With the first round of fixtures out of the way (sort of, anyway; Russia and Fiji have played twice each while the USA and Canada are yet to kick off their campaign), the World Cup is starting to take on a recognisable shape. Scotland, with a defeat against Ireland and injuries to key players, are on a knife-edge after just one game. New Zealand have won their opening match against South Africa, who may be the toughest opposition they will face in the entire tournament. And England, in keeping with post-2003 tradition, defeated Tonga without ever really looking like the potential champions the warm-up matches suggested they could be.
As we move towards the second round of matches for the top-ranked nations, an intriguing set of matches lie ahead. Australia and Wales meet on Sunday, and will feel more relaxed about their chances of qualifying for the knockouts thanks to Fiji’s shock defeat by Uruguay this morning. England face the USA in a match which will have an unnecessary level of needle after a typically perplexing statement from Eddie Jones. Meanwhile, we’ll get a chance to see how good hosts Japan are, as they take on an Ireland side that barely had to go beyond cruising speed to obliterate Scotland in their opener. Below, we’ll address these three matches, and see what the bookmakers are expecting as the tournament steps up the intensity.
Eagles look to take flight against much-changed England
With the recent introduction of Major League Rugby, plenty of pundits have asked the question: “Could the USA be the next rugby superpower?”. The answer is “Probably not, no.”, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be capable of improving on their past level of performance. Ranked 12th in the world, they have at least a handful of decent players such as tireless full-back Blaine Scully, and reliable fly-half Aj McGinty, who has impressed during his time in England with Sale Sharks. Hooker Joe Taufete’e, meanwhile, is a persistent threat when carrying the ball, and could give some uncomfortable moments to an England side which is very much not the first string.
So, could the Stars and Stripes be flying proud after the national team’s first outing at this World Cup? No. Weirder things may, technically, have happened in the past, but England are 1/500 favourites to win here and should still have more than enough to overcome the American team. Although there have been significant changes since the opening win over Tonga, some of those can be argued as improvements, and Tonga are a better side than the USA. We’d edge more towards a margin of victory bet; Betway have 14/5 on England triumphing by between 31 and 40, and that seems like a realistic outcome given the 35-3 scoreline in that opening-weekend win.
Have Wales laid their Wallaby hoodoo to rest?
When Wales beat Australia 21-18 in Cardiff at the tail end of 2008, even the most pessimistic Welsh fan would have been hard-pressed to believe that it would be another ten years before the Wallabies would be vanquished again. However, Wales losing an Autumn test to Australia became an annual fixture, barring 2015 when they instead lost a World Cup pool match. Still, last November they finally overturned all those years of hurt by defeating Michael Cheika’s side 9-6. By winning this Sunday, they can build on that win and all but secure top spot in the pool; and with it, a likely semi-final against the eternally beatable France.
Australia come into the game minus winger Reece Hodge, suspended for three weeks after a dangerous tackle on Pecele Yato during the Wallabies’ 39-21 win over Fiji. With Hodge going on to score a crucial try, the truth is that Australia could already be looking nervously at elimination had the player correctly been sent off in the 25th minute of the game. Either way, Wales looked excellent in dispatching Georgia on Monday and deserve to be considered favourites. Paddy Power rate them as 4/5 – but if you back them with the same bookie to win by more than two points, you can get kinder odds of 10/11; if they win, the scoring system dictates it is likely to be by three or more.
Ireland to be ungracious house guests?
Japan opened the tournament with a game against outsiders Russia, and promptly gave the viewing public something to get excited about by conceding the tournament’s first try when full-back William Tupou comedically misjudged a high ball in his own 22. The hosts’ World Cup odyssey continues with a Saturday run-out against Ireland, where Tupou can expect to be targeted from the first minute by Ireland’s half-backs. Conor Murray, whose steepling Garryowens often come back to Earth with snow on them, will particularly relish the chance to pepper the opposition with probing kicks.
It’s worth remembering that in the last World Cup, South Africa were hefty favourites to defeat Japan, but saw their colours lowered in stunning fashion by a free-running Cherry Blossoms side. Ireland would be well advised to take nothing for granted, but they have played Japan seven times over the last 28 years and won each time, never by a margin lower than sixteen points. In a game with a lot resting on it, against the tournament hosts, perhaps Ireland won’t win as handsomely as they typically do against Japan. Possibly, they won’t win at all – but this is an Ireland side that dominated world rugby in 2018 and, after a bumpy and experimental 2019, looked hugely assured in beating Scotland. At 6/1 with William Hill, we’d take them to win by between 11 and 15 points – especially if Japan follow through with the mooted idea that they will bench captain and star player Michael Leitch to keep him fresh.