Classically, it’s the team that hosts the World Cup that kicks it off. In addition, because the organisers want the fans to go home happy, the hosts will usually find themselves set against a side they can be counted upon to beat – like England vs Fiji in 2015 or New Zealand against anyone else in the competition four years before that. So it is that on Friday morning (UK time), Japan will get the tournament underway against Pool A’s underdogs Russia.
A lot is expected of the Cherry Blossoms, who defeated South Africa in the Pool stages four years ago before a fixture pile-up ended their hopes before the knockout stages. They could barely have had a more favourable opening fixture either – Russia are here less as a consequence of their scintillating off-loading game and more as a result of Spain and Romania suffering mass points deductions in qualification due to the fielding of ineligible players. The Bears are ranked #20 in the world, below every team in this tournament bar Namibia and Canada. They’re expected to lose all four of their pool games, although if they manage to report all of their opponents for fielding ineligible players they could yet pull off a shock and win the whole tournament.
Opening-night nerves for Japan?
There are no prizes for guessing who’s favoured by the bookies in the opening game of this edition of the RWC. That’s right – the team who reached the tournament without consulting with a law firm! Indeed, Japan are close to unbackable for the opening game, priced at a surprisingly hefty 1/66 with William Hill. Russia are available at 20/1, long odds which would be tempting if they had a chance in Hell of actually winning the game. As things stand, however, it’s not a bet worth making.
What might be worth the effort, however, is a handicap bet. If you reckon that Russia will finish within 31 points of the Blossoms, then you can get odds of 11/4 on them beating this spread. William Hill have them pegged as 41-point underdogs, but it’s the first game of the World Cup. With players under pressure and the visiting side sure to want to give a good account of themselves in the curtain-raising match, don’t be surprised if Japan win, comfortably, but without hitting the heights that most bookies are expecting from them.
Saturday: the big teams join the chase
There’s a more than decent chance that the winners of this edition of the Rugby World Cup will be taken from Pool B. That’s where you will find defending champions New Zealand, and also perhaps the team best equipped to usurp them – South Africa. Saturday morning’s action brings these teams together in what will undoubtedly be the biggest collision of the Pool stages. The winner of this game will, realistically, win Pool B, and face the runner-up from Pool A in the quarter-final. Given that this will most likely be Scotland, the winner of this match effectively has a bye to the semi-final.
The last three meetings between these sides have been decided by margins of: 2, 2 and 0. In other words, two games (one for each side) have been won by just two points each. The other, and most recent, was a draw. The aggregate score of the meetings since September 2018 reads New Zealand 82, South Africa 82. So why does Paddy Power have the All Blacks as 6.5-point favourites? It’s hard to say, but you can get South Africa +6.5 for ⅚. Alternatively, you could back them to win outright at 23/10. They’re more than capable of doing it, and may well be the only team in world rugby that has found a way of consistently pushing the Kiwis to the limit.
Clash of the Celts is Sunday’s big game
Just under a year ago, the perennially-pessimistic Irish rugby fans started to believe that their team, which had just beaten New Zealand for a second time in three meetings, could be a legitimate contender for this World Cup. Since then, Ireland have been pretty poor – losing twice to England and seeing their Six Nations title all-too-easily wrenched from their hands by Wales. They come into this weekend with injury questions over their starting full-back, one of their wings and perhaps their best centre. Oh, and Johnny Sexton, the fly-half around whom everything happens, is potentially a single concussion away from a premature end to his involvement in the tournament.
This Sunday, the tournament’s first – and possibly only – all-Celtic meeting will take place as Ireland seek to extend to three games their winning streak against the mercurial Scots. While we think, over the eighty minutes, that Ireland will have what it takes to post the win, we are intrigued by Unibet’s odds of 24/5 on the first score of the game being a Scotland try. Scottish number 10 Finn Russell has a well-deserved reputation for trying audacious passes which come off more often than one might expect. If he can get his back line into the areas that count this Sunday, the Irish fans watching over breakfast may just get a very rude awakening.