All roads lead to Japan 2019 but amid the excitement, player welfare issues continue to loom in the background
The sun may rise in the east but in 2019 the rugby union year will set in the Land of the Rising Sun as all roads point to the first World Cup to take place in Asia, in what promises to be the most open, competitive edition in at least a dozen years.
Japan 2019 will be the crescendo to far more than 12 months of preparations, but looking forward, it is clear to see that the Six Nations, club competitions and Rugby Championship are all geared towards the global gathering that kicks off in September and culminates in the 2 November final in Yokohama.
Ireland will start 2019 confident that they will be the side who knocks New Zealand off the perch that they have sat upon for the last eight years, having beaten them twice in two years to prove their World Cup credentials are genuine. Wales, South Africa and even England cannot be ruled out of contention either, with Scotland looking to use this year’s Six Nations to join that group of leading runners and riders.
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But there is plenty of rugby to be played before then, and not least the 20th edition of the Six Nations that begins on the first weekend of February. The tournament may start with a crunch clash in Dublin as England look to gain revenge for their consecutive defeats in 2017 and 2018, but the schedule has provided a finale to relish as Joe Schmidt’s side travel to Cardiff to face a very strong Wales side that – whisper it – may just prove to be a Grand Slam decider.
Should Ireland complete another clean sweep as the bookmakers are backing them to do, they will become the first team to win consecutive Grand Slams since the expansion to six teams, and the list of firsts doesn’t stop there.
Come May, the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals venture once again into uncharted territories as Newcastle’s St James’ Park becomes the first stadium away from Twickenham to host the European finals in England, continuing European Professional Club Rugby’s expansion project after last season’s success in Bilbao.
Saracens, Racing 92, Toulouse and reigning champions Leinster already look the cream of the crop in Europe this season, with all four essentially through to the quarter-finals already to ensure a blockbuster knockout stage that will provide an encapsulating story to runs simultaneously with the Premiership, Pro14 and Top 14 campaigns.
As it is with World Cup years, the summer will be an oddly quiet one, with no summer tours and a shortened Rugby Championship for New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina. But it will lead into two months of build-up towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup, that without doubt will prove to be the pinnacle of the global sporting calendar this year.
But, despite all this to look forward to, there is still plenty to worry about, too.
Next season brings the introduction of the new global calendar that will undoubtedly become a much-discussed topic as 2019 wears on, with players already showing concerns over the 11-month schedule that will soon become the norm. With more time to get their heads around the new demands – and less time to bring any change to it – it is a subject that could come to define 2019 as the issues surrounding player welfare continue to take prominence, particularly given recent events in France and the continued campaign to make rugby as safe as possible without losing the edge that makes the game so special. Evidence shows that matches are more intense than ever, yet with ball-in-play time at a low, collisions and impacts are becoming more and more intense.
One drastic result could be for the rules and regulations of the game to be changed like never before, with the number of players per team, replacements allowed and tackle height limit all up for debate.
Then there’s the future of English club rugby to resolve. CVC Capital Partners’ minority investment, worth a reported £230m and handsome £17m investment for each of the 13 Premiership Rugby stakeholders, could shake up the landscape of the game in England. Premiership ringfencing remains a real possibility in the not-so-distant future, which has the potential to cut off the rest of the nation and escalate professional rugby to a whole new level.
It is sure to be an exciting, unpredictable and potentially gamechanging year in rugby, yet once all the dust settles and 2 November comes about, it will all boil down to the same old formula: two teams, one winner and one world champion standing high and mighty above all others.