Jonathan Bradley: Rugby World Cup is wide open as all the big guns believe they can win
While the time difference will make for sleep-induced viewing for those back home, and the weather may play the spoiler for those lucky enough to be on the ground in Japan, when it comes to the rugby things couldn’t be set up any better.
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With three teams having held the much-discussed and oft-ridiculed title of the world’s best-ranked side this summer alone — and neither of those being England or South Africa — this is a tournament where it genuinely feels like any dog could have its day.
Four years ago in England and Wales, the All Blacks came in talked about not just as the pick of the current bunch, but in the discussion for one of the best sides we’ve ever seen.
The displays in 2015 only enhanced their already sky-high reputation as they once again breezed through the pool before dismantling France and coming through titanic tussles with their old adversaries South Africa and Australia. It felt like the end of an era, though, as players like Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and the great Richie McCaw exited stage left after the tournament.
While the show went on for another 18 months or so, it’s been a different story since pretty much the minute Sonny Bill Williams saw red against the Lions in the second Test of that epic drawn series.
Still the world’s most talented squad? Most probably. Not quite as infallible as before though? Most definitely.
Two losses and one tie represented a 2017 that by their standards was a step back, while the next year they lost another two and could easily have doubled that tally.
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Their defeat at home in Wellington to the Springboks, when their failure to set up for a late drop goal saw them unable to snatch victory at the death, dented their aura of invincibility, losing from a situation where so often in the recent past they’d have delivered the late blow to break opposition hearts.
Another two games have gone begging already in 2019 and they land in Japan without the usual tag of overwhelming favourites.
That may just suit them in their bid for an unprecedented hat-trick, but the pretenders to the throne have never felt so close to their heels, nor so large in number.
South Africa have proved the most consistent thorn in the Kiwis’ side of late — the points difference between the two teams in the last three meetings is perfectly even — and there can be no better game to have on the opening weekend than the sport’s greatest rivals going head-to-head.
Both will make the quarters regardless but we could have a final preview on day two in the same Yokohama Stadium that will play host to the tournament’s final game on November 2.
The Six Nations sides, though, will expect to have something to say about that, all out to secure what would be just a second win for the northern hemisphere.
England have shown their ability to bully the best, and should have beaten the All Blacks themselves in 2018, with Eddie Jones out to prove his side have timed their run to perfection during his uneven tenure.
If they say you need five world-class talents to win this competition, the Red Rose certainly have them.
Wales, of course, come in as Grand Slam champions and with Warren Gatland in his farewell tournament, it’ll be a good side that puts them out even in the absence of big hitters Taulupe Faletau and Gareth Anscombe.
And then, we come to Ireland. It’ll be a proud day for Banbridge RFC and the entire province of Ulster when Rory Best leads the side out against Scotland in the opener on Sunday, prouder still should Joe Schmidt and his squad break new ground in Japan by getting to the semi-finals or even further.
The departing coach and captain have both alluded to letting the past Six Nations slip by with an eye to events this autumn and, while the draw has not been kind given the pick-your-poison All Blacks/Springboks quarter-final ahead, this is arguably the deepest squad they have ever taken to the tournament.
Luck with injuries will be required, as will the likes of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray reaching close to the peak of their powers, but for the first time they travel knowing they have beaten every one of the contenders in the preceding 18 months.
The Webb Ellis trophy is up for grabs... and what a feast of rugby we have before finding out who will be lifting it on November 2.
Belfast Telegraph Digital