With the World Cup imminent, the Herald approached some of the leading rugby journalists from across the globe to get their predictions for the tournament. Will the All Blacks achieve the historical three-peat, which nation is their biggest threat, who will be the biggest letdown in Japan, should we be expecting any major upsets ... and is Sonny Bill Williams really that lucky to be making the trip?
What will be the storyline of the tournament?
Richard Hinds, Australia, ABC:
How the English media can avoid giving Australian coach Eddie Jones any praise for their success or, more likely, hand him total responsibility for their failure.
Nik Simon, England, Mail on Sunday: Is Eddie Jones a ticking time bomb? No one really knows what's going on in his head. If things go well, he'll be first on the knighthood list. If things go wrong, you suspect they'll go wrong with a hell of a loud bang.
Karim Benismail, France, L'Equipe: Will Dr Sherylle Calder, South African vision coach for England, be the first ever to win three World Cups after England (2003) and South Africa (2007). Ask Jonny Wilkinson or Bryan Habana, they are full of praise for her.
Murray Kinsella, Ireland, The42:
Whether Ireland's stutters in the Six Nations and against England are a sign of things to come or blips on the way to something better.
Liam Napier, New Zealand, NZ Herald: The most open World Cup in history. Wouldn't it be superb to see some genuine upsets that really rattle the cage of the established core? Let's hope this tournament lives up to the hype on that front.
Thomas Airey, Samoa, Samoa Observer: Whether the star loosie trio of Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Kieran Read can gel, excel and put the All Blacks in the best possible position to win once more.
Alan Dymock, Scotland, Rugby World magazine: The Bok-Blacks rivalry should be amazing, but as this is repeatedly talked up as the first World Cup in Asia and Japan will be using the "Brighton Miracle" story to market this event, it will be intriguing to see if the hosts can burst through to the quarters for the first time.
Rugby World Cup 2019 all you need to know: Squads, fixtures, times
Rattue: ABs' World Cup holes haven't magically gone away
$771 per minute: England's eye-watering Cup advantage over All Blacks
Pieter Jordaan, South Africa, eNCA: Can the Springboks' rise under Rassie Erasmus take them all the way to the final? Amid increasing economic pressures in South Africa, more top players than ever before are leaving our shores soon. Assembling a settled and confident squad such as this could in future just not be possible.
Simon Thomas, Wales, Wales Online: I'm intrigued to see how the powers-that-be use this tournament to crack down on contact to the head. How far a line will they instruct officials to take?
Your biggest concern about the tournament in Japan?
The favourable time zone means Wallabies games will be shown in prime-time in Australia instead of the less reputationally damaging European timeslot of 2am when only tragics can see them.
England: The damning indictment on our sport is the lack of success for the Pacific Islands. It looks like it's going to be another washout for Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Same old story. If Gus Pichot can't fix it, who can?
France: Weather. Typhoons could set chaos in this season.
Ireland: What to wear. Lots of humidity but not sunny? Nightmare. But on a serious note, red cards could play a big role. The players and coaches have been well warned, to be fair, so the ball is in their court.
Inconsistent refereeing sits top. Off the field, will it be well supported? Will it make a genuine connection with the Japanese people? I've heard a few horror stories about rugby fans attempting to buy tickets so my worry is stadiums will be filled by suits rather than those wishing to truly savour the experience.
Samoa: That of the six teams (New Zealand, Ireland, England, Wales, South Africa, Australia) who have a genuine shot of winning the tournament, a few will drop off because of injuries.
Scotland: On the ground: Will the stadiums have enough beer? Outside Japan and rugby's existing fans: will events catch the imagination of the uninitiated?
South Africa: Undeserved yellow and red cards for dangerous play at the ruck and tackle, not dissimilar to the recent incident involving Scott Barrett. Honest tacklers and cleaners getting pinned when, at times, it's the "victim's" body positioning, just prior to contact, that truly determines the point of impact.
Wales: It's a parochial one. I worry how Wales will fare if they pick up injuries to certain key players like Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Ken Owens and Jonathan Davies.
Who is the most underrated player at the tournament (and why) ...
Sonny Bill Williams. No one in Australia rates him, so he's already better than we think.
