It’s finally here, and if you’re not pumped up about the World Cup getting underway then you seriously need to get your swede checked out.
Whilst an egg is yet to be kicked in earnest we’ve already had a coach sent home, New Zealand and South Africa firing potshots about influencing officials and plenty of amusing anecdotes involving state-of-the-art Japanese toilets.
Six weeks of cracking entertainment kicks off with an opening round of fixtures spicier than Gerri Haliwell chowing her way through an entire tub of wasabi.
Let’s take a look at some of the key talking points ahead of the curtain raiser and get setting those all important Pint Predictions.
Buoyant Boks Bid To Start Strong
Less than two years ago, South Africa were the laughing stock of world rugby - think Manchester United at the fag end of the Mourinho era.
They had lost to Italy for the first time in their history, suffered a record 57-0 defeat at the hands of New Zealand and had just sacked their coach less than 2 years before a World Cup campaign after a disastrous run of results.
Fast forward 18 months and the Boks arrive in Japan as one of the four favourites to lift the Webb-Ellis, after what has been a spectacular turnaround. A win and draw from their last two trips to New Zealand is the undeniable proof of their progress.
Coach Rassie Erasmus has taken practically the same group of players and turned them into Rugby Championship winners thanks to a simple game plan centred on a strong set-piece and an outright refusal to get turned over – they averaged the fewest of any team in the this year’s Rugby Championship (12 per game), seven fewer than the All Blacks.
The emergence of Faf de Klerk as a truly world-class no.9 has been pivotal, and the inspirational leadership of skipper Kolisi has united a divided team and despairing nation.
Prince Charming from Shrek has developed into the archetypal pocket rocket No.9.
For this weekend’s mouthwatering match-up, Erasmus has named the same side that blew Japan away two weeks ago for what is the group stage’s most fascinating tie.
Deposed from No.1 in the world rankings, the Kiwis have had to answer some key question of themselves in recent months; a second failure to Ireland in Dublin raised eyebrows whilst their record defeat against Australia sent shockwaves around the globe.
Interestingly, the stats suggest officials are viewing their defensive dark arts far less leniently than in years gone by and it’s costing them – their comparatively ‘poor’ run of the last year or so has coincided with a sharp rise in the number of yellows and red they’re receiving.
For all that, I for one would never write the All Blacks off, especially given their recent World Cup dominance, the sheer depth of quality they possess and their ability to bounce back from setbacks – the aforementioned disaster against Australia was savagely avenged 36-0 just a week later.
These two titans have never faced-off in a pool match before, and over their last three matches the aggregate score is tied at 82-82, including a pulsating 16-all draw in Wellington this summer. All but one of their previous World Cup games has been settled by four points or fewer, and with wet weather forecast in Yokohoma on Saturday, this has got ‘tight one’ scrawled large all over it.
Prediction - New Zealand by 3
Scots Quietly Confident
Scotland’s magic 10, Finn Russell, has been talking up his side as they prepare to do battle with Celtic rivals Ireland in another belting group opener.
The Racing string-puller reckons his side are ready to emerge like a phoenix from the ashes of their injury-hit Six Nations and take the World Cup by storm, despite some iffy form in the warm-up matches. To be fair, Gregor Townsend's cohort finally has a pretty clean bill of health, with only Sam Skinner ruled out the tournament in the build-up.
And if that frankly batshit second half against England in March is anything to go by, a full-strength Scotland side is capable of testing any side in the tournament.
The big ‘if’ here is the weather. Of all the tier 1 sides, Scotland are the most dependent on hard, dry pitches to help execute their enlightened game plan. Unfortunately for them the tournament comes slap bang in the middle of a typhoon season so bad, contingency plans are in place should any games require postponing or cancelling outright due to the elements.
Ireland’s much more amphibious tactics ought to give them the edge should things get soggy in Yokohama.
Stuttering ‘Green Machine’ Needs A Fix
Ahead of this hefty Pool A opener, Ireland aren’t in great nick. Boss Joe Schmidt is already missing a number of key men and has further fitness concerns over midfield sledgehammer Robbie Henshaw and full-back Rob Kearney.
Despite looking a shell of the team that so thrillingly outfoxed the All Blacks last November, they are indeed the world’s No. 1 ranked side in the world right now. A mixed run-up to this year’s World Cup hardly helps the confusing picture; record defeat at Twickenham was partially atoned by back-to-back wins over Wales.
Whilst Schmidt’s tenure has undoubtedly seen a sizeable improvement in strength in depth, for me, they are still far too reliant on half-back heroes Murray and Sexton to be considered among the favourites for the tournament. One twang or knock and the whole plan could go up in flames.
The upcoming clash against Scotland is one they must win if they want top the pool, build some vital momentum and finally win their first ever World Cup knock out clash. Their potential quarter-final opponents? New Zealand or South Africa.
Prediction - Ireland by 7
Steady Eddie To Shuffle From The Off
Whisper it. England are in dangerously good nick heading into Japan. Their big ball carriers looked lean and mean as they put Ireland and Wales to the sword in the warm-up games, whilst they have midfield options that are the envy of most other teams.
A fit-again Tuilagi is playing the best rugby of his career and he’s managed to do avoid doing something crashingly thick off the pitch for a whole 2 years now. His electric centre partnership with Slade was one of real highlights of this year’s Six Nations and looks set to fire again in the Orient.
In the forwards, they have some of the most fearsome truckers on the circuit who combine brute force with deft touches, constantly shifting the contact point and offloading to support runners to get in behind their opponents.
This campaign has been four years in the planning for Eddie Jones and his men after the humiliating group-stage exit on home soil in 2015. Perhaps unsurprisingly, expectations from their home supporters are suitably huge going into this one.
The pressure on England may not be as suffocating as it was during the last tournament, thanks to the 10,000km between London and Tokyo, but the nation very much expects and you feel nothing other than a place in the final will satisfy the Twickenham faithful.
With tougher tests against France and Argentina to come in the pool, I suspect Jones will shuffle his pack in the opening rounds against Tonga and the USA, but I still expect them to run out as comfortable winners.
Prediction - England by 40
French Flamboyance Meets Argie Aggro
England’s Pool C rivals meet on Saturday morning to decide who will probably finish second in this group. The French, following 7 whole years of frequently slapstick incompetence, have shown signs of coming together in recent weeks and looked especially good in the first of the two warm-up games against Scotland. That said, old habits die harder than Hans Gruber and Les Bleus then conspired to chuck away an 11-point lead to lose in Edinburgh a week later.
Antoine Dupont has made the pivotal 9 shirt his own and the talismanic Toulousain is one of the players to watch out for at this tournament. This is an intriguing clash of playing styles but make no mistake – both sides possess plenty of pace and power and the collisions are going to be massive.
The match is an exact repeat of the 2007 tournament opener when Las Pumas upset their French hosts en route to the semis, the same stage they reached last time out in 2015. This is another tough one to call, but I’m backing the Argies to come out on top here.
Prediction - Argentina by 8
Hosts Japan take on underdogs Russia in the opening game of this year’s jamboree in front of what will be a partisan crowd. The Ruskies are only at this tournament by default (both Spain AND Portugal fielded ineligible players in qualifying) and looked reassuringly village in their last warm-up match against club side Connacht in Moscow 10 days ago (trust me, I was at the stadium…).
I can’t see anything other than a dominant win for the Cherry Blossoms and a flying start to this World Cup. Bring it on.
Prediction - Japan by 30