It is little surprise to see powerhouse New Zealand enter the Rugby World Cup as pre-tournament favorite.
The two-time defending champion remains the most fearsome side in world rugby and only the brave would bet against the All Blacks winning an unprecedented third straight trophy.
But the gulf between New Zealand and the chasing pack has been closed significantly, with Ireland starting the tournament as the No. 1-ranked side.
With that in mind, three Omnisport writers give their thoughts on who will triumph in Japan, who may upset the odds and the player to watch throughout the tournament.
Winner: New Zealand
The All Blacks may not have the same air of invincibility they once held but it will still take an off day from Steve Hansen’s men and a top performance from the other contenders to deny New Zealand a third straight title. Rare blips, such as the loss to Australia and draw with South Africa in the Rugby Championship, will only galvanize this scarily talented squad, which has so much depth the likes of Owen Franks and Ngani Laumape did not even make the plane. England, Ireland, Wales and South Africa will all feel they can spring an upset, but I just don’t see anyone dethroning the All Blacks.
It seems pretty absurd that a proud rugby nation such as Australia should be considered as an outsider, but that is the position Michael Cheika’s side finds itself in. Inconsistent form over the past few years has seen the Wallabies lose some of their fear factor. You should always beware the wounded animal, though, and Australia really knows how to turn it on at the World Cup. Twice champions of the world and twice runners-up, including four years ago when again they flew somewhat under the radar to make the final, discount the Aussies at your peril.
WORLD CUP FOCUS | Adam Ashley-Cooper, Wallabies
Adam Ashley-Cooper is the oldest player ever selected by the Wallabies for a World Cup. With three tries in Super Rugby 2019 for the Waratahs we look forward to seeing that vintage dive in Japan!#RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/2g0yo27BqQ
— Super Rugby/TRC (@SuperRugby) September 6, 2019
Player to watch: Sevu Reece
Exciting, electric, powerhouse New Zealand wingers go hand-in-hand with the World Cup, and Sevu Reece is the next off the seemingly never-ending production line. He only made his Super Rugby debut for Crusaders in March, but finished the season as top try scorer with 15. At 22, Reece still has plenty of time on his hands, but he can already make a name for himself on the world stage.
Winner: South Africa
New Zealand will take some stopping in its bid to do what has never been done before, but South Africa look well-equipped to match the All Blacks’ record of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup three times. The Springboks have experienced a renaissance under Rassie Erasmus, with a formidable pack mixed with flair, and after winning the Rugby Championship in August they can become champions of the world Nov.2 in Yokohama.
Japan stunned South Africa in 2015 and home advantage could inspire Japan to reach the quarterfinals for the first time. Captain and number eight Michael Leitch will drive on Jamie Joseph’s exciting side, which can be a joy to watch with its skill, speed and agility.
Player to watch: Faf de Klerk
Faf de Klerk is not a giant in stature, but the South Africa scrum-half can light up the tournament. The playmaker has played a huge part in the Springboks’ resurgence, pulling the strings and setting the tempo and he can get South Africa ticking on the biggest stage of all.
WORLD CUP FOCUS | Faf de Klerk, Springboks
— Super Rugby/TRC (@SuperRugby) September 12, 2019
Winner: South Africa
The Springboks have come a long way under Erasmus and are unbeaten in 2019. They claimed an impressive draw against the All Blacks in New Zealand in July and went on to seal the Rugby Championship, undoubtedly making them the form team heading to Japan.
The Pumas have not won a Test match since beating Australia, 23-19, in September 2018, but the Jaguares making it all the way to the Super Rugby final this year shows this is a group of players with serious talent. The success of their campaign will likely hinge on their opening match against France at Tokyo Stadium, with England also in Pool C.
WORLD CUP FOCUS | Emiliano Boffelli, Los Pumas
— Super Rugby/TRC (@SuperRugby) September 16, 2019
Player to watch: Peceli Yato
Yato has shown himself to be an accomplished flanker with Clermont Auvergne in the Top 14 in recent seasons; in 2018-19 he scored more tries and made more meters than any other forward in the division. However, with Fiji in a group that includes Australia and Wales, Fiji will likely need to claim a scalp against one of those sides to have a chance of advancing.