Five things I wouldn’t bet against at RWC 2019

Drop goals will be back in fashion

Much like double denim, drop goals are ignored and then make a brief comeback for six weeks every four years. Drop goals are vital in knockout rugby and this year’s Rugby World Cup will be no different. As a rule, drop goals are viewed as a high-risk, low-return in rugby. It’s arguably the most difficult kick to execute and if you miss, the opposition has the chance to clear the ball 60m upfield. But in the final stages of the RWC, they become vital. During the final rounds of the competition, defensive lines become even tighter and more aggressive. Many teams would actually rather play without the ball during knockout rugby, meaning that try scoring opportunities are limited. In a tight low scoring game where few seven pointers are available, a three-point drop goal increases in value and upgrades from a high-risk, low-reward option, to a high-risk, high-reward option. Owen Farrell, Jonathan Sexton, Dan Biggar and Handre Pollard will be the leading exponents.

 

Weather could change everything

The weather has always been an integral part of rugby. Temperature, rain and wind mean that each game is unique, and few tier one test matches are a given. But during this Rugby World Cup, the weather could have an even bigger impact. High temperatures and humidity mean that heavy storms are a regular occurrence at this time of the year in Japan. And should a game be unable to be played due to the conditions, the match won’t be replayed but declared a draw. It could result in a minnow earning a draw against one of the Blue Fin Tunas without even lacing up a boot. The impact could be massive and could drastically change who makes it out from the groups. Unlike cricket, the weather has never really been able to dictate an outcome in rugby – it will be interesting to see how it pans out.

David Pocock has still got it

David Pocock may not have played much rugby this season, but do not rule him out when it comes to having an impact at this year’s RWC. He still remains the best ‘jackaler’ in the game and if recent training photos are anything to go by, he is in the best shape of his life – he currently contains less fat that a yoghurt. Whilst Michael Hooper has ensured that the Wallabies have remained competitive in Pocock’s absence, they aren’t the same team without him. The Wallabies rely on a fast ruck ball to feed their backline and without the Pocock and Hooper double act, they haven’t been as effective at the breakdown. Keep an eye on the Wallabies v Wales fixture. There, we could see two backrows selecting two out-and-out ‘fetchers’, which will deliver a game tempo similar to Dutch techno.

 

Never bet against Alun-Wyn Jones

Alun-Wyn Jones is playing the best rugby of his life. Which is a remarkable statement given the level that he consistently plays at. He simply doesn’t do bad games. Even when he plays badly, by his standards, he’s an 8/10 ten player. His work rate is remarkable, arguably the best in the world - bettered only by a handful of hardened South American mules. But by far his most important role is his leadership. If he says something, you do it, safe in the knowledge that he will also be doing it – and doing it better than you. There isn’t a more important player in the Welsh squad than AWJ and after this RWC, it may be that there has been no more important player ever in Welsh rugby.

 

High tackles will level the playing field

Not since Boris Johnson knocked over a ten-year-old boy will tackling receive such scrutiny in Japan. High tackles will be genuinely game changing at this RWC and could have a massive impact on the results. Whilst rugby has long conquered the tip tackle, which first came to prominence with Sam Warburton’s tip tackle in 2011, what consistently deserves a yellow or red card remains a grey area. The result is that many players and referees are still unsure of each other and the outcomes remain unclear. The most likely to suffer are props and second rows, those players who protect the ruck and need to make tackles where the ball carrier’s body height is dropping rapidly as they carry into contact. Rightly or wrongly, cards could well dictate who wins the cup.

@thepaulwilliams