The wobbles of the organisers, the task facing Cheika and pitfalls for referees - 10 things for your World Cup radar
Brendan Fanning asks ten questions ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
1. Can Michael Cheika create a unique trophy haul?
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The former Leinster coach is already unique, having guided, as head coach, teams to win Super Rugby (Reds) and Heineken Cup (Leinster) titles. His chances of adding the World Cup to that haul took a dive when Israel Folau, the best fullback in the game - though perhaps not its best asset - went postal with his Bible bashing.
You can only imagine the reaction from the volcanic coach when all of this kicked off. Aside from a deep and dangerous pool, the Wallabies are looking at the scary stat of seven straight wins to lift the trophy.
They haven't done more than four in a row since the last World Cup. And if they come across England and Eddie Jones then Cheika will be haunted by the 0-6 record against the man who looked after them at RWC 2003.
2. What kind of cash is this going to put in the kitty?
If the IRFU tells us at every AGM that the pro game funds everything below it (so stop whingeing about its costs) then World Rugby's picture of the bigger landscape is that RWC pays the bills worldwide. In this case the term they use is 'net surplus for reinvestment'. After the England World Cup four years ago that amounted to £160m. That might be down to about £110/£120m this time around.
If you're wondering how Ireland's bid for 2023 could have been blown out of the water it's because the concensus is that hosting World Cups is now solely a business for big business who can generate big returns to cover ever increasing costs.
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So why is Japan going to come in under the bar set by England - who had promised a minimum of £80m but produced £91m in the end? A couple of reasons: Japan is a more expensive place to do business and, as written about at the time in these pages, they were not just slow out of the blocks, they were superglued to them. So, more bodies had to be sent, for longer, to get them up to speed. That costs money.
As does taking over the broadcasting of the tournament. England is in first-world rugby broadcasting land, Japan is not. So RWC needed to fire in outside help to ensure the product reflects the brand. In fairness, the trend of controlling your own televisual image has been established at the Olympics and football World Cups. But it's more money. Doubt somehow if that bit was in the Japanese bid document.
3. Will this World Cup be simply a logistical dry-run for Tokyo 2020?
As we turned the corner into August, World Rugby's PR man tweeted the following: 'Happy #50DTG until #RWC2019 to all my friends in Japan. Can't wait for an awesome event that will be a game-changer for the sport on many levels. Japan, you've got this!' Ok. It was noticeable - unavoidable even - on Ireland's two-Test spin to Japan in summer 2017 that the World Cup was buried under a rock.
The arrivals hall was branded left, right and centre with Olympic livery. The lack of preparedness among Japanese rugby folks (ie, those with a vested interest in making RWC 2019 a success) was stunning. They weren't best pleased when we asked them about this. World Rugby equally were unimpressed and had to start laying down the law.
WR sent in the SWAT team to kick a few doors in and bang a few heads. Culturally this is not straightforward in Japan. Witness their distinct unease at our temerity to point out in 2017 that they hadn't even reached the foothills never mind figured out the climb. And where are they now?
Well, by #50DTG (days to go) 83 per cent of tickets had been sold, and seemingly 77 per cent of the population was aware that the World Cup train was stopping soon at a station near them. By the time all the squads had been confirmed for the tournament that figure was over 90 per cent.
The wave hasn't washed over every level of Japanese society though. This, from a Tokyo teacher, was tweeted a few weeks ago by a rugby journalist: 'Literally 2-3 students out of 200 had the slightest interest or knowledge about rugby or the World Cup. No posters. Nothing.'
4. When, if ever, will we see a new challenger in a World Cup?
In this, the ninth tournament, we have a gathering largely of the usual suspects. Starting in 1987 and including this line-up we are looking at a total of just 25 nations pulling up a chair at the table. Of that small band there have been a few one-hit wonders who were walloped so hard they have yet to resurface: Ivory Coast in 1995, Spain in 1999 and Portugal in 2007. Russia, too, have only one previous experience of the gig (2011). So if it's clearly a struggle for World Rugby to get new teams on the carousel it's a non-starter to expect one of them to be a contender. That's why Georgia are a good story.
Genetically they are disposed to the game and it's popular there. The self-induced pain of playing against the Southern Kings and then Scotland in the space of four days last month was designed to mimic the Uruguay-Fiji legs of the pool stage in RWC. A win over Fiji would be a big deal.
5. Will there be a new name on the Webb Ellis Cup at close of play on November 2?
Well, if there is we might have the added stat of a World Cup winner with a foreign coach, which would be a first. Ireland (10/1) and Wales (11/1) and France (28/1) are the only hope for a winner outside of the four nations (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England) who have shared the previous eight trophies between them.
6. What are the chances of a seismic event?
In Brighton four years ago, Japan produced the biggest upset in World Cup history to beat the Springboks. Whatever you were doing, you stopped as the twice world champs were hanging on against a Tier 2 nation. They lost their grip, and the rest of the world celebrated the breakthrough. This time the runners and riders are Japan against Ireland (second game up) and Scotland (fourth), and Fiji versus Wales (round three).
7. What will Joe Schmidt do when Ireland's campaign is over?
He'll put some time in with the family and then his missus will ask him to find a hobby. Whatever way it shakes down in Japan he'll be beating club owners off with a stick. A break would do him good though. A retreat perhaps in west Mayo, with no access to match footage or media comment, and then climb back on a horse of a different colour.
