The Rugby World Cup is fast approaching and the teams will be looking to lay down a marker in their warm-up matches.
England will be eager to gain revenge over Wales – who pipped them to the Six Nations title – when they face off on Sunday.
Favourites New Zealand take on Australia in the Rugby Championship on Saturday and they still remain the side to be feared.
Chinks in All Blacks armour?
The All Blacks have produced a compelling brand of rugby and four years ago, they became the first team to retain their title. It therefore comes as little surprise that the world No 1 ranked side are trading at a short price with the Betfair Exchange to lift the World Cup at [2.30]. Breaking down the stats makes for impressive reading as New Zealand have averaged over six tries per match in World Cup history and they boast an overall 88 per cent win record.
While they have been effective at using their scrum to launch attacks, there has been one obvious flaw in Steve Hansen's side; they haven't enjoyed as much success in scoring off set-piece possession and have struggled sometimes for rhythm in games. The All Blacks have been experimenting with two playmakers and they have little room for error at the World Cup. New Zealand have been renowned for the athleticism and physicality of their pack, so they will have to make sure this stands up to the test.
Can resurgent Springboks spring surprise?
It doesn't seem that long ago that South Africa were in the doldrums and the end of 2016 brought a nadir when they lost to Italy. But since Rassie Erasmus replaced Allister Coetzee in March 2018, there has been an upturn in performances and results. A squad that had lots of experience has been blended with youth and they will be hoping to bring their uncompromising physicality to the table in Japan.
The Springboks have been backed at [7.40] to be crowned World Cup winners for the first time since 1995. If anything, this tournament feels like a staging post for their future ambitions. Arguably, Erasmus has too many options and trimming his squad could prove to be quite challenging.
Ahead of his side's final Rugby Championship fixture against Argentina, he said: “There are 36 to 38 players in our camp and in our plans at this stage.
“It'll be tough for me personally because there are going to be six or seven guys who'll fall out of the squad and I'm already worried about that.
“We are lucky there are few injuries at this stage‚ and hopefully it will stay that way. Some guys will drop out‚ which is tough‚ but we will worry about that after the game at Loftus.”
Will England fall short again?
England had a 2018 to forget and they suffered disappointment in the Six Nations when they were pipped to the title by Wales. Of course, Eddie Jones and his men have had time to regroup and gather their thoughts ahead of the World Cup. Against the bigger sides, they have come unstuck. New Zealand has been a case in point as England have only defeated the All Blacks once since 2003, so arguably they need to adopt a different mindset.
Topping the group is an eminently achievable target for the Lions and they are priced at [6.60] to go all the way in Japan. One potential problem for Jones is that he still hasn't worked out the identity of his preferred back up to Ben Young. Will Heinz has been included in the World Cup squad – his first England call up since 2017 – but Jones hasn't got long to address positional issues.
Are Wales ready for an assault?
Under Warren Gatland, Wales have made huge strides. From being crowned Grand Slam champions at the Six Nations to climbing up to number two in the world rankings, things are looking up. At present, Gatland's men have been offered odds of [9.80] to lift the World Cup. Gatland has some issues to deal with ahead of their clash with England such as whether his side should go full throttle.
Aside from that, one big worry is who will replace Taulupe Faletau as he has been ruled out of the World Cup with a collarbone injury and his presence will be sorely missed. And of course, Alun Wyn Jones can't expect to start every game so there are some selection questions for Gatland to answer.
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