What The Latest Rugby Championship is Telling Us about Next Years World Cup
The recent Rugby Championship was a vital testing ground ahead of the World Cup, which is now less than a year away.
New Zealand topped the pile after winning five of their six matches in the competition, losing only to South Africa in a 34–36 thriller at the Westpac Stadium, Wellington, last month.
But while it was a good campaign for the All Blacks, the opposite was the case for Australia who had to beat Argentina in their last match to avoid finishing at the bottom of the table.
Just two wins in their six Rugby Championship matches was a poor return for the Wallabies, piling the pressure on coach Michael Cheika.
Although Cheika led Australia to the final of the last World Cup, it has been suggested there should be a change in management before the 2019 tournament, which is being held in Japan.
With three wins and three losses it was a mixed campaign for South Africa, while Argentina made a big improvement on their performance in the 2017 Rugby Championship.
But how are these four nations shaping up ahead of Japan 2019? Let's take a look.
New Zealand the clear favourites
Having won each of the last two Rugby World Cups, New Zealand have to be the team to beat and that is how the bookmakers also see it as they are at the top of the betting odds.
With less than 12 months to go before the big kick-off - Japan take on Russia in the opening match on September 20, 2019 - New Zealand can be backed at around the 6/5 mark.
The All Blacks were comfortable winners against Australia at Twickenham back in 2015's final and it makes a lot of sense for them to be the front-runners again. New Zealand start their title defence with a blockbuster clash against South Africa, with that match to be played at the International Stadium in Yokohama.
Italy and Namibia are also in the same pool as New Zealand, along with a qualifier that is yet to be decided. With talent running deep throughout the squad, the All Blacks are strong favourites.
There were some chinks in their armour on show at the Rugby Championship, though, as they were narrowly beaten by South Africa and also conceded 24 points at home to Argentina.
But they ended the tournament on a high by getting revenge over South Africa, winning 30–32 in Pretoria just a couple of weeks ago.
South Africa possible dark horses for RWC glory
Although New Zealand look a solid bet to win a third consecutive Rugby World Cup title, South Africa are perhaps the most tempting of the other teams at around the 10/1 mark.
Proving they can beat New Zealand during the Rugby Championship was an important step for South Africa, even if they did ultimately finish second in the final table behind the All Blacks.
Prior to New Zealand's triumphs at both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, South Africa were the last team to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy, so they certainly have the heritage required.
An upcoming tour will be a chance for South Africa to test out some of their fringe players, with time running out before coach Rassie Erasmus has to start thinking about his final selection.
As their matches do not fall inside an international window, clubs do not have to release their players and some of the Springboks' key men including Willie le Roux, Franco Mostert, Francois Louw and Vincent Koch will likely be absent as a result.
Australia lurching towards Cheika crisis
Australia coach Cheika led the Wallabies to the final of the World Cup in 2015, but he might not even get the chance to lead the team to Japan next year.
His team's form has slipped badly over the last couple of years and the Rugby Championship might just have been the final straw had Australia lost their closing match against Argentina.
Defeat in that game would have left Australia rock bottom of the table and leaving Cheika almost certainly in an untenable position.
Nevertheless, Australia's poor results, including series defeats against both Ireland and England at home, have had a dramatic impact on their chances of winning the Rugby World Cup.
According to AustralianCasinoClub.com the odds of Australia have dropped to around the 14/1 mark, making them the fifth favourites to win next year's tournament.
With the Wallabies sandwiched between South Africa and Wales in the odds, it is clear their below-par performances at the Rugby Championship have affected their World Cup hopes.
Wales, Fiji and Uruguay were among Australia's group stage opponents in 2015 and they will be again next year.
Argentina hoping to make progress
The Pumas have been to the quarter-finals of the World Cup on a number of occasions but it feels unlikely that they could be a serious contender to triumph at Japan 2019.
A fourth place finish at the 2015 tournament, though, showed Argentina can compete on the biggest of stages, although they were soundly beaten by Australia in the semi-finals.
Mario Ledesma's side can call upon the excellent fly-half Nicolas Sanchez, who was the top scorer during the course of the 2014 Rugby Championship. He has also scored more points for Argentina than any other player in the history of their national rugby team.
Argentina have, however, been given a tough draw as they are in the same pool as both England and France, along with Tonga and the United States.
It is not impossible that they emerge from the pool again, but Ledesma will probably need Sanchez, who was inspirational in their run at the 2015 World Cup, to be at his best.
New Zealand are the team to beat without a shadow of a doubt, but South Africa showed at the Rugby Championship that it can be done even when nobody appears to expect it to happen.
Australia and Argentina may travel to Japan more in hope than expectation, but the tournament tends to throw up surprise results and they could just be the sides dishing them out next year.
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