Humidity to home heroics: five things to look out for at the Rugby World Cup

Ben Ryan
Composite: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian, Getty, AP, Reuters

The phoney war is over and on Friday there will be no more warm-yourself-up-but-nobody else games. The World Cup is upon us and, like the amazing welcome the people of Japan have already given to the teams, it’s worth taking a look at what else we might not have seen before.

1) I think we are going to finish with the All Blacks in the final, so let’s start with Steve Hansen’s men. In my opinion they have the greatest squad depth of any team. They have a two-times World Cup-winning coach. They have played more international games in the last few years in Japan then any of the other top-tier sides. I also think they will lose for the first time in their history in a World Cup pool game when they come up against Rassie Erasmus and his resurgent Springboks.

It’s one of many mandible-descending first-round matches that are going set this competition off like an Osaka-bound bullet train. The Boks have had better preparation in Japan, based in the more humid south and playing their last warm-up games against the hosts. They will hit their straps fast, while New Zealand touched down in Japan later and higher and played their last game in a one-sided affair against Tonga. The All Blacks will recover but I can see South Africa winning that first encounter and topping the group.

2) The No 1 threat to all the teams, especially in the first few weeks won’t be rampaging Pacific Island back rowers or mismanaged breakdowns, but humidity. In a year’s time, the Olympics takes over the country and all those competing nations are already researching how to negate the very real issue of humidity. You can practice with balls soaked in sunscreen or vegetable oil but it won’t stop the same handling issues from causing some spills that could lead to thrills.

The earlier afternoon games staged in the south of the island will be the worst affected and expect to see blue skies and perfect weather from our armchairs but players dropping simple passes. Outcomes could certainly be decided by the galvanic skin responses (sweating, to me and you) of a player not adjusted to the climatic changes in those quite literal pool games early on.

Japan’s captain Michael Leitch works out in the runup to the tournament opener against Russia on Friday. Photograph: AP

3) The home side will not have the same issues. In 2015, they failed to get out of their group but heroically downed South Africa in Brighton. It was a large reason Eddie Jones is now coaching England and Jamie Joseph, the Blossoms’ head coach, could be courted by other top nations in a similar fashion if they manage to best Ireland or Scotland in Pool A. Both should have too much for the hosts, but only just and those games are going to be belters.

4) Fiji are the other team that can cause a real upset. I know they have targeted Australia and the green and gold know that too. Fiji will show their hand in that game and give Wales the shivers in anticipation of that last pool game against the Flying Fijians down in Oita. That shiver could turn into full blown flu for Wales and I truly think that final group game is one Viti could steal from them. Fiji will get better and it will be the worst time to play the team in white as their head of steam could well be glorious.

5) The 1995 Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand was epic on so many levels. Nelson Mandela wearing Pienaar’s No 6 shirt, the enormity of that match and the impact it had on the country. All that might never had happened had the weather had its way in their semi-final against France. A downpour of biblical proportions almost led to a cancelled game and a regulation that would have given Les Bleus the victory. Even at the death Abdel Benazzi, the gigantic French forward, almost nicked it with a desperate dive that those playing alongside him would still claim should have been a try. It wasn’t, the referee Derek Bevan got it spot on and the Boks won 19-15 to reach that amazing finale.

Typhoons could come and a pool game called off, which under the tournament rules equals a 0-0 result. That could have a major effect, but I hope alongside red cards and major injuries, the 2019 tournament is remembered for the light not the dark. If the unbelievable welcome – summed up by 15,000 Japanese people singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in a packed stadium to watch Wales train – is anything to go by, then this World Cup, for all the right reasons, is one none of us will forget in a hurry.