year in 2018, although they are still an incredibly formidable side. Fingers have been pointed at the age and durability of some areas of the squad, but they are helped by a relatively straightforward pool. Beat Scotland on Sunday and their path to locking up the top spot in Pool A will be clear.
Key injuries in the back row, backs coach Rob Howley’s ignominious return home and some recent losses are hard to expel from the mind when judging Wales’ chances. They should not be underestimated, though, as they are the reigning Grand Slam champions in the Six Nations. Their defence is one of the best in the world and in tight encounters they will be a threat to knock off anyone.
The Wallabies’ form has waxed and waned over recent years, although the demolition job they did on the All Blacks in Perth, albeit with New Zealand reduced to 14 men, should not be discounted. Historically, they are a team that has always peaked at World Cups and if they can beat Wales and secure the more favourable quarter-final as group winners, they could pick up momentum heading into a potential semi-final.
There have been some signs of life in the French team of late and they rank a couple of spots higher now than they would have at the end of the Six Nations earlier this year. Their opener against Argentina on Saturday will be particularly illuminating. Given Les Bleus’ history, though, we probably shouldn’t rule out a full-blown player revolt happening between now and then.
A shaky start to the summer was stabilised with a home win over France and then back-to-back victories against Georgia. Although the threat of Japan is very real in Pool A, Scotland are still favourites to make it out alongside Ireland. That said, win that opening game against Ireland on Sunday and the complexion of Pool A changes considerably.
Unfortunately for Mario Ledesma, the form of the Jaguares in Super Rugby simply hasn’t translated onto the international stage. He will be hoping that their tune-up match against Randwick, which saw them triumph 74-0, is enough to put some confidence into Los Pumas and propel them into their opener against France. Lose that and they will need to pull off a significant upset against England.
The hosts break into the tier one monopoly on top ten positions thanks to some improving depth in the back row, half-backs and wings, home advantage and a strong Pacific Nations Cup earlier this year. They looked a better side than Fiji in that tournament and with the Brave Blossoms facing Scotland in the final pool match, with Gregor Townsend’s side coming off a short turnaround, don’t rule them out from making the quarter-finals.
Fiji is dangerous. Really dangerous. That said, they are in a tough pool with Australia and Wales and although they are capable of beating both of those teams on their day, they will need a number of things to go their way if they are to upset the odds. Their opener against Australia will provide clarity on where their set-piece, kicking game and defence all are.
A rather disappointing preparation period for the Azzurri who looked like they will struggle in Pool B, especially alongside two sides as formidable as New Zealand and South Africa. A more realistic goal for Conor O’Shea’s side is to be competitive with those two giants and lock up third spot, ensuring automatic qualification for the 2023 World Cup.
Stuck with Australia, Wales and Fiji in Pool D, Georgia is going to have their work cut out over the next few weeks. Their scrum is undeniably ruthless, although their recent losses to Scotland show that their overall game and squad depth isn’t quite there at the moment to go toe-to-toe with the tier one nations.
There were some encouraging signs of life for Samoa in their 34-15 loss to Australia recently, although they are no longer the dangerous team that is consistently capable of springing upsets that they were at previous World Cups. It’s an older group of players and the production line of fresh talent coming into the squad seems to have dried up of late.
A pretty balanced group for the Eagles, who had the edge over local rivals Canada prior to heading out to the tournament. The benefits of the MLR are beginning to show as the USA are developing some competitive position battles in their squad. They are unlikely to trouble England, France and Argentina, but the future is beginning to look brighter for Gary Gold’s side.
They have similar problems to Samoa, with ageing players in some key positions and a lack of fresh blood to inject into the mix. Like the USA, they aren’t going to threaten qualification for the quarter-finals, although the match between those two nations should be compelling in its own right.
A loss to Spain this summer reignited the furore over the European nation’s non-appearance in Japan, although Los Teros picked up some momentum against three South American select sides over the last month or so. They have some talented individuals, though it will be tough for them to physically live with Wales, Australia, Georgia and Fiji over the next few weeks. Whatever points they can grab will be a bonus.
We have Namibia just edging out Canada at the moment, thanks to not much more than gut-feel for the strength of the two squads although their match in Pool B could go either way. Namibia gets the first shot to show where they are when they take on Italy on Sunday.
Canada’s results over the last cycle suggest they are underperforming. There is potential for them to be much better than they currently are and hopefully Toronto Arrows’ inclusion in the MLR will help them achieve that in the long-term.
The comprehensive beating that Russia took at the hands of Italy last month is representative of where they are right now. They will do well to stay within 40 points of Japan in Tokyo on Friday and they will target being competitive with Samoa as their best shot of an unlikely upset at this year’s tournament.
By Alex Shaw, RugbyPass