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Way-too-early predictions for Rugby World Cup 2019

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World Cup predictions: Can the All Blacks be stopped? (1:42)

A year out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup, former stars of the game reveal their predictions for the tournament. (1:42)

Is it ever too early to make a prediction? With one year to go until the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Japan, our writers take a look through each of the pools and decide where it will all be won and lost in 2019.

Pool A

Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Samoa, Russia

How are the teams shaping up right now?

Ireland are now again No. 2 on the World Rugby rankings having won 22 of their 31 Tests since Rugby World Cup 2015, including their first ever victory over New Zealand, a Grand Slam in 2018 and a first series victory in Australia. They have legitimate hopes of a deep run in Japan. They have quality and depth in all positions, and serious momentum ahead of November Tests against Argentina and the All Blacks. With all of that, though, comes increased expectations -- and that's something that Ireland often have not coped with.

Scotland will also be expected to progress from Pool A given their upturn in fortunes under Gregor Townsend, whose side pushed (and could have beaten) New Zealand last November and defeated England for the first time in a decade in the 2018 Six Nations; there is a sense the Dark Blues have even more to give, and the next 12 months is about developing promise into results.

Beyond the heavyweights, Pool A features two of the world's favourite giant-killers, with Japan and Samoa often drawing plaudits for their attacking style of play. Both will believe they can beat Scotland if not Ireland, and we need only remember Brighton, Sep. 19, 2015, to recall what can happen if the Brave Blossoms bloom under astute coach Jamie Joseph.

Russia round out Pool A, having qualified for their second ever Rugby World Cup by virtue of a ludicrous European qualifying campaign, when Romania, Spain and Belgium were all docked points for having named ineligible players. The Bears performed with credit in their previous appearance in 2011, and they will likely be happy to produce similar efforts in Japan.

Which pool match will be decisive?

Ireland vs. Scotland, Yokohama Stadium, Sunday September 22

The winner of this match will likely avoid the All Blacks in the quarterfinals. That's enough of a motivation to make this a pulsating contest. These sides have only met once in the Rugby World Cup, in 1991, when the Scots won en route to their only semifinals appearance.

The potential upset

Scotland are No. 6 on the World Rugby rankings; would it be a shock if they defeated No. 2 Ireland? Perhaps not, but this in reality is the only game in which the underdog might be fancied to overturn the favourite. Ireland have won 15 of the past 20 matches between the sides, and two of the past three, but Scotland have game-changing players such as Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Hamish Watson who can star on the biggest stage.

What we'll be talking about after the pool stage

Ireland should progress as pool winners, but even if they qualify as runners-up we'll still be discussing their hopes of progression beyond the quarterfinals for the first time. We'll also likely be discussing the thorny issue of money and investment in Pacific Islands rugby if Samoa disappoint again.

-- Andy Withers

Pool B

New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Namibia, Repechage winner (Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Kenya)

How are the teams shaping up right now?

Pool B is the only group which is not yet complete. The final available spot will be determined by the winner of the repechage tournament, which will be played in France in November.

But this pool does feature the two of the tournament's heavyweights, who will face-off in the marquee fixture of the group stage. The All Blacks and Springboks seldom disappoint, and this could be just the blockbuster fixture to kickstart the tournament on the opening Saturday. While the All Blacks are heavy favourites to complete a three-peat, the Springboks proved that they are indeed made of flesh and blood, when they beat the world's top side in a Rugby Championship thriller in Wellington last Saturday.

The Springboks are busy rebuilding under new boss Rassie Erasmus, and their preparations got a significant boost at the Westpac Stadium. They might also be one of the sleepers going into the tournament and even go on to win their third World Cup.

There might be three African teams in this group after Namibia qualified for their fifth successive World Cup by winning the Africa qualifiers, while runners-up Kenya will play in the repechage tournament and could make their World Cup debut in Japan. Italy, who complete the group, have not exactly set the world alight since surprising South Africa in Florence in November 2016.

Which pool match will be decisive?

New Zealand vs. South Africa, Yokahama Stadium, Saturday September 21

The All Blacks have given the Springboks some proper pastings over the last couple of years, putting up 50 points against the South Africans in 2016 and 2017. The latter was a 57-0 drubbing in Albany.

However, when the Springboks decide to switch on, they can beat any team in the world, including the normally ruthlessly efficient All Blacks. And they may just need to win this match to stay alive deeper into the tournament, as the runners-up could face Ireland in the quarterfinals, while the winner will likely come up against Scotland.

The potential upset

Namibia have steadily improved over the last few years, and are no longer a team that concedes cricket scores. While they are yet to record a victory at the World Cup, they produced a spirited performance against the All Blacks in 2015, before losing to Georgia by one point. They will certainly target the Italians, who haven't really kicked on since they shocked the world and the Boks in 2016.

The Italians, on the other hand, may be targeting the Springboks for an upset victory, which would more than likely see them qualify for the quarterfinals. However, it's hard to see this Springbok team falling in the same trap for a second time.

