OPINION: Richard Mulligan views Rugby World Cup as an ‘open book’

The 'Ireland squad before departure for Japan and the Rugby World Cup. Pic by INPHO.
The 'Ireland squad before departure for Japan and the Rugby World Cup. Pic by INPHO.
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The waiting is finally over, the Rugby World Cup 2019 gets underway in five days’ time.

All eyes turn to Japan when 20 teams will start their bids to lift the Holy Grail of the oval ball shaped game, The Webb Ellis Trophy.

In reality, about eight teams will begin their quests to conquer, the rest have little hope of making it beyond the group stages.

The 10th edition of the global extravaganza has been described as the most open competition ever but the same names are being linked as potential winners as in any year the event is staged, the difference this time being, among those main contenders it is more open than previously.

New Zealand, the defending back-to-back champions who are bidding for three in a row and who, not surprisingly, boast the most successes in the tournament with three overall remain the bookies’ favourites and only three other countries have lifted the trophy.

However, in the past 12 months they have shown they are not unbeatable, with Ireland, South Africa and Australia each having had a piece of them.

I have already stated that I believe South Africa are the side to lift the crown this season, coming into the competition with a comfortable rise in form - just as they did in 2007 on their way to lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time.

Among the other serious candidates are England, Australia, Wales and of course the men in green from Ireland.

Last November when Ireland defeated New Zealand for the first time in Dublin there was a real belief Joe Schmidt’s side could achieve the ultimate in world rugby.

But after a limp Six Nations Championship performance and a record loss to England during the pre World Cup warm-up games, the belief has ebbed somewhat.

And while two solid victories over Wales to complete those warm-up fixtures has lifted the spirits of the Irish fans, there is not the previous confidence that this squad can become the first from the island to go beyond the quarter-finals.

Ireland open their Pool A fixtures against Scotland on Sunday in Yokohama City stadium - where the final will be played on November 2 - with the winner of the game expected to go on and secure top spot in the group.

It is a nervy one for both nations. They are familiar foes and while the Irish have had the edge on their celtic cousins in recent years, one cannot help remember previous occasions when the Jocks rained down on the Irish parade.

If Schmidt’s charges negotiate that one safely, next up are the hosts, Japan, the recent Pacific Nations Cup winners, who should not pose a major threat but don’t forget 2015 when the Cherry Blossoms caused a major upset by defeating South Africa.

It was still not enough to book a last eight place, but the Japanese have improved greatly since then. Their target may not be so much Ireland but Scotland in the race for second place. Interestingly, they will meet each other in the final group game - Japan having THREE more rest days than the Scots prior to that game.

As far as Russia and Samoa go - the other two teams in the Pool - they are there to make up the numbers - and from Ireland’s point of view, having played the two serious contenders, they should be able to rest their key players ahead of a crucial quarter-final game.

Ireland of course go into the tournament ranked number one, another of the many firsts for the men in the green in Schmidt’s 10-year tenure.

New Zealand are ranked two, England three and South African complete the top four.

The issue for Ireland is that finishing top of the Pool is not massively advantageous in terms of who to meet - or avoid in the last eight.

The way the draw is aligned, Ireland will almost certainly meet the All Blacks or South Africa in the quarters. Either way it is a daunting prospect.

And much will come down to if Ireland have managed to keep their key players fresh and injury free ahead of that game - because they still lack the strength in depth of the others in the top four.

England are serious contenders, even though they have France and Argentina to contend with for the top two places in Pool C. It’s hard not seeing them make the last eight this time around following their disappointment as hosts in 2015 and going out at the group stages.

Wales and Australia will battle it out for top spot in Pool D, Indeed if you wanted a dark horse for the eventual winner, then Warren Gatland’s Welsh charges should take that tag.

The Six Nations champions may be coming in on the back of a poor pre-tournament build-up, but in a tight game they have the ability to find a way to unlock the door and they must not be discounted.

Meanwhile, World Rugby have ensured the tournament will get underway with some heat. The opening ceremony of any major sporting event always attracts the viewers and Friday’s opening should be no different in Tokyo, although the first game, Japan versus Russia, may not have a huge attraction about it.

However, get ready for the real fireworks to start the day after. New Zealand versus South Africa (the Pool B winner decided!) and France against Argentina on Saturday followed by Ireland versus Scotland on Sunday along with England versus Tonga - it makes for the perfect start to an eagerly anticipated tournament!