Rugby World Cup 2019: All the Favorites Ranked and Format Explained

The ninth edition of the Rugby World Cup begins in Tokyo on Friday, when Japan takes on Russia.

It is the first time the tournament has been held in Asia and the first time it is staged in a country that is not a traditional rugby heartland—England, Wales, New Zealand, France and Australia have all hosted in the past.

The World Cup runs for six weeks and the 48 games will be played across 12 venues, in cities including Tokyo, Sapporo, Fukuoka and Kobe.

The final is scheduled for November 2 at the Yokohama International Stadium, the same venue that hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup Final.

Here's everything you need to know about the format and the favorites for the tournament.

How does the Rugby World Cup work?

The Rugby World Cup comprises 20 teams, divided in four pools of five teams each, who play each other once. The top two teams from each pool progress to the quarterfinals.

The quarterfinals will see the winner of Pool A (which contains Ireland and Scotland) take on the runner-up in Pool B (which contains New Zealand and South Africa), while the winner of Pool B will take on the runner-up in Pool A.

New Zealand, All Blacks
Jordie Barrett, Scott Barrett, Beauden Barrett, Samuel Whitelock and Kieran Read of the All Blacks sing the national anthem ahead of the rugby Test Match between New Zealand and Tonga at FMG Stadium on September 7 in Hamilton, New Zealand. Hannah Peters/Getty

The winner of Pool C (which contains England, France and Argentina) will take on the runner-up of Pool D (which contains Australia and Wales), while the runner-up of Pool C takes on the winner of Pool D.

The winner of the latter game takes on the winner of the quarterfinal between Pool A's winner and Pool B's runner-up in one of the semifinals.

The other semifinal will include two between the winners of Pool B and C and the runners-up of Pool A and D.

Teams are awarded four points for a win, two for a draw and none for a defeat by eight or more points. Teams can earn a bonus point by scoring four tries in a match or losing by fewer than eight points.

If both situations apply, teams receive both bonus points.

Who are the favorites?

At least in the eyes of the bookmakers, New Zealand remains the team to beat.

According to Oddschecker, the All Blacks are 5/4 favorite to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, while South Africa and England follow at 4/1 and 9/2 respectively. For a historical perspective, the below chart from Statista shows the most successful teams in Rugby World Cup history:

Rugby World Cup History

The All Blacks have won the Rugby World Cup three times and became the first team to successfully defend their title four years ago.

Their aura of invincibility, however, has slipped somewhat in the last 12 months. In this year's Rugby Championship—the annual competition that pits New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina against each other—the All Blacks narrowly beat Argentina, drew against South Africa and lost to Australia.

In the last 12 months, the All Blacks have also lost at home to South Africa and away to Ireland, and there's a feeling the three-time champions might not be as unbeatable as they were a year ago.

As ever, New Zealand has to deal with the weight of expectations and coach Steve Hansen, who will step down after the tournament, has made big selection calls.

Veteran prop Owen Franks, versatile flanker Liam Squire and center Ngani Laumape were all left out of the team.

Brodie Retallick, one of the stars of the team, won't play until the quarterfinals as he recovers from an injury, while Ryan Crotty has just returned to action.

Hansen will again turn to the peerless Beauden Barrett and Kieran Read, while relying on a squad that possesses enormous depth.

The All Blacks' biggest test could be their first game, as they take on South Africa on Saturday. After a turbulent spell, the Springboks have enjoyed a remarkable resurgence under coach Rassie Erasmus, winning the Rugby Championship this year.

South Africa, Springboks
Players of South Africa lift the Rugby Championship 2019 Trophy after beating Argentina at Padre Ernesto Martearena Stadium on August 10 in Salta, Argentina. Marcelo Endelli/Getty

The former Munster coach has successfully built a side boasting remarkable depth and a very clear gameplan. While confusion characterized Allister Coetzee's tenure, under Erasmus South Africa has rediscovered its core strengths.

A dominant scrum and a highly physical defense go hand-in-hand with a potent line-out, while Faf de Klerk has developed into a world-class scrum-half.

South Africa finished third four years ago and the Springboks have been tipped as the team to end New Zealand's dominance this year.

England, meanwhile, arrives into the tournament as arguably the strongest of the Northern Hemisphere teams. The only European team to ever win the World Cup, England overcame a difficult 2018 and won on the road against Ireland earlier this year, after narrowly losing to New Zealand.

In Eddie Jones, England has a coach with a rich World Cup pedigree—four years ago the Australian masterminded Japan's shock win over South Africa—and a team still capable of further improvements.

Injuries, however, remain a cause of concern, but the 2003 winners should have just enough depth to cope.

Ireland, Wales and Australia are 13/2, 8/1 and 14/1 outsiders respectively but have all shown to be capable of beating anyone on their day.

Ireland, Wales, Rugby World Cup
Wales' center Jonathan Davies (R) tackles Ireland's center Bundee Aki during the warm-up match between Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on September 7. Paul Faith/AFP/Getty

The former enjoyed a fantastic 2018, winning the Grand Slam—by beating every other team in the Six Nations—and beating the All Blacks, but has struggled to back it up this year.

Ireland lost to England and Wales in the Six Nations and was hammered 57-15 by England in one of the warmup matches. All the same, Joe Schmidt's team arrives into the tournament as the No. 1 ranked side in the world, even though it has never won a knockout game at the World Cup before.

Wales' preparations were dealt a massive blow earlier this week when it emerged that assistant coach Rob Howley was sent home after allegedly breaching World Rugby betting regulations.

Wales' coach Warren Gatland insisted his team tends to be galvanized by adversities, but that principle will be sorely tested in Japan.

At the same time, Wales arrives into the tournament on the back of a Grand Slam and has all it takes to be one of the dark horses at the World Cup.

Australia, who plays Wales in its second game in Pool D, enters the tournament buoyed by beating New Zealand in August and with the knack of raising its performances on the big stage.

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

About the writer

Dan Cancian is currently a reporter for Newsweek based in London, England. Prior to joining Newsweek in January 2018, he was a news and business reporter at International Business Times UK. Dan has also written for The Guardian and The Observer. 

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