England join All Blacks and South Africa as Rugby World Cup's top contenders - Matt Dawson column

Matt Dawson
2019 Rugby World Cup
Hosts: Japan Dates: 20 September - 2 November
Coverage: Full commentary on every game across BBC Radio 5 Live and Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, plus text updates on the BBC Sport website and app.

Shortly before 11:00 BST on Saturday, 2 November, we will have the answers.

The identity of the skipper beneath the William Webb Ellis trophy and cloud of tickertape in Yokohama.

The destinations of the flights that have headed home from Japan with indecent haste.

The men who will have become the sport's new faces for the sporting mainstream.

Rugby World Cup
The Williams Webb Ellis Trophy is centre of attention in Tokyo

But, for now, before Japan and Russia meet in the tournament's first game, the Rugby World Cup is only posing questions.

Former England scrum-half Matt Dawson, Rugby World Cup winner in 2003, is answering them in the first of his BBC Sport columns during the tournament.

Which of the home nations will fare best?

Gregor Townsend, Eddie Jones, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmid
Gregor Townsend, Eddie Jones, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt are each trying to mastermind their side's path to the final

The closer we get to the tournament, the more I fancy England. They are in a trio of top-tier contenders with New Zealand and South Africa.

They have a fantastic squad with terrific strength in depth across every position. What is especially striking is their raft of heavy-duty ball-carriers that will get them across the gainline and give them a foothold in any game.

Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga's power can set up wave after wave of attack.

The critical question will come when they come up against a team that can physically match them or force them to change strategy on the hoof.

Are their key leaders - the number eight and half-backs - able to huddle together and completely change direction tactically?

Too many times we have seen this England side struggle to put the opposition away or close out the game.

Scotland almost beat England from 31-0 down in March. Wales came back from seven points down at half-time to win in February. New Zealand did the same from 15 points back in November.

They will need to be clinical in big games if they are to go all the way.

Ireland come into the tournament as the best team in the world in the rankings, but with the likelihood of either New Zealand or South Africa in the last eight, I don't think they will make the semi-finals.

They were playing scintillating rugby between a year and 18 months ago, driven in a large part by hooker Rory Best, scrum-half Conor Murray and fly-half Jonny Sexton.

Stuat McInally
Scotland and Stuart McInally retained the Calcutta Cup in March despite trailing 31-0 to England in the first half

For whatever reason, those three are not now firing on all cylinders and their set-piece is wobbling too. Secure ball from line-out or scrum is vital for setting the foundation of how you want to play.

They will get out of their group and perhaps the knock-out stage big-game pedigree that the Irish provinces have shown in European competition will lift them, but they are not in my top three or four sides to win the tournament.

Scotland, who share their group with Ireland, Japan, Samoa, Russia, will fancy their chances of beating Ireland on the opening weekend and topping Pool A.

They will feel they have an inventive, ambitious half-back pairing, a mobile pack and plenty of experience upsetting the odds.

Whether that is enough to get them any further than the last eight though...

Wales are intriguing.

Their main issue will be around their strength in depth.

For one-off games, where everyone is fit, they are going to challenge anyone.

Media playback is not supported on this device

Wales players visit a local school in Japan ahead of the Rugby World Cup

They have a clutch of world-class players - Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams - who are sensational and a back row that, on their day, can be as physical as anyone in the world.

On the touchlines they have one of the shrewdest coaching set-ups around with Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards.

I worked with them during my time with Wasps and there are none better at tailoring a specific gameplan to beat a specific opposition. They are adept at doing so very quickly as well, which is useful in tournament rugby.

One of their challenges will be protecting their first-choice starting line-up through a pool campaign. They have full-bore Tests against Fiji and Australia, which they will be desperate to win for a better quarter-final draw.

Are the All Blacks wobbling on their throne?

They certainly don't have a Dan Carter and Richie McCaw but they have experience of winning this tournament, a method of playing and a culture that is among the best in the world.

They have lost a few matches recently, but their response against Australia and Tonga in their last couple of matches suggested they are locked into World Cup mode.

If I had to pick one team to win it, they would still be my selection. They have a combination of firepower, strength in depth and experience that is a very potent mix.

What is behind the Springboks' resurgence?

When Allister Coetzee left his post as South Africa coach in February 2018, they had won only 11 of their previous 25 Tests and slipped to sixth in the world rankings.

Rassie Erasmus with his South Africa number eight Duane Vermeulen and captain Siya Kolisi
Rassie Erasmus (centre) with his South Africa number eight Duane Vermeulen and prop Tendai Mtawarira (right)

But Rassie Erasmus has come in and shaken up the politics around the team, refocusing on winning and getting rid of the ban of overseas-based players.

He retired as a player in 2003 and has coached ever since, and I think he retains that empathy with the dressing room.

The style of game that Erasmus instilled during his year at Munster fits well with the South African psyche - expansive when it needs to be but with an attritional edge.

Faf de Klerk is a superbly busy, incisive scrum-half, but his distinctive style of play will lead to other teams targeting him during this tournament. He has certain tendencies that he repeats.

Their novelty has been part of what has made him effective so far, but there will be back rows studying the video tapes and laying some traps for him. It could be a tough tournament for him.

If Erasmus can help him through, keep a lid on the Springboks discipline and build momentum through the campaign, they are going to take some stopping.

Who are the next generation of superstars who will emerge from the tournament?

After England's disappointing campaign in 2015, this could be the World Cup where fly-half Owen Farrell grabs his chance to prove himself as a global star.

Cokanasiga could be a total superstar for England if he gets a chance to show what he can do on the wing.

Richie Mo'unga and Sevu Reece
Mo'unga (left) and Reece (right) are two of the All Blacks' emerging talents

Richie Mo'unga has only made five starts for the All Blacks, but seems set to start at fly-half for the defending champions. My former half-back partner and fellow 5 Live analyst Paul Grayson rates him really highly. He has superb individual skills, great vision, better kicking stats than team-mate Beauden Barrett and he is an unselfish team player as well.

New Zealand have a happy habit of uncovering a wing just before a major tournament or series.

Nehe Milner-Skudder lit up the 2015 World Cup, Sitiveni Sivivatu was superb in the series win over the Lions in 2005, Joe Rokocoko made his debut just four months before the 2003 World Cup.

Sevu Reece and George Bridge are both inexperienced wings who could be primed to do something similar.

Is hosting the tournament in Japan a gamble for World Rugby?

To be honest, I don't see a downside. I think it is a great decision.

Schoolchildren perform a haka for the All Blacks
Schoolchildren perform a haka for the All Blacks in Kashiwa

The matches are not in prime kick-off times for some of the big television markets, but they are breakfast and brunch time here in Europe and people's schedules will fit around it fine.

You can see the enthusiasm on the ground. Fifteen thousand people turned out to see Wales train and a high proportion of the tickets have been sold. It has been embraced by the host nation and the prospect of going somewhere new like that excites fans from overseas.

If anything I think that the policy of taking the tournament to new territory to try and break new ground for the sport will be repeated.

The United States has to be on World Rugby's hit list. Perhaps a South American-based tournament could be after that.

Matt Dawson was speaking to BBC Sport's Mike Henson.

Top Stories