Rugby’s biggest tournament is only weeks away. With that in mind here’s a quick guide to the runners and riders from the contenders, to pretenders to the dead enders…
Canada are in dreadful form, having lost six straight, including two defeats to the Americans. They did at least beat Germany and Hong Kong easily enough to qualify, but fourth in Pool B would be a success. Tyler Ardon will be critical to Canada with his skills at the breakdown.
Russia are back after missing 2015 and are in decent form having made the final of the 2017 Nations Cup. They will kick the tournament off against Japan; team they’ve only beaten once in six attempts. Valery Morozov and Andrei Ostrikov are their only players who play outside the Russian League, and winning a game would be a positive.
The Nations Cup holders will be hoping to continue their progress against the tier one nations, but have drawn the deepest pool of the tournament. A spirited side lead by Juan Manuel Gaminara, they’ll make life awkward for teams. A first win since 2003 looks like a lot to ask from a tough looking Pool D.
They’ve qualified for a fifth consecutive World Cup, but have yet to record a win. The draw did them few favors, placing them in Pool B with an All Blacks team that put 58 points on them in England. Johan Deysel made an impact four years ago and will be the man to watch.
Tonga have made every World Cup since 1991, but have yet to progress beyond the pool stage. Sonatane Takulua will provide some guile, but opening against an in-form England is a tough ask. They look set to battle the USA for a solitary win in Pool C.
The improving Americans could be this World Cup’s Japan and spring a surprise after beating Scotland last year. AJ MacGinty can keep the scoreboard ticking over, but they do concede tries, as they showed in their recent defeat to Japan. They open against England, where a win would be almost as big of a shock as their football World Cup win in 1950.
Samoa always provide the larger nations with a tough test. The good news is that they’ll start against Russia and will be favorites to secure that early win. However, the bad news is that the buildup has been beset with issues over player availability, making another run to match 1991 unlikely.
The rising force of European rugby are back and have risen above Italy in the World Rankings to twelve. They made pool stage exits at the last four World Cups, and Pool D is a tough draw where they open against Wales. The scrum is fearsome with powerful Mikheil Nariashvili as the leader of the pack. However, they’re not the most creative in the backfield and have yet to beat a tier one side. Japan would be an incredible place to start.
The Sevens specialists are always fun to watch with their offload skills, and they’ll arrive in Japan with those Olympic golds in their bags. In the fifteen-man version of the game, they beat France last summer. Most of the squad play in England or France, with Ben Volavola and Leone Nakarawa as players to watch. Discipline will be key, as shown by those costly yellow cards against Scotland.
Italy will arrive in Japan on the back of four successive Six Nations Wooden Spoons. The draw couldn’t be worse in Pool B with New Zealand and South Africa. On the plus side, Sergio Parisse is still around to lead the side and there are plenty of ball carriers. The Italians will also have a chance to play themselves into the tournament with Namibia, first up followed by Canada. After that, it’s the crunch clash with the Springboks.
The Cherry Blossoms will open the World Cup in Tokyo on September 20th. Michael Leitch leads a strong back row and Yu Tamura has proved an excellent kicker. Their recent form looks solid with wins over Fiji, Tonga and USA. However, last year’s win over Italy remains their only victory over a tier 1 nation since that famous win over South Africa. England proved four years ago that home advantage doesn’t always matter, but if Japan can maximise it, they could just knock out Ireland or Scotland.
The Pumas made it to the semifinals in two of the last three World Cups, but they’ll have to do it the hard way to make it to a third. In Pool C, the Pumas will face a three-way fight with England and France. Captain Pablo Matera will be the key man, while the Jaguares reaching this year’s Super Rugby Final is a shot in the arm to Argentine Rugby. However, they didn’t fare well against Northern Hemisphere sides last autumn and lost both their 2017 home tests to an under strength England.
Scotland remain the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team, which has never been better illustrated than their 38-38 draw with England. Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw can dictate a game, and there’s no shortage of dynamism among the backs. They open their campaign against Ireland and finish the pool against Japan. They got the better of the Cherry Blossoms in 2015, but that will be a tougher ask in Yokohama.
The three-time finalists seem to be finally getting their act together. Their 32-3 win over Scotland in Nice was their best performance of the year, although, they were edged out in the return match. France have gone for a largely young squad, with Mathieu Bastareaud leading the list of discards. The draw is tough and France will almost certainly need to win their opener against Argentina to progress.
It’s been a wretched four years for Michael Cheika and the Wallabies. Denying New Zealand the Rugby Championship with that record win was sweet, but the ensuing 36-0 loss at Eden Park brought Australia back to earth with a bump. Cheika is sweating on the fitness of David Pocock, but if he’s fit, Pocock will be critical to Australia. For all their problems, Cheika’s side found form at the right time at the 2015 World Cup.
Ireland have followed up their invincible year with an inept 2019 that sunk to a new low with that record defeat to England. The dreadful form on Connor Murray is a deep concern to Joe Schmidt. Inevitably, 2018 World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton is pivotal to Ireland. If he finds his best form, a maiden semifinal is still there for the taking.
4. South Africa
The Springboks are peaking at the right time under Rassie Erasmus. Captain Syia Kolisi made the cut, but is short of games after injury. Winning the 2019 Rugby Championship was a timely boost, although, they only drew with the All Blacks, who they’ll face again in their World Cup opener. Eben Etzebeth enters the tournament under a cloud amid allegations of assault against a homeless man.
Having shown his hand early, Eddie Jones’ side made everyone take notice with a 57-15 thrashing of Ireland. Those second-half lapses from the Six Nations are a worry and Jones needs to decide where Owen Farrell will play. England have a gentle start to the tournament and have won six of their seven games against pool rivals Argentina and France. With an expansive array of options at the back, England look set to put their 2015 World Cup misery behind them.
Grand Slam winners and top of the World Rankings, Wales have never entered a World Cup on such a high. However, the loss of fly-half Gareth Anscombe is a major blow. Their recent double-header with England yielded mixed results. Their horrendous World Cup record against the Southern Hemisphere heavyweights (no wins since 1987) is a concern, but they did beat both South Africa and Australia last year. The inspirational Alun Wyn Jones will be playing his last World Cup and Wales may never get a better chance of reaching the final.
1. New Zealand
October 6th, 2007: That was the last time the All Blacks were beaten at a World Cup. Their recent form has been patchy with that record 47-26 loss to Australia and being run close twice by Argentina. Although, their 36-0 win in the Bledisloe Cup settled the nerves with Richie Mo’unga in inspired form. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are long gone, but there’s incredible strength in depth across the entire squad.