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Rugby World Cup 2019 predictions: Winner, dark horses, top player, breakout star and more

Jack de Menezes
Rugby World Cup 2019: Getty

The 2019 Rugby World Cup finally got underway on Friday, with host nation Japan defeating a brave Russian side 30-10.

Winger Kotaro Matsushima became the first Japan player to score a hat-trick of tries in the World Cup as the hosts battled back from conceding early in the match to Kirill Golosnitskiy.

The tournament truly roars into life this weekend, with New Zealand taking on South Africa after Australia play Fiji on Saturday. A day later, Ireland play Scotland in huge match that is likely to prove pivotal.

England meanwhile get their campaign underway on Sunday with a seemingly straightforward match against Tonga.

Ahead of those mammoth fixtures, our sports writers have gazed into their crystal balls to predict who will win the tournament and which team could upset the odds in Japan.

Winners

Jack de Menezes in Japan: England. Why not? If last autumn’s results are anything to go by, Eddie Jones’ side were just a point off the All Blacks and have come an awful long way in the year since. They have a supremely talented squad and although their path to a potential final is littered with large hurdles, something tells me there is something special about this batch of players. They key though will be keeping Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi fit. Without them, they have no chance.

Samuel Lovett in Japan: New Zealand. We’d be foolish to write off the reigning champions. Their post-World Cup preparations may have yielded some disappointing results but, for Steve Hansen, the objective of those encounters was to tweak and experiment - not to find the confidence and form needed to lift the World Cup. The All Blacks already have that in abundance. They remain the best side in the world. Period.

Ben Burrows: New Zealand. They’re not quite the all-conquering force of years’ past but that doesn’t mean they’re still not the best team on the planet. I think they’ll prove that again in Japan.

The All Blacks will be tough to beat (Getty)

Luke Brown: South Africa are the form team and appear to have peaked at precisely the right time. Their formidable squad depth in that ridiculously powerful forward pack could prove critical.

Lawrence Ostlere: New Zealand. The All Blacks have not had the perfect year, but are still the best team in the world when it all clicks into place, with a formidable first XV.

Harry Latham-Coyle: New Zealand aren’t the all-conquering force they have been in the past, but they still have probably the deepest and most talented squad, particularly when everyone gets fit.

Dark horses

JDM: France. With Jacques Brunel showing early signs of picking the best players and best team available to him, France could go far in this World Cup. If they beat Argentina in the pool stage, the will be a serious danger in the knockout stages.

SL: Would have liked to have said Japan. The hosts were meant to steamroll Russia in their opening group match but did not impress me too much, which makes me think that any hopes of a romantic World Cup run are hopeful at the best. Who else is there? Ireland? Wales? Do they count? Not really.

Japan began with a victory (Getty)

BB: France. They always deliver when it comes to World Cups and amidst the inevitable chaos around them I think they’ll still manage to go deep.

LB: Wales. Their preparation for this tournament has been less than ideal to say the least, but then they are a team that are at their best with their backs to the wall.

LO: Ireland, if you can call them dark horses. They arrive in Japan on much shakier ground, under the effortless control of Jonny Sexton’s boot they can go deep into tournament.

HLC: Fiji are really, really good. Peceli Yato (flanker), Viliame Mata (number eight) and Semi Radradra (outside centre) are three of the world’s best at their respective positions, and Ben Volavola has developed into a solid fly-half, doing the simple things rather than unnecessary freelancing. They’ll beat Australia.

Player of the tournament

JDM: Maro Itoje. Having backed England to win, the likelihood is that the player of the tournament will come from their squad. Itoje is likely to be heavily depended on, given his versatility, his talent and supreme fitness. After missing out on 2015, this will be the tournament where he puts the rest of the world on notice.

Maro Itoje collects his 2019 Rugby World Cup cap at England's official welcoming ceremony (Getty)

SL: A hard one this. Would normally have gone with Beauden Barrett but, given it looks like he’s going to be deployed at 15, I wonder if we’ll see the best from him. Think Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi will impress too. Aaron Smith too.

BB: Beauden Barrett. My money’s on the world’s best player playing like it.

LB: Handré Pollard. This could be the tournament at which the 25-year-old comes of age, given his inconsistent form with the Bulls. South Africa’s hopes of winning back the Webb Ellis Cup depend on keeping him fit and healthy.

LO: Beauden Barrett. Now 28, the All Black is the best fly-half at the tournament and can be the focal point of New Zealand’s third successive World Cup triumph.

New Zealand star Beauden Barrett (Getty)

HLC: Ardie Savea. Long-touted as the future of the openside flanker position, Savea has taken his game to another level this year, showing greater appreciation of the intricacies of the game and taking on greater leadership responsibilities. Still possessing the obnoxious leg drive through contact and athleticism in open space that make him so eye-catching, if New Zealand go all the way then Savea will be integral to their success, whether he starts at six or seven.

Breakout star

JDM: Jordan Larmour. With Rob Kearney injured and Larmour at full-back, the Leinster youngster has the early chance to stamp his mark all over the Ireland No 15 shirt. He burst onto the scene two years ago, now it’s time to start realising that potential.

SL: Josua Tuisova. Chris Ashton, who played with him in Toulon, described him as a “man mountain”. Scarily powerful on the ball, and an effective off-loader, he’ll be Fiji’s go-to man on the wing.

BB: Joe Cokanasiga. Part of an England side that could and should go far and should have the ammo to make a big impact on the world stage.

Joe Cokanasiga could be England's secret weapon at the Rugby World Cup (Getty)

LB: Hopefully more than a few Japan players will be household names by the end of this tournament. Of their many talented players, flanker Kazuki Himeno is perhaps the most exciting, powerful bringing the ball forward and dependable at the breakdown.

LO: Jordan Petaia. The teenage wing could be a sensation for Australia if he’s given his opportunity to play more than just a cameo role.

HLC: Georgia’s starting half-backs will have a combined age of 42 at most, with 20-year-old Tedo Abzhandadze at ten to be paired with one of Gela Aprasidze and Vasil Lobzhinadze, 21 and 22 respectively. Abzhandadze is seen as the fly-half to take Georgia forward, with sharp handling and creative kicking, while Aprasidze is an excitement machine around the fringes. Lobzhinadze has almost 50 caps already, and has a wise head for such young shoulders. Expect all three to catch the eye at some point in a solid Georgia team.

Biggest surprise

JDM: Two home nations in the semi-finals. Northern hemisphere teams tend not to do the latter stages of World Cups these days, but I fully expect England and Wales to feature in the last four. Who knows, we may even be treated to an all-British final. Now there’s a thought...

SL: Scotland. I don’t think many are expecting much from the Scots but, given the manner in which they fought back at Twickenham in the Six Nations, there’s no doubt they’re capable of pulling a punch. If they turn up, they may well spring a surprise.

LO: Japan. Let’s be romantic and say the hosts spring a surprise and get out of Group A at the expense of one of the bigger boys.

LB: France. They’re not as bad as everybody is making out. And they will fancy their chances against England.

LO: Japan. They can cause a shock and escape from their group by taking a big northern hemisphere scalp, most probably Scotland.

HLC: Australia fail to get out of the group. A loss to Fiji in their first fixture will condemn Michael Cheika’s muddled Wallabies, who will also lose to Wales on their way to a group stage exit.

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