With RWC 2019 one year away this week Phil Rice assesses the state of the Nations
This week next year the 2019 Rugby World Cup will get under way when hosts Japan take on Russia in the Tokyo Stadium on.
In the meantime every action of the participating teams will be scrutinised in light of the forthcoming event.
Ireland begin this season in the exalted position of second favourites for the title and justifiably so, after a year of unprecedented success on the field.
New Zealand are warm favourites, despite their surprising home defeat at the hands of South Africa at the weekend.
Everything that the competing nations do this season will be focussed towards ensuring their maximum performance at the World Cup.
The All Blacks will visit the Northern Hemisphere for the November international series and each of their opponents will use their match against the world champions as a gauge of their preparedness for events next autumn.
Until last weekend’s shock home defeat to South Africa, the All Blacks looked unbeatable with maximum point wins in their preceding Rugby Championship matches.
The unexpected reversal of form last Saturday underlines the vagaries of international rugby and the potential for upsets at next year’s event.
Ireland will be wary of the potential banana skin in their first match of RWC 2019 against a fast-improving and what will undoubtedly be, a highly motivated Scotland team.
Victory in that match is likely to determine the winners of that Group and ultimately affect the potential for further progress in the competition.
Despite last Saturday’s result, New Zealand are likely to be the ‘prize’ for the runners-up in Ireland’s Group, with South Africa as opponents for the winners.
South Africa have improved significantly since Ireland trounced them at the Aviva Stadium last autumn.
Their series win over England in the summer under the astute leadership of ex-Munster coach Rassie Erasmus, heralded the reawakening of the Springboks as an international force.
They have continued their progress since then, culminating in Saturday’s victory over New Zealand and that result will undoubtedly boost their confidence going forward.
Ireland will have a tough task to progress past the quarter-finals for the first time in their history regardless of whether they win their group or not.
But head coach Joe Schmidt has built a squad that will certainly be in a better position to absorb the injuries that beset them during the 2015 event. Injuries to key players are one of the major factors that determine the outcome of every World Cup and make predictions so difficult.
Historically the World Champions have managed to retain the services of their key players for their critical matches.
Ireland’s demise against Argentina in 2015 after catastrophic injuries to key players against France, is well documented.
Their opening match against Scotland is likely to be a similarly attritional affair with so much at stake.
The 2015 World Cup experience for Schmidt was seminal and has influenced his strategy ever since. He realised that you have to be extremely fortunate to prevail in a World Cup without a squad, deep in strength.
To that end he has built a strong shadow team that provide cover the like of which Ireland have never had in the past.
However, there are still outstanding players who are almost indispensable. Talents like Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong are difficult to replicate and their loss would be difficult to absorb, but there is a greater degree of confidence in the second string of players than Ireland have enjoyed previously.
The ‘Group of Death’ in this World Cup is likely to be Pool C where England, France and Argentina will fight for the top two places.
As Ireland experienced, Argentina peak at World Cups and their victory over Australia last weekend demonstrates they are on track to perform well again next year.
England will be desperate not to drop out at the Pool stage of successive World Cups while France have an excellent record at World Cups and will be very competitive despite their recent indifferent form.
Wales and Australia are likely to emerge from Pool D although Fiji have upset Welsh ambitions in the past.
The emerging nations have provided upsets in recent Cups and none more so than next year’s hosts Japan, when they turned over South Africa at the 2015 event.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 19, 2018
Japan are in Ireland’s Pool next year and with home support they will be desperate to perform at their best. Schmidt takes nothing for granted and will be well aware of the threat they will pose.
Ireland have 13 matches between now and RWC 2019. Schmidt will have most of his first-choice team pencilled in at this stage and will be more anxious to wrap them in cotton wool than to make significant alterations during the next twelve months.
Opportunities for the back-up squad members are still up for grabs and Schmidt will use the forthcoming matches to finalise his full squad.
Ireland’s matches prior to RWC 2019
Nov. 3rd v Italy, Soldier Field Chicago
Nov.10th v Argentina, Aviva Stadium
Nov. 17th v New Zealand, Aviva Stadium
Nov. 24th v USA, Aviva Stadium
2019 Six Nations
Feb. 2nd v England, Aviva Stadium
Feb. 9th v Scotland, Murrayfield
Feb. 14th v Italy, Stadio Olympico
Mar. 10th v France, Aviva Stadium
Mar. 16th v Wales, Principality
World Cup warm-up matches
Aug. 10th v Italy, Aviva Stadium
Aug. 24th v England, Twickenham
Aug. 31st v Wales, Principality
Sep. 7th v Wales, Aviva Stadium