London - Reigning champions New Zealand may remain the team
to beat at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan but November's internationals
confirmed that Ireland are hot on their heels.
New Zealand top the world rankings but Ireland, Wales and
England occupy the next three places in the standings.
The 2015 World Cup saw the southern hemisphere provide all
four semi-finalists but, based on current form, it will be a major shock if no
European side makes the last four next year.
Having waited more than a century for a first win over New
Zealand, Ireland's 16-9 defeat of the All Blacks in Dublin on November 17 was
their second in three matches following a 40-29 success in Chicago two years ago.
The win over New Zealand helped Ireland win the world team
of the year award on Sunday.
This month's victory over the All Blacks was notable for an
Irish defence organised by former England assistant coach and dual code
international Andy Farrell - the father of England flyhalf Owen - preventing
the usually potent All Blacks from scoring even one try.
Afterwards, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said of Ireland:
"As of now they are the number-one team in the world.
"So if you want to make them World Cup favourites, go
ahead. I guess they are favourites."
His Ireland counterpart and fellow New Zealander Joe
Schmidt, a leading contender to succeed Hansen, was having none of it.
"We'll take tonight and we'll leave the World Cup for
11 months' time," said Schmidt, who was voted coach of the year.
Ireland are the reigning Six Nations Grand Slam champions
and lost just once in 2018.
Yet there are fears over how their relatively small playing
base will cope should the likes of first-choice players such as outstanding
fly-half Johnny Sexton - who made it an Irish awards triple with the player of
the year award - be ruled out through injury.
Another worry is how Ireland, who have never reached a World
Cup semi-final, shoulder the burden of expectation.
Ireland have long enjoyed the role of 'plucky underdogs' but
that is no longer a credible position for Schmidt's men.
New Zealand do have playing depth, while the way fly-half
Beauden Barrett dropped goals against England and Ireland indicates a pragmatic
edge is being added to their running game.
England finished 2018 with an impressive mix of forward
power and stylish back-line play during a 37-18 win over Australia, the 2015
losing finalists, at Twickenham.
It meant they had won three of their four November Tests,
the lone loss an agonising 16-15 defeat by New Zealand.
This 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
England were without a raft of players against the
Wallabies, including the Vunipola brothers and locks Joe Launchbury and George
"We've got great competition," said England coach
"To be the best in the world you've got to push
hard," added Jones, whose side still have problems over their often high
Yet but for a seemingly dangerous tackle - a major problem
for rugby union as a whole along with the use of replays - by Farrell in the
dying seconds against South Africa going unpunished, they may have lost their
November opener instead of beating the Springboks 12-11.
"It's wide open," said South Africa coach Rassie
Erasmus 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," he added after his improving two-time champion Springboks
ended an inconsistent year that yielded a memorable win in New Zealand with a
20-11 defeat by Wales.
By contrast, Wales completed their first November clean
sweep and they have now won nine successive Tests.
But none of those matches were against New Zealand, a team
Wales last defeated way back in 1953.
"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.
"We have to start from scratch now and we're at rock
bottom," said Mathieu Bastareaud, the France centre. "Because we're
pathetic, shameful, we have to be aware of that."
Tier-Two nation Fiji's win augurs well for the
competitiveness of the group stages in Japan and will have been noted by pool
opponents Wales - a team they knocked out of the 2007 tournament - and