Thursday 19 September 2019 4:15 pm

New Zealand and South Africa will be the main contenders at an evenly poised Rugby World Cup - and this weekend's match could be crucial

This is one of the most evenly poised Rugby World Cups in a long time. Previously, New Zealand have been outright favourites, but the once-dominant force have looked fallible during the last 12 months.

England, Wales and Ireland have all run the All Blacks close or beaten them, while they also lost to Australia and drew with South Africa at this summer’s Rugby Championship.

Having said that, they are still my favourites to lift the World Cup on 2 November.

New Zealand and South Africa

For me, it is between New Zealand and South Africa – and what a way to kick-start the World Cup, when the pair meet tomorrow in Yokohama.


It is a huge game and, on the back of their Rugby Championship win, the Springboks are coming good at just the right time under Rassie Erasmus.

Read more: Chris Robshaw backs England or South Africa to win World Cup and opens on dealing with his omission and seeking help from Tony Adams

This fixture could be crucial in deciding who lifts the trophy, with the winners likely to top Pool B and place themselves in the favourable side of the draw.

I expect South Africa to try and match New Zealand’s physicality and there are two players who could make the difference. Faf de Klerk brings so much energy to the side and wing Cheslin Kolbe is magical when he gets going.

Faf de Klerk will be crucial to the Springbok’s hopes in Japan (Getty Images)

The All Blacks have gambled by naming Beauden Barrett at full-back for just the sixth time at international level. He played in that position during the 16-16 draw between them this summer and is undoubtedly good there, but he is world class at fly-half.

Steve Hansen has opted for Richie Mo’unga at No10 instead in order to have two quality distributors on the field, but has also left Ben Smith, who is one of the best full-backs in the world, on the bench.

They are the team to beat, though, and I feel that they will be better able to adapt to the timezone and climate than their rivals.

England


England will have been boosted by their warm-up games, winning hard matches against Wales and Ireland in particular. But they have a difficult group and shouldn’t underestimate either Argentina or France.

They should be beating both sides and Eddie Jones will hope the tough outings last month against good opposition have prepared his side to cope with those banana skins.

England had an excellent warm-up winning three games (Getty Images)

Both sides are potentially dangerous and France – despite playing Scotland twice in preparation, which is not much of an acid test – have a lot of individual talent capable of upsetting the apple cart.

England can also be buoyed by the amount of support they will likely get in Japan, particularly because of Eddie Jones, who led Japan to that famous win over South Africa in Brighton four years ago. He and his long-time assistant Steve Borthwick will be fondly remembered by the hosts.

Wales

Wales make up the four teams that I believe have a shot at lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.

They too can expect an enormous amount of support and had 15,000 people turn up to an open training session in Kitakyushu this week.

Wales preparation has not been ideal but Dan Biggar (left) will fit in seamlessly for injured Gareth Anscombe (Getty Images)

However, they have not had the preparation that Warren Gatland would have wanted, losing first choice fly-half Gareth Anscombe to injury in the first warm-up match and producing some pretty ordinary performances for the remainder.

Those problems have been compounded by the revelation that Gatland’s backs coach of 11 years, Rob Howley, has been suspended due to an alleged betting breach. It is not the build-up that Gatland envisaged.

Ireland

Joe Schmidt’s side looked unstoppable 18 months ago. They actually come into the tournament as world No1 but have fallen off their best since beating New Zealand last year.

Read more: South Africa could spring a surprise in World Cup opener against New Zealand

Ireland have had a difficult year but cannot ruled out (Getty Images)

There is an undeniable quality throughout the squad and they are still capable of producing a great performance. I wouldn’t write them off completely, especially with the experienced Schmidt and Andy Farrell in charge.

They should beat Scotland on Sunday, who had a pretty poor warm-up that included disappointing performances against France, and could well be silent assassins at this tournament.

Australia

It’s great news for Australia that David Pocock is back, but the Wallabies squad is lacking the talent of their rivals.

Australia lack the quality of their rivals but did beat the All Blacks in August (Getty Images)

The 31-year-old will join up with Michael Hooper in the back row once again when they face Fiji tomorrow as Michael Cheika opts for experience over Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who started August’s 47-26 win over New Zealand.

As well as a lack of quality to go the distance, the axing of Israel Folau created huge fallout and Australia still have that hanging over their heads. It is hard to see them making a serious impact in Japan.

Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips is a director within the real estate & construction team at PwC and founder of Optimist Performance. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn

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