The 2019 Rugby World Cup is almost upon us! WILL EVANS unpicks the biggest question marks hovering over what shapes as an exhilarating tournament.

1. Are ageing All Blacks a spent force or foxing?

New Zealand have seemingly cured their Rugby World Cup yips, ending a 24-year drought with their 2011 triumph and becoming the first back-to-back champs in emphatic style in 2015.

But they have proved far from infallible in recent times. Consequently, the hot favourites have eased out significantly to $2.30.

The All Blacks made a statement with their 36-0 demolition of Australia at Eden Park after a poor Rugby Championship campaign. But they certainly don’t look the unbeatable outfit of 2015.

Form has led to a lack of stability and debate around their best line-up. Steve Hansen and co. also seem hell-bent on selecting Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf and slotting Beauden Barrett, the world’s best No.10 at fullback.

That has shunted veteran Ben Smith to the wing, where he is out of sorts. Rieko Ioane is also struggling, Sonny Bill Williams’ fitness is an ongoing issue, Brodie Retallick won’t be back until late in the tournament and the make-up of the back-row is still up in the air.

Still deserving favourites, but think twice about loading up on the short $1.53 about the Kiwis reaching the final.

2. Can ‘Cheika and Hyde’ Wallabies find consistency?

The Wallabies have been as erratic as ever in their sixth season under coach Michael Cheika. A stunning win over the All Blacks in Perth was a searing high point. But big away losses in South Africa and New Zealand, and unconvincing home wins over Argentina and Samoa did not bode well for a run at the title.

Uncertainty over their best line-up is another hurdle to overcome. Cheika seems set to include Michael Hooper and David Pocock in the starting back-row, as well as going back to the future with Nic White and Christian Lealiifano as his halves combination and James O’Connor in the midfield.

Samu Kerevi takes over as chief strike weapon as the Wallabies pick up the pieces from the Israel Folau saga.

Australia ($17) are arguably the best value of any team given their record of six semi-final appearances in eight Rugby World Cups, progressing to the final four times. The green-and-golds traditionally thrive in the tournament format, regardless of lead-up form.

But their psychological stranglehold on the All Blacks at World Cups – achieved via semi-final wins in 1991 and 2003 – is long gone after convincing losses in the 2011 semi and 2015 final.

The Wallabies remain a tantalising bet to reach the final at $6, however. They will likely avoid a semi-final collision course with the All Blacks if they top their pool.

3. Are England and South Africa ABs’ biggest threats?

After a couple of years in the doldrums, South Africa appear to be peaking at the right time. They won a truncated Rugby Championship thanks to a resounding home win over Australia and a last-gasp draw against New Zealand in Wellington.

No team will be relishing the prospect of taking on the physical Springboks. Meanwhile, being paired with the All Blacks in an otherwise soft pool may work to their advantage: the heavyweights can’t meet again until the final – the shortest-priced quinella at $3.75.

Champions in 1995 and 2007, and third-placegetters in 1999 and 2015, the Boks have been backed into $5.50 to win a third World Cup crown and a juicy $2.50 to reach the final.

If, as expected, England emerge on top from a tough pool containing France and Argentina, they will likely play Australia or Wales in the quarters and New Zealand or South Africa in the semis.

It’s a brutal path to the final, but Eddie Jones’ side sounded a warning last month with a 57-15 beatdown of Ireland.

England must bury the demons of their humiliating group-stage exit as hosts in 2015, but it’s easy to see why they are regarded as the All Blacks’ biggest hurdle and a $5.50 chance to lift the trophy.

An England-South Africa final showdown is offering $11.

4. Is there a dark horse in the mix?

Current world No.1 Ireland and the very briefly top-ranked Wales are on the fourth line of Rugby World Cup betting at $12.

Disappointing quarter-final losers to Argentina last time around, Ireland have chalked up a couple of historic wins over the All Blacks in recent seasons. An underwhelming Six Nations campaign and a heavy loss to England last month has dampened punters’ enthusiasm, however.

Wales’ Six Nations triumph has been tempered by consecutive losses to Ireland in recent weeks, plus a betting scandal involving an assistant coach.

France, paying a whopping $41 to win it all, have attracted little attention. That’s unsurprising given their only wins in eight Tests this year were against Italy and Scotland.

But history shows that you can’t rely on Les Bleus’ earlier form. They have reached three finals (losing all three) and missed the semis just twice, while they famously eliminated New Zealand in 1999 and 2007.

France are serious value at $4 to jag another semi-final spot.

Scotland ($67) and Argentina ($81) – strong performers in 2015 – are the only other nations under triple-figures.

5. Will there be a quarter-final bolter?

Only 10 different nations have qualified for the quarter-finals of the last five Rugby World Cups, with Fiji (1999 and 2007) the only team resembling a genuine bolter.

At this stage, the top two qualifiers in each pool look cut and dried – except for the ‘Group of Death’ that contains England, France and Argentina.

Hosts Japan ($3.75) are the shortest-priced nation to reach the quarters outside the ‘Big 9’. The Cherry Blossoms showed at the 2015 tournament how dangerous they can be, but they were unable to grab a historic knockouts berth despite their stunning upset of South Africa.

Japan need a win over Ireland or Scotland to progress out of the pool stage.

Fiji ($8.00) arguably provide better value. Upsetting Australia or Wales (as they did at the ’07 World Cup) is not out of the question for a team boasting the likes of Leone Nakarawa, Frank Lomani and Semi Radradra.

Fiji’s poolmates Georgia ($17) and at a stretch Italy ($23), who have to contend with the might of New Zealand and South Africa, are the only other nations remotely in the quarter-final conversation.

BET ON THE 2019 RUGBY WORLD CUP HERE: