Rugby World Cup: Ex-players, coaches and our pundits share their predictions

How far can Ireland go, who are the likely winners, and the players set to light up Japan

Ireland’s James Ryan in action against  Wales in  February  2018 at the Aviva. Gordon D’Arcy, Fiona Coghlan and John O’Sullivan view him as the top northern hemisphere player of the tournament. Photograph:  Julian Finney/Getty Images

Ireland’s James Ryan in action against Wales in February 2018 at the Aviva. Gordon D’Arcy, Fiona Coghlan and John O’Sullivan view him as the top northern hemisphere player of the tournament. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

 

Gerry Thornley (Rugby Correspondent)

Q1 – How far can Ireland go (where does it end)?

Ireland are one of several teams that could actually win the whole thing, and at the very least this squad are eminently capable of a big game come the quarter-finals. But beating Scotland is a prerequisite for that and, ultimately, that prospective quarter-final draw could hardly be tougher.

Q2 – Most impressive team pre-tournament (so, likely winners)?

South Africa come into the tournament as the only unbeaten country in 2019, and will be buoyed by winning their first Rugby Championship in a decade. So they’ve looked the best but although the All Blacks’ crown is resting uneasily, and they look more vulnerable than in 2011 or 2015, they are still the likeliest winners, especially with Brodie Retallick back in the mix and Beauden Barrett still the tournament’s most likely match-winner.

Q3 – Northern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Jacob Stockdale. He lit up the 2016 World Under-20 Championships and his first Six Nations in 2018. In 13 games for the Under-20s he scored 10 tries, and in 21 Tests for Ireland has scored 16 tries. He just has an uncanny ability to make something happen and an uncanny eye for the try line.

All Blacks’s Sevu Reece celebrates his try during the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup Test against Australia at Eden Park on August 17, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images
All Blacks’s Sevu Reece celebrates his try during the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup Test against Australia at Eden Park on August 17, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Q4 – Southern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Sevu Reece. Jet-heeled, tough winger with Waikato, he took to his debut Super Rugby campaign so fearlessly he was the tournament’s top scorer with 15 tries in 14 games for the Crusaders. Judging by his all-action second Test when scoring against Australia at Eden Park, the 22-year-old Reece could have an even bigger impact than Nehe Milner-Skudder did four years ago. Then 24, he came into the World Cup with two caps, and scored six tries in six games.

Q5 – What coach would you most want to play for at RWC, and why?

Joe Schmidt. Come that quarter-final if there’s one coach who can come up with a plan for a one-off game, it’s him.

Q6 – What’s the major concern for rugby at Japan 2019?

That it will be an injury-riddled festival of physicality, with winning the collisions the key. The limit on 31-man squads is too restrictive and is at odds with World Rugby’s mantra about player welfare, and the new clampdown on high hits and rigid guidelines for referees will lead to some campaigns, both individual and collective, being decided by red cards.

Gordon D’Arcy (former Leinster, Ireland, and Lions player)

Q1 – How far can Ireland go (where does it end)?

Now that the pendulum has swung from “We are winning this Rugby World Cup” to “Should I bother going?”, I believe that Ireland will get to the quarter-final and then it is a flip of a coin. We have the potential to beat either New Zealand or South Africa. However, we will need form, a strong injury profile and more than a dollop of luck.

Q2 – Most impressive team pre-tournament (so, likely winners)?

Hate to say it but England look strong, picking players with zero sentiment to what has gone before looks like the Eddie Jones’s masterstroke. They are strong in their fundamentals, the tight five, and boast the depth in the backrow that Ireland relied on some eight months ago. Size in the backline is historically rewarded at World Cups and they have plenty. Don’t see these guys winning it, but they will give it a good whirl.

Q3 – Northern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

If Ireland are to turn things around James Ryan is going to have to leave his mark on this tournament. He needs to be the rock that Ireland built their quarter-final assault from, and he has all the tools in his armoury.

Q4 – Southern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Beauden Barrett – 10 or 15 it doesn’t matter, as his high-value moments in games are breathtaking, beating a luckless defender with pace or insane feats of ball control will all be a joy to watch.

Q5 – What coach would you most want to play for at RWC, and why?

Joe, always Joe. Best I’ve played under as a tactician and also a man manager, knowing what makes your players tick is going to be more valuable that anything drawn up on a white board.

Q6 – What’s the major concern for rugby at Japan 2019?

The interpretation of red and yellow cards; there are going to be lots of them. Players have been briefed that if you make contact with the head it will be referred to the TMO. Hawk-Eye is going to speed things up, and this is going to be a continuing conversation throughout the tournament.

Keith Duggan (Chief Sports Writer)

Q1 – How far can Ireland go (where does it end)?

It’s not impossible for Ireland to reach the semi-final, assuming that they can tap into the defensive solidity of 2018, that Jonathan Sexton returns to that season’s imperious form and is also on song and the coaching staff are willing to encourage a bit more creativity and individuality. Anything short of that will leave this group feeling as if they have undersold themselves.

Q2 – Most impressive team pre-tournament (so, likely winners)?

England visited a return to the bad old days with their 57-15 drubbing of what was clearly a shell of an Ireland team in Twickenham but Eddie Jones has put together a physically bruising pack, the Ford/Farrell axis has worked and they have ferocious wing pace. The 38-38 Six Nations draw with Scotland was an odd curveball in a mean season. They will aim to go into the quarter-final as group winners but don’t have the wit to out-rugby New Zealand when it matters.

Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale scores his side’s third try against England at Twickenham in March 2018. His uncanny ability to make something happen and uncanny eye for the try line make him Gerry Thornley’s top northern hemisphere player. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale scores his side’s third try against England at Twickenham in March 2018. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Q3 – Northern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Jacob Stockdale responded to the dismal outing in Twickenham by creating and scoring two tries from nothing a week later against Wales in Cardiff. It was a win that gave Ireland a desperately needed suck of oxygen. Sixteen tries in 21 international appearances is a ridiculous return and if Ireland’s World Cup is to exceed expectation, it seems likely that the Ulster man’s chip-and-sprint scoring touch will continue.

Q4 – Southern Hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Beauden Barrett will lead the charge but South Africa can see a path through to the last four irrespective of their showdown with New Zealand on September 21st. If they make it, the playbook-wrecking force of nature that is Faf de Klerk will have a huge say in the tournament. The pressure he exerts on his opposite number is fun to watch, he can cause chaos with the speed and unpredictability of his defence and has an eye for the try line.

Q5 – What coach would you most want to play for at RWC, and why?

It seems strange that after an almost flawless period in charge of Ireland, Joe Schmidt goes into this swansong tournament under something of a cloud. The previous two years promised that Ireland had the on-field substance and coaching acumen to break through the World Cup glass ceiling. To see how Schmidt coaches his way through this tournament will be fascinating. Not sure I’d be his smartest selection of all time though.

Q6 – What’s the major concern for rugby at Japan 2019?

As the World Rugby guidelines released in May indicated, holding a tournament which showcases the unrivalled physical aspect of the sport while emphasising its safety is critical. For coaches and players, surrendering nothing in the tackle without falling foul of the more stringent high tackle and shoulder charge rules will be critical. Red card controversies are likely to be a feature.

Gavin Cummiskey (Sports Writer)

Q1 – How far can Ireland go (where does it end)?

World Cup semi-final, on the premise that New Zealand and not South Africa are standing in the way come the quarter-final. Schmidt’s Ireland can beat these All Blacks. The Springboks, as England and Saracens keep proving, are too big to stop.

Q2 – Most impressive team pre-tournament (so, likely winners)?

England followed closely by the phenomenal turnaround Rassie Erasmus has achieved with the Springboks. I think they will meet in the final after England beat New Zealand in the semis. Eddie Jones to mastermind the worst-case scenario two days after Brexit.

Q3 – Northern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Manu Tuilagi, Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Jacob Stockdale in that order. If Tuilagi, Vunipola and Itoje stay fit it’s hard to see how England can be stopped.

South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe, Gavin Cummiskey’s southern hemisphere player of the tournament, celebrates after scoring a try against the All-Blacks at Westpac Stadium in September 2018 in Wellington, New Zealand. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe, Gavin Cummiskey’s southern hemisphere player of the tournament, celebrates after scoring a try against the All-Blacks at Westpac Stadium in September 2018 in Wellington, New Zealand. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Q4 – Southern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Israel Folau. Only joking. Toulouse’s South African winger Cheslin Kolbe is the little genius who can score from anywhere.

Q5 – What coach would you most want to play for at RWC, and why?

Eddie Jones. Age 43, he guided an average Wallabies team to the World Cup final. Four years later he was the mad scientist behind the Springboks’s victorious campaign and in 2015 he out-coached South Africa with Japan! He gets this gig.

Q6 – What’s the major concern for rugby at Japan 2019?

The failure by World Rugby to recognise the dangers around 31-man squads. They offered to increase to 32 or 33 but unions had to cut a member of support staff. Genuine fear of tragic consequences as teams struggle to cope.

Liam Toland (Former Leinster captain, Irish Times columnist)

Q1 – How far can Ireland go (where does it end)?

Over the past two years of highs and lows, nothing has changed. Ireland will face either South Africa or New Zealand. To win, Ireland will need more quality continuity from their forwards and a subtle counter-attack from the team allied to their brilliant set-piece structures . . . not sure!

Q2 – Most impressive team pre-tournament (so, likely winners)?

For some time England have been knitting together nicely and now they are fit, powerful and effective. With so much power added to Elliot Daly’s subtlety unlocking his monster wingers; they’re my likely winners.

England’s Billy Vunipola celebrates a penalty against the Wallabies at AAMI Park in June 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
England’s Billy Vunipola celebrates a penalty against the Wallabies at AAMI Park in June 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Q3 – Northern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Either of the Vunipolas . . . if fit then Billy; pace, power and a deadly pass.

Q4 – Southern Hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Hardly a contender but 108-Test prop Owen Franks has been left out of the All Blacks for their opening match against the Springboks. But, for so many cultural reasons the Springboks’s first black captain Siya Kolisi is the man!

Q5 – What coach would you most want to play for at RWC, and why?

If as an Irish player then Joe Schmidt but if as a non-Irish rugby player then Gregor Townsend. Scotland’s win ratio is not the best, but boy do they have fun!

Q6 – What’s the major concern for rugby at Japan 2019?

Player ratings! And for the so-called lesser nations, such as Russia, ridiculously short and dangerous turnarounds between matches.

Fiona Coghlan (Former Ireland captain)

Q1 – How far can Ireland go (where does it end)?

I think Ireland will top Pool A but regardless that quarter-final against New Zealand or South Africa is stacked against us on current form. However, in the last 12 months we have proven we can beat both these teams. If we can get past the quarter-final and stay injury free I think we can get to the final.

Q2 – Most impressive team pre-tournament (so, likely winners)?

South Africa have been most impressive pre-tournament and they have a nice balance of players across the pitch. However, I don’t know if they are tournament winners. This is the most open and unpredictable tournament and there are no clear favourites. New Zealand, Wales, England and Ireland are all in the mix.

Q3 – Northern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

The continued upward trajectory of James Ryan’s career. Quiet by his own standards in attack against Wales but an absolute monster in defence. At just 23, he is becoming one of the best locks in the world and has so much more potential and I hope we get to see it in Japan.

South Africa wing S’bu Nkosi scores a try during the World Cup warm-up test match against Argentina at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, on August 17th, 2019. Photograph: Christian Kotze/AFP
South Africa wing S’bu Nkosi scores a try during the World Cup warm-up test match against Argentina at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, on August 17th, 2019. Photograph: Christian Kotze/AFP

Q4 – Southern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

S’bu Nkosi, the 23-year-old South African with only eight caps to his name, has already scored seven international tries. Watch for his devastating pace.

Q5 – What coach would you most want to play for at RWC, and why?

Warren Gatland. When players aren’t necessarily performing in their regions he gets them into national camp they become different players. Also the manner in which he coaches the Lions, bringing players from four countries together, shows that he has an ability to create a good environment in a short space of time. He frustrates me sometimes with his comments but I suppose that is all part of the persona, and I imagine he is completely different when coaching and players want to play for him.

Q6 – What’s the major concern for rugby at Japan 2019?

I hope it isn’t the weather and the fact that September and October is typhoon season in Japan. Most likely it will be consistency around refereeing decisions. I hate when this is the talking point after the game.

Matt Williams (Former Leinster, Ulster and Scotland coach, IT columnist)

Q1 – How far can Ireland go (where does it end)?

Quarter-finals have been Ireland’s glass ceiling at every World Cup. With either New Zealand or South Africa as potential opponents in the quarter-final, sadly history looks like it will repeat itself.

Q2 – Most impressive team pre-tournament (so, likely winners)?

This is the closest World Cup I have seen and I have seen them all. Any of the top eight teams can win the William Webb Ellis trophy. New Zealand remain favourites, but England and South Africa have a strong chance, and although Australia are outsiders they’ve a real chance as they have a very good draw if they can top their pool. Ireland’s draw makes their pathway very hard.

England’s Owen Farrell celebrates after scoring his team’s fifth try against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in February 2016 in Rome, Italy. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
England’s Owen Farrell celebrates after scoring his team’s fifth try against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in February 2016 in Rome, Italy. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Q3 – Northern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Owen Farrell is in a class of his own. With a brilliant tackle technique, accurate kicking and lightning-fast running game, he has every weapon and his influence on games is like no other in the north.

Q4 – Southern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Beauden Barrett remains a player of supreme brilliance. His explosive speed and superb passing game will see him, at either fullback or outhalf, being a play maker of exceptional vision and creativity.

Q5 – What coach would you most want to play for at RWC, and why?

Rassie Erasmus has re-energised the Springboks. His empowerment of the players has led to exceptional performances against New Zealand. His leadership style is perfectly suited to power the South African team culture.

Q6 – What’s the major concern for rugby at Japan 2019?

Teams like New Zealand who deliberately cheat at the breakdown, going off their feet and entering from the side, with the aim of slowing down the pace of attacking teams’ ball. Deliberately giving away penalties in their 22, stopping teams from scoring tries must be stopped by the officials with the issuing of yellow cards. It’s a blight on the game.

John O’Sullivan (Sports Writer)

Q1 – How far can Ireland go (where does it end)?

If they stay relatively injury free, can properly represent the talent within the squad, retain the courage to play with freedom in the big matches, and rediscover the form of 2018, then there is no ceiling to what they can achieve.

Q2 – Most impressive team pre-tournament (so, likely winners)?

England have been the most impressive team in the northern hemisphere in the World Cup warm-up matches while South Africa’s performances in the Rugby Championship show an appreciable progression under Rassie Erasmus.

Q3 – Northern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Parochially, James Ryan would be an outstanding candidate from an Irish perspective, while Clermont Auvergne’s Fijian-born wing Alivereti Raka, who has yet to win his first French cap, possesses the pace and skills to enchant the neutral.

Q4 – Southern hemisphere player to light up tournament?

Toulouse and Springbok wing Cheslin Kolbe offers a reminder that there is still room in international rugby for the smaller in stature; mind you, it helps when blessed with sprinter’s pace and footwork that bamboozles even the best defenders.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt enters the field during Ireland training at the Millennium Stadium in October 2015 in Cardiff, Wales. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt enters the field during Ireland training at the Millennium Stadium in October 2015 in Cardiff, Wales. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Q5 – What coach would you most want to play for at RWC, and why?

Joe Schmidt. He’s a winner, a pragmatist and someone whose knowledge and work ethic means that his players will have the tools to beat whatever lies in front of them; that and a couple of handy strike plays.

Q6 – What’s the major concern for rugby at Japan 2019?

If World Rugby are serious about player welfare then squad sizes should be 33 minimum with a stipulation that all must contain six halfbacks, six props and three hookers.

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