5 Bold Predictions for the 2019 Rugby World Cup
Fresh after securing a second successive Rugby World Cup crown, questions are being raised as to whether New Zealand can make it three in a row at Japan 2019.
Japan will open its doors to the planet in four years time as the country becomes the first Asian nation to host a Rugby World Cup, and the pressure is high following the team's hugely successful 2015 competition.
Will the Cherry Blossoms be able to maintain their 2015 surge in front of a home audience? Can the All Blacks complete a hat-trick of triumphs? Which players can we expect to see flourish at the next tournament?
We predict the outcome of all those questions and more.
1. Hosts Japan to Make Historic Run
The cause of the underdog looked alive and well this year when, on the second day of the Rugby World Cup, Japan defeated South Africa 34-32 in what was surely one of the biggest upsets in the sport's history.
Clearly boosted by that victory, Japan started clawing in national attention like never before. Rugby World's Owain Jones revealed their clash against Samoa attracted a magnificent 25 million television viewers back home.
That bodes well for the nation's rugby legacy in the decades to come, but it's sure to also have a shorter-term impact, particularly as the tournament makes its way to their gates in 2019.
Eddie Jones may be departing as coach, but the blueprint is in place for Japan to build on an already successful structure and make the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time at the next contest.
Of course, the bulk of those hopes will depend on where they're seeded and whom they draw in their pool, but without that knowledge at our disposal, we're willing to take a chance on the Cherry Blossoms' evolution.
2. Wales Break Up Southern-Hemisphere Tyranny
"Tyranny" may be a strong word to describe the southern hemisphere's hold over international rugby union of late, but there's no denying the vice-like grip with which its teams currently rule the sport.
Of all the northern-hemisphere teams preparing for 2019, Warren Gatland's Wales stand the best shot of breaking up the party after being dealt enough injury misfortune this year to last a decade.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny was one of those sidelined for the recently concluded World Cup, but per the official Six Nations website, he believes their show of depth en route to the quarter-finals was a sign of strength:
While Wales didn't go as far as we had hoped, I think the World Cup showed us that the future of Welsh rugby is in great shape. We have shown in this World Cup how much strength and depth we have in this squad and we have shown how we can compete with the best no matter what.
The focus will now turn to the RBS 6 Nations and doing well there and there is no reason, from what we saw in the World Cup, that we can't do that. The injuries the Wales team have had were obviously disappointing, but the players that have come in for them did a fantastic job and put in unbelievable shifts.
It goes to show what strength in depth there is in Welsh rugby and that is a great thing for us to have because competition for places is what keeps players on their toes and constantly at the top of their game—it is an exciting future for rugby in Wales.
The nation is sure to bounce back with a fit squad in 2016, and Jeremy Fullam of Balls.ie recently reported we're likely to see seeding for Japan 2019 take place next year to avoid a ticketing conflict with the 2020 Olympics, which are set to be held in Tokyo.
That means Wales can hope to surge up the World Rugby rankings and claim a superior seed, boosting their chances of preventing another all-southern-hemisphere semi-final lineup.
Ireland have a bright future under Joe Schmidt, as do Scotland with Vern Cotter at their helm, but Gatland is the most settled coach in Europe. That stability should stand Wales in good stead for a 2019 challenge.
3. South Africa Clinch Trophy with Poetic Revenge
After crumbling to the Cherry Blossoms in arguably the biggest Rugby World Cup upset ever earlier this year, doesn't it only seem fate-like that South Africa should storm back to grab redemption on Japanese soil in 2019?
The South African Rugby Union (SARU) has yet to make a call on the future of coach Heyneke Meyer, per Stuff.co.nz, but despite a slow start in England, the Springboks displayed some very promising rugby en route to the semi-finals.
What's perhaps most hopeful about that is the best seemed to come from their youngsters, the emerging stars of tomorrow. Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende could form a powerful centre partnership, while Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth could be the world's best second-row unit come 2019. Twenty-one-year-old Handre Pollard is a Player of the Year contender in the making.
The Springboks will say their goodbyes to a host of veterans, with Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger a few of those who won't be fighting in four years time.
Nevertheless, those names were all present when South Africa went through a glum patch earlier this year without much response, so perhaps the time to introduce a new dynasty is appropriate.
4. Tevita Li to Finish as Top Try-Scorer
There has never been a Rugby World Cup that didn't see a winger finish as the top try-scorer, and 2015 was no different, as New Zealand's Julian Savea ravaged his way to a joint-record eight in England, tying Jonah Lomu and Bryan Habana's hauls from 1999 and 2007 respectively.
And while we may not think the All Blacks will claim the top prize, we are predicting a certain New Zealand young gun will carry on the trend in Japan, with Blues starlet Tevita Li following in Savea's footsteps.
Along with fellow Junior World Cup winner Akira Ioane, Li is one of New Zealand's biggest prospects, already set to make strides in Super Rugby and with four years to stake his claim for a World Cup debut.
The 20-year-old has something of Savea about him—except he's probably quicker—and the fact he's causing more havoc at this age than his compatriot was spells out a massive future.
No nation has produced as many Rugby World Cup top try-scorers as New Zealand (five, seven if including joint-awards) and Li has the potential to be next in line capitalising on their supreme playmaking.
All he needs to do between now and then is earn his first New Zealand caps, dethrone one of Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder or Waisake Naholo and dazzle in Japan. No problem.
5. Land of the Rising Sun Lays on a Visual Feast
The rugby will of course be the biggest attraction on offer in Japan, but the cultural themes likely to arise from the occasion will be a welcome side attraction to all those taking in the Rugby World Cup in 2019.
Each tournament does its bit to put a spin on the World Cup theme, but in the land of anime and samurai lore, one can expect the first Asian host to go above and beyond when it comes to branding.
British broadcaster ITV had songstress Paloma Faith and "World as Union" for its slogan, but it would be nice to see some more host-specific themes brought to life in four years' time.