As we approach the final rounds of the 2019 Six Nations, thoughts inevitably begin to turn towards the World Cup.
Since the beginning of the tournament, and in light of strong performances from England and Wales, ticket sales for their respective matches have rocketed. In fact, more than 100,000 World Cup tickets have been sold to supporters from the UK and Ireland, the highest percentage of tickets purchased by international supporters.
So, as we head closer to Japan, we look at how the home nations are looking this far into the tournament and how they may fare on the biggest stage later this year.
So far, England look a drastically different team to the one that played in 2018. A decisive win over Ireland, currently ranked second in the world, has helped to boost the confidence in the team and the confidence of the fans who were doubting Eddie Jones’ leadership.
However, their loss at the Principality Stadium showed that the team still needs to develop alternative strategies when their signature style of play is shut down by the opposition, a valuable lesson as they begin to think about their World Cup campaign.
Back in 2003 when England won the World Cup, they went into the tournament after one of their most dominant performance at the Six Nations, sealing a Grand Slam with a massive 127 points difference. However, in 2007 when they lost to South Africa in the final, they had only managed third place.
This year the Grand Slam is out of reach, but England are still capable of winning the championship depending on their next two games and how Wales fare against Scotland and Ireland.
Still, with their impressive performance in the Quilter Internationals, including a narrow loss to New Zealand, stacked with their recent wins, England have positioned themselves as one of the favourites heading to Japan.
Many analysts had claimed Wales to be the dark horses for the Six Nations this year, highlighting their unbeaten streak and Warren Gatland’s final year as coach. Their predictions could well come to fruition as Wales are currently the only side still capable of the Grand Slam after wins against France, Italy and England.
Gatland has said on many occasions that his team has forgotten how to lose and with a record 12th straight Test win, the voices of doubt are getting quieter. Not that Wales are over the line just yet, with games against Scotland and Ireland still to come, the tournament is still very much to play for.
Wales’ best World Cup performance came in 1987, where they managed to reach the semi-finals, also beating Australia in the third-place play-off. Surprisingly, that year they came fourth in the Five Nations, losing all but one of their games.
Wales have been absent from talk of World Cup favourites for Japan, and their past performances against the All Blacks may have something to do with that. Since their historic 13-8 win in Cardiff in 1953, Wales have not beaten the All Blacks in 29 Tests. Despite their Six Nations results so far, performances have been slightly inconsistent and Gatland will want to address that if they are to build on their recent winning streak.
There was a lot of hype surrounding this Irish team going into the Six Nations, following last year’s Grand Slam and historic wins against New Zealand both home and away. Many thought Ireland to be second favourites to lift the World Cup after New Zealand but expectations may now be tempered slightly after losing to England in the opening round. Since then Ireland have returned to their winning ways but with stumbling performances, their confidence seemingly affected after a disappointing first game.
They will face France next and an unbeaten Wales the week after. Joe Schmidt will have focused on learning from their mistakes in the first three fixtures, especially their disappointing performance against Italy, where at half-time they were behind.
Ireland have played in all eight of the World Cups, reaching the quarter-finals all but two times, but are yet to reach a semi-final. Before the last World Cup, Ireland had clinched a victory in the Six Nations but lost to Argentina in the quarter finals at the Millennium Stadium later that year.
If Ireland progress from their World Cup pool in Japan they will likely face either New Zealand or South Africa for their chance to make history and reach the semis, a daunting prospect but one they know they are capable of.
Last year Scotland came third in the table, a placing they have not beaten since winning the Five Nations in 1999. This year, however, Scotland’s chance of beating that performance appears to be diminishing, a sole win against Italy and losses against Ireland and France, with games against Wales and England still to come.
The 27-10 loss to France would have been a bitter pill to swallow for Gregor Townsend, but there is a ray of light in the reappearance of recently absent players including star stand-off Finn Russell.
Scotland’s best finish in the World Cup was finishing fourth in 1991, where they lost to England at Murrayfield. Despite winning the Grand Slam the year before, that season they came third in the Five Nations, with England winning the championship.
Scotland will face Ireland, Japan, Russia and Samoa in their World Cup pool, and will have to improve upon their recent performances if they want to progress past the knockout rounds.
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