Double defending champions New Zealand will head into the 2019 World Cup in Japan as favourites, but Six Nations Grand Slam champions Ireland have proven there are chinks in the All Black armour.
Steve Hansen’s team suffered a major bump on their run-in to the World Cup when they went down to a second defeat in three games by a Johnny Sexton-inspired Ireland, whose provincial side Leinster won the European Champions Cup, Munster also making the last four.
That followed the Springboks’ 36-34 victory in Wellington in September that ended a 15-match winning streak for the All Blacks, who have dominated world rugby since securing their second World Cup title in England in 2015 after previous success on home turf in 2011.
Excluding the 24-21 defeat by the British and Irish Lions in the drawn series in 2017, it was New Zealand’s first defeat at home since 2009.
Ireland’s 16-9 victory over the All Blacks in Dublin in November was built on a teak-tough defence organised by former England assistant coach and dual code international Andy Farrell — the father of England fly-half Owen — who will take over the reins from current coach Joe Schmidt post-World Cup.
“As of now they are the number-one team in the world,” Hansen said. “So if you want to make them World Cup favourites, go ahead. I guess they are favourites.”
The bookies say not, however, with New Zealand installed above Ireland, England, South Africa and Wales.
New Zealand top the world rankings, followed by Ireland, Wales and England and it is hard to envisage a World Cup like the last one when the southern hemisphere provided all four semi-finalists.
England, who had a catastrophic 2015 World Cup on home soil as they failed to advance from their pool, finished 2018 with an impressive mix of forward power and stylish back-line play during a 37-18 win over Australia, the losing finalists three years ago, at Twickenham.
It meant they had won three of their four November Tests, the lone loss an agonising 16-15 defeat by New Zealand.
That 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.
“We’ve got great competition (for places),” said England coach Eddie Jones, whose side still have problems over their often high penalty count.
“To be the best in the world you’ve got to push hard.”
It was also a case of role reversal for two-time World Cup champions South Africa, a side rejuvenated under new coach Rassie Erasmus and dynamic captain Siya Kolisi after a disastrous couple of seasons.
“We’ve shown on the day when everything’s aligned and the guys are all in the same frame of mind, we can beat the All Blacks away and win a series against England,” said Erasmus.
“It’s wide open,” he said 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 semi-finals.”
The Springboks’ final November game saw them lose 20-11 to a Wales side hoping to go to Japan “under the radar” despite having completed their first ever November clean sweep and extended their winning Test run to nine matches.
“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.
Tier-Two nation Fiji’s win augurs well for the competitiveness of the group stage in Japan and will have been noted by pool opponents Wales — a team they knocked out of the 2007 tournament — and Australia.
© Agence France-Presse (Additional edits by Marisa Kennedy)