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Another Christmas has passed by, and as we waddle in our houses between the fridge and the televisions, it’s time to get excited, because 2019 promises to be the greatest year in international history.
As uninspiring as the Wallabies were in 2018, other teams from around the globe stepped up their performances. From Ireland putting a marker down against the All Blacks to Fiji knocking off the French, international rugby is in a golden era of competitiveness.
So instead of pondering new year resolutions that won’t be kept beyond Easter, let’s count down to 2019 and the delights the rugby calendar will bring us.
1 February to 16 March
Right around the time your intensive exercise program is dialling back to moderate, the Six Nations Championship will be here. Rugby followers in the Southern Hemisphere may be shaking their heads right now – boring, drab, miserable, uninspiring, grinding, ugly, yawn-fest, whistle-happy and dropkick overload are words often associated with the Northern Hemisphere’s showcase tournament. Not this year, though.
Ireland will go in favourites as defending champions. The Irish kick off their campaign with a massive home game against the English on 2 February, a match that could decide the championship on the sport.
Under Joe Schmidt the Irish play an exciting brand of rugby. They can adapt their game plan when needed, and that includes playing some glorious running rugby. They can also grind out victories when they need to.
The match against the All Blacks last year was a quality test match. It was played at pace despite the low scoreline and showed what Ireland can produce.
Apart from Ireland, both England and Wales will be disappointed if they are not crowned Six Nations champions in 2019. Wales had an excellent undefeated autumn featuring a first victory against the Wallabies in a decade.
England look to be moving forward again under Eddie Jones, with a narrow loss against the All Blacks and a commanding victory against the Wallabies recently. Even Scotland will fancy their chances of snaffling some wins. Throw in the unpredictability of the French and that is one hell of a rugby tournament. Oh, plus there’s Italy.
20 July to 17 August
A shortened version of the regular tournament will take place thanks to the timing of the Rugby World Cup. The shortened format will add extra importance to each match, and intrigue is added by the fact the World Cup is only months away.
The most interesting part of this tournament for many observers will be the coaches and what value they put on winning the trophy. Do they show their hands and do everything they can to win? Or do they hold back some of their tactics, structures and systems for the World Cup and run the risk of losing?
It will be fascinating to watch how the new Wallabies coaching structure works, how team selections look and, most importantly, whether the changes have had an impact on the national side.
Will the South Africans continue to improve under Rassie Erasmus after a solid 2018? What will Steve Hansen do with the All Blacks tactics and team selections? Will it be a Beauden Barrett at No.10 and Damian McKenzie at No.15 or the more traditional Barrett and Ben Smith combination? There are so many questions to be answered in another cracking tournament.
20 September to 2 November
The 2019 Rugby World Cup is shaping up to be the tightest and most competitive ever. The first game sees hosts Japan play Russia on Friday, 20 September. However, the next day is when the action really starts – the Wallabies take on Fiji, France play Argentina and South Africa lock horns with the All Blacks with a day of pool games not seen for many editions of international rugby’s premier competition.
The competition comprises four pools, each consisting of five teams. The top two make it through to the quarter-finals.
This group should see Ireland and Scotland qualify, though Japan and Samoa will be eying off the Scottish.
South Africa and New Zealand will qualify comfortably, but in what order?
England and France will reach the last eight, though Argentina will be hoping they can maintain their proud world cup record.
Wales and Australia should make it through, with only Fiji a realistic chance of providing an upset.
Once the tournament reaches the quarter-finals each team will genuinely believe they can make the big dance. This is why 2019 is shaping to be the greatest in history.
To get to a world cup in which any of the eight teams can beat any of the others on their day is fantastic. There are no certainties once a team makes the quarter-final stage. A couple of upset results are almost a certainty.
Will the All Blacks make history and complete their hat-trick? Will the Wallabies hit tournament mode and march to the final? Will the Irish cope with the pressure and expectation? Will South Africa get the job done? There will be so many wonderful games and so many memorable moments from this world cup.
No bloody idea.
What a magnificent year of rugby to look forward to. Surely 2019 be the best ever.