8. Will New Zealand default to their old World Cup ways of falling short of the target?
Since last summer they have played 19 Tests, of which three were lost (South Africa, Ireland, Australia) and one drawn (South Africa). The sequence - if you can call it that - of losing and drawing back-to-back against South Africa and Australia this summer was a repeat of what happened against the Lions in 2017, but before that you have to go back to 2011 for something similar, with consecutive defeats to their then-Tri Nations mates.
The ruthless nature of their bounce back against the Wallabies last month has restored some calm in NZ. Still, they have issues over how best to use Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith - 10 and 15 would be best - and life without Damian McKenzie and, for now at any rate, a fit Brodie Retallick, is not the same.
The fear factor is not what it was.
9. Which referee will be wishing he stayed at home?
Four years ago, Craig Joubert fled the scene at
Twickenham after his last-minute mistake allowed the Wallabies to dump Scotland out of the tournament. World Rugby then threw him under a bus.
If it was painful for the Scots then it was no fun either for the South African who had been handicapped by the laws which, at that stage in the game's evolution, precluded him from referring the incident upstairs.
That's been fixed now. But human error will recur, and in circumstances that are not changeable at the time by the intervention of a man in a TV truck with a bank of monitors in front of him. It would be unkind to open a book on who is most likely to be getting it in the neck, but safe to say that the time of their greatest exposure is when the clock is in the red. Roman Poite, who gave us that last-gasp draw on the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand, would agree.
10. Who are the best players this tournament will have to do without?
15: Israel Folau, Australia (disciplinary)
14: Teddy Thomas, France (selection)
13: Mathieu Bastareaud, France (selection)
12: Ngani Laumape, New Zealand (selection)
11: Santiago Cordero, Argentina (injured)
10: Damian McKenzie, New Zealand (injured)
9: Danny Care, England (selection)
1: Dany Priso, France (selection)
2: Dylan Hartley, England (injury)
3: Owen Franks, New Zealand (selection)
4: Brodie Retallick, New Zealand (injured)
5: Devin Toner, Ireland (selection)
6: Warren Whiteley, South Africa (injured)
8: Taulepe Faletua, Wales (injured)
7: Dan Leavy, Ireland (injured)
Brendan Fanning's pool by pool guide
Blessed with the best recovery time in between games, and the usual stuff about home support, if Japan had a bit more quality in their squad they would be looking at qualification.
Still, they will target the loser of Ireland versus Scotland and throw everything at that. With a surge of momentum having seen off Russia for starters they will be hard to cope with, so Ireland’s plan has a lot to do with seeing off the Scots.
For the game plan there check out the second half of Ireland versus Wales last weekend: one out, bash, subdue, repeat.
Scotland know what’s coming so it’ll be interesting to see if they can manage what Wales could not. Gregor Townsend is banking on catching Ireland out wide, which Wales came close to a few times in the first half.
Greatest entertainer: Darcy Graham (Scotland)
Biggest hiding: Japan v Russia
Prediction: Ireland, Scotland
Odds: Ireland 10/1, Scotland 45/1
In 2007 we had a game-changer on opening night with the Pumas beating hosts France.
This time around we are guaranteed a couple the day after host nation Japan dismantle Russia.
In this pool that means the greatest rivalry in the game’s history: New Zealand versus South Africa.
It’s a good thing the All Blacks have suffered a bit in the last 12 months, and that Rassie Erasmus — now with Felix Jones on board the coaching staff — have gone undefeated in their last five games.
He seems to have managed the quota rather well.
The changing room picture of the squad, looking like they were performing at a hen party, was designed to confirm the transformation.
Greatest entertainer: Beauden Barrett (New Zealand)
Biggest hiding: New Zealand v Namibia
Prediction: New Zealand, South Africa
Odds: New Zealand 5/4, South Africa 9/2
Like Ireland four years ago, England have to wait until round three, against France, for a full-on test of their character. Seems like a long time to be keeping their key men in good health and sufficiently hungry.
The Pumas will make this pool interesting, and you’d feel for the US Eagles having to face England, France and Argentina in 12 days, which is way above and beyond anything they would encounter in the four-year gap between tournaments.
France, if they are going to keep us entertained, will do so by coming out of the pool as runners-up and then having an all-in mill, swapping Jacques Brunel for a life-size cut-out of Jacques Cousteau, before beating Australia in the quarters.
Greatest entertainer: Billy Vunipola (England)
Biggest hiding: England v Tonga
Prediction: England, France
Odds: England 4/1, France 28/1, Argentina 45/1
Can Fiji do enough damage here to make a difference? They are forever associated with being hard-done-by back in 1999 when, against France, Kiwi ref Paddy O’Brien had a horrible game after which he admitted: “I had a meltdown.”
Since then they have been battling for some form and in 2015 — when Australia and Wales were in the same group — were a poor fourth.
England’s presence then made it the toughest pool and even without them it’s got the same title again.
The difference is that Fiji are well prepared now, and two games against NZ Maori is a first.
It’s worth remembering that while the Aussies lack consistency, they have a bank of positive World Cup imagery to feed off.
By comparison the others are empty.
Greatest entertainer: Soso Matiashvili (Georgia)
Biggest hiding: Australia v Uruguay
Prediction: Australia, Wales
Odds: Wales 11/1, Australia 14/1
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