England: It felt like the apocalypse had arrived in Wales when Gareth Anscombe was ruled out by injury. He brings a different style, but Dan Biggar has proven time and again that he's the man for the big occasion.
France: The South African wing Cheslin Kolbe. Although brand new at the international level and yet not well settled in the Springboks. Amazing and flabbergasting player who had an awesome season with Stade Toulousain to win the French championship.
Ireland: Sam Cane. He hits like a train. Everyone loves Ardie Savea, with good reason, but Cane is the kind of hard-nosed influence that allows the likes of Savea to thrive.
New Zealand: In Faf de Klerk, Aaron Smith and Conor Murray there are brilliant halfbacks in world rugby right now but France's 22-year-old Antoine Dupont is arguably the most dangerous of them all.
Tusi Pisi, Manu Samoa first-five. Pisi has become almost despised by most Manu fans, I think mainly because he has been there so long with no real successor. At 37, he's still a classy operator and will be key to getting something out of their backline.
Scotland: Wales have now been No 1 in the World Rankings and Alun Wyn Jones is a colossus for them, but Ken Owens is so bloody important to that squad, for several reasons. Everyone should be talking about him.
South Africa: Lood de Jager (South Africa) – Starts off as perhaps fourth in line in the Bok-lock ranks, with Etzebeth, Mostert and Snyman all being such classy competitors. De Jager has been at his peak these past two seasons, only to be injured when test season came along. He's fit again and has the bulldozing size, surprising speed and skill which could see him play an increasingly effective role as the tournament progress.
Wales: Hamish Watson. The Scotland openside flanker doesn't get the widespread praise he deserves. He's like a rubber wrecking ball and so effective at the breakdown.
... and the most overrated?
Beauden Barrett. We're fully expecting to see the performance of a Blues player, not a Hurricane.
England: Kieran Read gets his tires pumped to bursting point because he's the All Blacks captain. That offload in the first Lions test will live long in the memory but Billy Vunipola is far more effective.
France: David Pocock. Unique player, especially at the breakdown area. The Australian loose forward has hardly played at very high intensity for nearly two years. Will he be ready for Japan?
Ireland: This feels a little harsh. If pushed, I'll say France lock Sebastien Vahaamahina, who always seems to give away sloppy penalties when I watch him play. He'll probably win player of the tournament now.
George Ford. Don't see what all the fuss is about with the second-choice English first-five.
Samoa: Jordie Barrett, All Blacks utility back. On paper, he has absolutely everything to be a brilliant rugby player. But not unlike a young Isaia Toeava, I don't think we've ever seen it all come together.
Scotland: It feels sacrilegious to say anything negative about David Pocock and in the past he has been completely unplayable. But if we are looking at current form, he has zilch. November 2018 was the last time he played a test. If he is eventually fit to play a significant part, he will likely make me eat my words. But he has been haunted by a calf ailment.
South Africa: Sam Cane (New Zealand) – Let's not all say "George Ford". Cane's a tough player, a leader and a brave returnee from injury. But I dare say I can name better performers in every category relevant to his positional performance: gain line-carries, tackle count and domination, turnovers etc. Sam Cane? So-so.
Wales: James O'Connor. A frustrating player. So much natural talent and touted as a future world star from a young age, but just hasn't delivered consistently for various reasons.
The All Blacks' biggest weakness is ...
The threat of salmonella from a late-arriving sushi train. It's got South Africa 1995 written all over it!
England: Their front-five without Brodie Retallick. It's like they've lost their magic cape.
France: Brodie Retallick's injury. And the fact they could suffer defeat against South Africa, their first opponent of the tournament and main rival for the title in Japan.
Ireland: Their overthinking of the challenge represented by huge line speed. I hope they don't get too focused on structured ways to beat it and forget about their world-leading catch pass and attacking kicking skills.
New Zealand: Unsettled combinations. In several areas, specifically across the backline, the All Blacks have plenty of depth but many players lacking recent match play and combinations that have not spent enough time together.
First-five if injuries bite hard. We haven't seen those break in case of emergency options TJ Perenara, Jordie Barrett and Ryan Crotty at the highest level, and the players on standby at home aren't particularly inspiring.