What we'll be talking about after the pool stage

The winner of Group B will certainly have a more comfortable quarterfinal, but the talk will be whether South Africa and New Zealand can meet again in the tournament. The only way that can happen is if they both reach the final, and that's not implausible.

-- John Goliath

Pool C

England, France, Argentina, USA, Tonga

How are the teams shaping up right now?

Welcome to the group of uncertainty. England, France and Argentina all have the potential to whitewash the group, win all their games and trot comfortably and confidently into the quarterfinals. They also have the capability to implode, leave the competition at the pool stages and then face inevitable redundancies when they return home, tales between their legs.

England and France had topsy-turvy 2018s with England regressing and now need a new defence coach, while France showed some signs of improvement under Jacques Brunel, having fired Guy Noves last Christmas. And then there is Argentina, who changed coaches in the summer with Daniel Hourcade leaving and the timeless former hooker Mario Ledesma taking the reins. All three teams need stability over the next 12 months, and a run of victories. Whoever manages that will be favourites to top the pool.

But the other two teams will not be light touches. Tonga always seem to be a troublesome country to play come World Cups while the USA have the astute brain of Gary Gold in charge, and talent enough to cause the three Tier One countries some problems. The USA have improved under Gold and if Tonga get their first-choice team on the pitch, then they will definitely leave their mark on the opposition and the tournament as a whole.

Which pool match will be decisive?

This is a pool which will develop as the competition progresses, and is by far the most fascinating in the World Cup. If England re-find their best under Eddie Jones, then the decisive match will be the first one, France-Argentina, which would determine who joins England in the knockout stages. The final round match between England and France could decide the pool winner, or it could be a game where the loser goes bust and is eliminated.

The potential upset

Argentina against England on October 5 could be a real upset. If the Pumas peak like they usually do for World Cups then expect them to be a tough ask for Jones' England. On their day, Tonga could knock over Argentina or France, while the USA will fancy their chances of an upset and will also have a bee in their bonnet after the 2015 competition where they came away without having really landed a punch.

What we'll be talking about after the pool stage

England and Argentina will progress through the pool, with France falling short. There will be shocks, thrills and nervousness but Jones' canniness will carry England through and Argentina's ability to peak for a World Cup will again bear fruit. France will be there causing all sorts of mischief but have the capability to implode and while it will be a more harmonious existence than they are used to, they will be on the first flight back to Paris.

-- Tom Hamilton

Pool D

Australia, Wales, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay

How are the teams shaping up right now?

Australia, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay were all grouped together in 2015, and will be again in 2019. The absence of England this time around means things aren't quite so cut-throat, though anyone who's seen the Wallabies in action of late might well be having a few dollars on Fiji reaching what would be just their second quarterfinal.

The Fijians are capable of beating both the Wallabies and Wales on their day. With former NRL star Semi Radradra now available, a wiser and more confident Ben Volavola at No.10, world-class lock Leone Nakarawa and any number of quality outside backs at their disposal, John McKee's side will be more than just competitive.

While those three teams will fight it out for two knock-out spots, Georgia will have earmarked the Fiji game as their World Cup final, knowing the value of a third-place pool finish. The Europeans knocked off Tonga in 2015 to grab third behind New Zealand and Argentina, sparing themselves the task of qualifying for Japan in the process.

However, Uruguay face a tough few weeks in Japan. The rugby minnows conceded 47 points or more in each of their four defeats last time around, and will be doing well to reduce that figure in Japan.

Which pool match will be decisive?

Australia vs. Wales, Tokyo Stadium, Sunday September 29

Having played out a dramatic closing Pool game at Twickenham four years ago, albeit with qualification for the knockout phase already assured, Australia and Wales will resume World Cup hostilities in what is the second game for both sides. While the Wallabies will expect to come through that opening Fiji game, it is no laydown guarantee. On the flip side, Wales will have shaken off some rust against Georgia, though with two days fewer to recover than the Wallabies. Regardless, it is clearly the big-ticket game from Pool D with the winner likely securing a spot in what looks the easier side of the knockout draw.

The potential upset

Wales vs. Fiji, Oita Stadium, Wednesday October 9

Eleven years ago at Rugby World Cup 2007, Wales and Fiji met in Nantes with a place in the quarterfinals on the line for the winner. What transpired was a breath-taking 80 minutes that is widely regarded as one of rugby's great Tests, and a proud moment in Fijian sporting history as they advanced. Wales have since banished those demons by beating the Pacific Islanders at both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, though anyone who saw their pool contest in Cardiff three years ago will recognise just how serious this game will be.

What we'll be talking about after the pool stage

They may not look like it at the moment, but Australia will top Pool D. The odds for Michael Cheika guiding them to that result may be getting longer by the day, though, with his position as Wallabies coach set to play out over the coming weeks. But the Aussies seem to have this stranglehold over the Welsh, both in World Cup and general Test play, and with inspirational Wales skipper Sam Warburton having recently retired, the task to end that dominance has just got tougher.

-- Sam Bruce