When the Rugby World Cup final rolls around on the 2nd November, it’s unlikely we’ll see any teams there that aren’t the usual suspects when it comes to international rugby’s showpiece event. Only four teams have won the tournament since the first edition of the competition in 1987: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England. Latest Rugby Union odds reflect those teams’ position as favourites.
However, that does not mean the Rugby World Cup isn’t capable of throwing up a few surprises. In a tournament that spans over a month, there is an opportunity for one of the less-renowned rugby nations to throw a spanner in the works of some of the tournament’s hot favourites. Let’s take a look at a few dark horses that could cause a stir in Japan.
Japanese rugby has been on the rise, and hosting this upcoming World Cup represents something of a landmark for rugby in Asia. Japan have soared up the rankings in recent years and have begun to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the sport. Their victory over South Africa in 2015 was proof that they can handle themselves at the top level.
Japan’s group contains Ireland, who despite enduring something of a wobble over the last year or so, stand as the number one ranked team in the world after a couple of World Cup warm-up victories over Wales. However, if Japan can use home support to full advantage, they could make life difficult for Joe Schmidt’s men.
Perhaps Japan will be eyeing the match against Scotland as a chance to take a scalp. Scotland did beat the ‘Cherry Blossoms’ in the 2015 tournament, but that experience should stand Japan in good stead heading into this latest encounter. Scotland would have been pleased with their pool stage draw, but if they allow any hint of complacency to creep into their game, Japan will be ready to pounce.
The USA have been frequent participants in the Rugby World Cup since its inception, and have only missed one edition of the tournament out of eight. However, the US have never made it out of the pool stage at a World Cup, and history is not on their side when assessing their chances in Japan.
But recent results may give the US some cause for quiet optimism. A couple of victories over Samoa in the last two years are signs that the ‘Eagles’ are on the up. While they have been drawn in a formidable pool for this World Cup, one that includes England, France and Argentina, perhaps this will offer the perfect chance for the USA to play completely free of inhibitions, to go out and finally make their mark on one of rugby’s international elite.
Another nation whose stock has risen steadily in recent times, Georgia head into the 2019 Rugby World Cup full of confidence, sitting prettily in 12th place in the rugby world rankings. There have been calls in some quarters for Georgia to replace Italy in the Six Nations, and that is a sign of how Georgian rugby has developed over the last few years.
This World Cup represents a chance for Georgia to back up the credentials they have established in the last few seasons. Placed in a pool that includes Australia, Wales and Fiji, it will be a tough test for them to spring a surprise, but with the Wallabies experiencing something of a dip in form recently, perhaps the Georgians will be eyeing that fixture as a chance to cause a shock and make their mark.
Whatever happens in Japan over the next couple of months, you can be certain that there will be no shortage of thrills and spills. Perhaps an underdog may rise from obscurity to take the tournament by storm, or take down one of international rugby’s giants. Although the Rugby World Cup has followed similar patterns of success throughout its existence, involving a select few elite teams, the nature of sport is that you just never know what’s around the corner.