Scotland: They are no longer winning tests before the game even kicks off. In 2019, the big rivals are fearless when they face New Zealand. It's not just the Boks and Wallabies either. Teams in the North are emboldened.
South Africa: Unsettled loose trio and midfield combinations. Cane's only played a few matches this year, Savea was almost begrudgingly given a starting spot when it came, Todd's always played a back-up role, and Jacobson's the young add-on. Then there's Crotty's concussion issues and Sonny Bill's shaky form to destabilise the machine.
Wales: Mentally, they might not be quite as certain of themselves as usual having suffered a couple of defeats this year. Plus the Retallick injury situation is a concern.
It could happen ...
The refereeing will be consistent, fair and totally coherent to every coach, player and fan - coinciding with an outbreak of porcine aviation.
England: Australia 142-0 Namibia is the biggest defeat in World Cup history. It's hard to see that record falling in the lukewarm Pool A, but Russia could be on the end of some 100-point spankings. They lost to Jersey, a tier-two Championship side, in their warm-up match.
France: France out of the competition after the pool games for the first time. Such a waste. French Union budget is far more superior than NZ Rugby and we have 360,000 registered players, twice more than New Zealand.
Ireland: Japan could beat Scotland in Pool A. The hosts are a potential threat to Ireland too and it would be amazing for the tournament if they cause a shock.
Fiji could stun Wales or the Wallabies in their group. Despite the vast compromises the Pacific Island nations are forced to make, Fiji appear to be building. They famously upset Wales in the 2007 World Cup, and Japan's hard and fast tracks could again see them spring a surprise.
Samoa: Japan make the quarterfinals. They get better and better every year, and home advantage might just squeeze them in over Scotland.
Scotland: Scotland avenge referee Craig Joubert's howler of 2015 and lay to rest the ghosts of 1991 ... actually, maybe not.
South Africa: All Blacks versus Japan in the quarter-final. In Group A, expect home team Japan to beat Russia and a Samoan team that looks way too vulnerable on paper. Then, in conditions suited to high tempo phase play, Scotland will long for soggy Murrayfield, and lose to Japan as well. After also giving Ireland a fright, Japan will progress as group runners-up and face the winners of Group B – New Zealand, or (god forbid), South Africa.
Wales: You never know, Wales could just win the World Cup. They are the number one team on the planet after all. It could happen.
Who will make the semifinals?
New Zealand v Australia, Wales v Ireland.
England: England, New Zealand, Wales, South Africa.
France: New Zealand, South Africa, England, Wales. But Fiji could be an upset for those last two teams.
Ireland: England v New Zealand, Wales v Ireland.
New Zealand: New Zealand v England, Wales v South Africa.
New Zealand, England, South Africa, Australia.
Scotland: South Africa, New Zealand, England, Wales.
South Africa: England v New Zealand, Australia v South Africa.
Wales: New Zealand, South Africa, England, Wales.
Who will win the Rugby World Cup, and who will be the biggest letdown?
New Zealand will win the World Cup which is simultaneously, for most Australians, also the biggest letdown.
England: I lumped a long £30 on Wales in February but New Zealand are still the team to beat. How they fare post-Steve Hansen is another matter. Ireland peaked too soon so it could be an inglorious farewell for Joe Schmidt.
France: New Zealand, winner. Ireland dropped in quarter-finals.
Ireland: I've had a feeling since early this year that England will win and, based on more recent evidence, the biggest let down will be Argentina.
New Zealand: The All Blacks or Springboks to win it and with Argentina's recent history of fronting at World Cups, I can see France not progressing from their very tough pool which also features England.
Samoa: New Zealand will win, while either Wales or Australia will stutter to second in Pool D before losing their quarter-final.
Scotland: New Zealand should still win it all and hey, wouldn't it be just like France to pick this year to fail to make it past the pool stages for the first time ever?
In a familiar enough time zone, New Zealand to take it, again. After narrowly beating the Springboks in the group stage, superior squad depth will let the All Blacks prevail through the knockout stage, and lead to a repeat win over the Boks in the grand final – but only just. Biggest letdown? Ireland and Wales. Six Nations Grand Slams and such will count for nothing when conditions start rewarding fast southern gameplay, as expected.
Wales: New Zealand to win it. I think Argentina will go out at the group stage.