All Blacks Flying Lone Southern Hemisphere Flag

World champions.

The Autumn Internationals remain in their early stages but each round of games holds greater importance in 2018. We’re less than a year away from the next Rugby World Cup in Japan so every win is a marker to the rest of the sides while each loss holds far more significance in the run-up to the big tournament.

All pundits are looking to New Zealand to defend their title but based on what we’ve seen so far, the Southern Hemisphere as a whole will be less than dominant.

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Points A’Plenty

No rugby fan would have been surprised to see the All Blacks put 69 points on World Cup hosts Japan at the start of November but few would have expected the Kiwis to concede 31 at the other end of the pitch.

New Zealand’s ability to score so heavily would have sent a warning to the rest of the top sides but Japan remain an emerging nation. Changes were made to personnel but coach Steve Hansen would have been concerned at the number of points conceded at the back. A stiffer test will come in the follow-up game at Twickenham and it’s no coincidence that Hansen has named a stronger starting XV.

Out in Front

New Zealand’s near dominance of the 15 man game leaves the defending champions as clear, Even Money favourites in bet365’s rugby union betting markets for the 2019 World Cup. This particular market has tightened however with Ireland and then England, closing the gap on the leaders in recent weeks.

Southern Hemisphere nations are pushed further down the list with South Africa and Australia starting to drift and beyond that point, there is little hope that, aside from the Irish, there will be a new name on the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2019. Those that set these prices feel that the cup is New Zealand’s to lose but is the tournament as clear cut as they suggest?

Not Infallible

After winning the World Cup in 2015, the All Blacks went on a winning run of ten matches before that sequence was memorably ended by Ireland at Soldier Field in 2016. That 40-29 victory was the first time that the Irish had overcome New Zealand and the result proved that not even the mighty All Blacks are unbeatable.

If we discount the British and Irish Lions tour on the basis that a combined team can legitimately be disregarded, the Kiwis have continued to dominate on the international scene but there have been further reverses at the hands of Australia and South Africa.

In the opening week of the Autumn internationals, England convinced no-one of their World Cup credentials following that 12-11 victory over South Africa. The abrasive Eddie Jones will need a strong performance against the All Blacks and a more positive Six Nations campaign before anyone will get behind the 2003 Champions with any confidence.

Ireland may well be the team to watch and there is that belief that they can win following that triumph on Soldier Field. It really is all up to New Zealand but the next run of games will give us some clear indicators as to whether anyone can mount a serious challenge to the defending champions in Japan.