Rise of the north to make 2019 World Cup the most competitive ever

Rugby World Cup
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was quick to anoint Ireland as Rugby World Cup favourites after their win in Dublin last weekend but with a week left in the 2018 season, Wallabies halfback Will Genia says world rugby is as strong across the board as he has ever seen.

And with stats showing the northern hemisphere has been dominant since the last World Cup, England coach Eddie Jones believes there are now "eight teams that are contenders" to win the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019.

It was less than three months ago that New Zealand Herald columnist Chris Rattue declared New Zealand certain World Cup winners, after a big opening Bledisloe Cup win in Sydney.

Since then, New Zealand lost to South Africa at home, scraped past England at Twickenham and went down to Ireland in a brutal encounter in Dublin.

That’s not to say the world no. 1 All Blacks are suddenly weak and vulnerable, but it's fair to say there are a greater spread of contenders for the William Webb Ellis Cup than ever before.

The four big Southern Hemisphere nations filled the four semi-final slots at the 2015 Rugby World Cup but the chances of that happening again seems fanciful in 2019, with England and Ireland particularly improving since that tournament, and Scotland and Wales also emerging in strength.

In the three years leading up to the 2015 tournament, the home nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as well as the British and Irish Lions, won 18 of their 55 Tests against the four Rugby Championship nations.

In the three years since that Rugby World Cup, that number has risen to 33 wins from 51 Tests played, a win percentage of 64 per cent.

Even with the addition of the other Six Nations sides France and Italy to that number, their win percentage has risen from 30 per cent (23/76) between 2012 and 2014 to 47 per cent (35/73) since 2016, with one round of November internationals to go

If you take Argentina out of the mix in the Southern Hemisphere, just pitting the home nations against New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina the rise goes from just a 20 per cent (9/45) win rate in 2012-14 to 53 per cent (22/40) in the past three years.

The Wallabies' Northern Hemisphere defeats - they've lost to Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England in the past year - have been well-documented but South Africa has also been beaten by England and Wales in the past 12 months.

Asked if he felt rugby across the globe was as strong as he had seen in his career, Genia was unequivocal.

“Definitely, it's more competitive right across the park,” he said.

“A whole bunch of teams can win (the World Cup).

“It's about who holds their nerve in tournament rugby because once you get to a point you lose you are out.”

The Wallabies certainly won’t be reading much into form a year out from the tournament, with 2015 an exercise in how much the landscape can change in less than a year.

“All I can say is that a lot can change and happen between now and the World Cup,” he said.

“That has been shown to the point that people were saying just give the World Cup to New Zealand and they have just lost to Ireland.  

“But from a personal point it's not something I really think about.

“I am just focused on this week. You look at 2015, we weren’t expected to get to the final but we were there.”

Genia said he was happy to let others decide whether the northern teams had tipped the power balance in their favour in recent times.

“Ireland beat the All Blacks and Steve Hansen says they are now the best team in the world,” he said.

“I don't know, it's always been a challenge coming here and it is more difficult now with the results we have had against England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

“And then from an All Black perspective it was a pretty tough loss to Ireland. We always make sure we pay them respect, but as for a shift in power, that is for you guys (the media) to decide.”

That what happens now mightn’t be indicative of the World Cup is a view shared by England coach Eddie Jones, who said Ireland’s win would have no effect on the 2019 tournament,

“I think there's about eight teams that are contenders. I think Ireland's definitely a contender,” he said.

“It will have no consequence on the World Cup. None at all.

“The only thing it shows is just where rugby's going.

“The game's becoming more brutal, more physical, longer, shorter periods of play, and the physical demands of the players are just getting greater and greater.

“And the mental demands - it's funny because now the game's longer, the players have got more time to think.

“So, you've got this, almost you've got the physical strand going up here and then you've got the mental strand or the thinking strand at the same time."

South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus told reporters this week, it was impossible to predict who would even make the semi-finals in 2019.

"Where the World Cup is going to be played in Japan it's going to be warm and humid. It won't be a southern hemisphere team that benefits from it and I don't think a northern hemisphere team will really benefit from it.

"So the playing field is pretty level. I don't think you can put your hand up and say: 'This is the four teams that are going to be in the semi-finals'.

"It's just impossible currently because it's so close and it's one or two points in it. It's great for world rugby but not always for the coaches

Jones said one certainty was that the All Blacks would come back better in 2019.

“If I was Steve Hansen, I'd probably be hurting a lot now but I'd have the knowledge that we're going to learn a lot from this game and they'll come back stronger and better, their players will be hurting,” he said.

“He's got a summer to think about it, they play Italy this week and they've got a summer to think about it and they'll come back better.”

A New Zealand Herald column on Tuesday put the Kiwis' inconsistency of late down to the form of the Wallabies and the rest of the Rugby Championship.

Asked about that suggestion, Hansen said there was "something missing" with the Wallabies but playing more northern teams would be fine World Cup preparation.

"I was thinking about that this morning," he said to the New Zealand Herald.

"There is no doubt the style of game that is played by South Africa is similar to the style played up here.

"I still believe Australia are a really good rugby side. There is definitely something missing because they are not quite right and are not performing to the level they can.

"But the more we play teams like South Africa, Ireland and England, France which we have done this year it is good for us. We have had a bit of a preview so to speak."

The Wallabies take on England on Saturday November 24, kicking off at 3pm local, Sunday 2am AEDT, LIVE on beIn Sports and SBS.