By Max Mathews
- The ninth Rugby World Cup gets underway as we take a look at the teams to watch
- Who are the favourites and who are dark horses who could spring an upset?
TOKYO, JAPAN – The hotly-anticipated ninth Rugby World Cup and the first ever in Asia kicks off on Friday, with 20 sides battling it out for the coveted trophy. Here is everything you need to know.
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The usual suspects
Death, taxes, and New Zealand doing well at World Cups. The lean mean All Black winning machine are so strong that the 2015 tournament’s top try scorer Julian Savea doesn’t even make the squad. Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, captain Kieran Read, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane would walk into any team in the world and you would be foolish to bet against Steve Hansen’s side.
The Springboks won their first Rugby Championship in 10 years this summer, breaking the decade of Antipodean rule. Their squad is a fine blend of experience (Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira, Eben Etzebeth) and youth (Kwagga Smith, Handré Pollard, Cheslin Kolbe). Probably the All Blacks’ biggest challengers.
What to say about England? Eddie Jones isn’t afraid of a big call, as Mike Brown and Danny Care would tell you, but under the wily Aussie the English have a strong gameplan and more than a few match-winners. If they are to win, the Vunipola brothers, Jamie George and gas merchant Jonny May will need to sparkle. Owen Farrell will be great either way.
Michael Cheika’s squad seems to have come through the Israel Folau scandal unscathed. Their back row, comprising skipper Michael Hooper and all-round superstar David Pocock will starve teams of possession, while ball players like Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and secret weapon Marika Koroibete can do damage from anywhere on the pitch.
You wouldn’t put it past coach Warren Gatland, would you? They won the Six Nations, won once and lost once against England and Ireland in the warm-ups, but after a gruelling camp in Switzerland their already tight defence looks near-impregnable. The talismanic lock Alun Wyn Jones, fly-half Dan Biggar, centre Jonathan Davies and 15 Leigh Halfpenny aren’t the most exciting players in the world, but they never let you down. A strong spine, with powerhouse George North thrown in for good measure
The dark horses
It might sound odd to have the number one side in the world among the dark horses, but England amassed their largest ever points total against them in a 57-15 rout at Twickenham in a warm-up match, leading to worries Joe Schmidt’s men could have peaked too early. Despite rows over residency rules and average form (by their excellent standards) from Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, the pair are expert game managers and young bucks James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale – both 23 – are world-class operators.
Being added to the Rugby Championship in 2012 and Argentinean side Jaguares joining Super Rugby in 2016 has proved a crucial learning curve for Los Pumas. Fly-half Nicolas Sanchez was top points scorer at the last World Cup and their back three look rapid, even with Exeter flyer Santiago Cordero left out. Keep an eye on 36-year-old Juan Manuel Leguizamon too.
They were an extremely harsh refereeing call away from a stunning quarter-final win over Australia and an eminently winnable semi-final against Argentina in 2015, so don’t write them off. A fifth-place in this year’s Six Nations wasn’t great but Finn Russell is arguably the best attacking stand-off in the world on form and nuggety, abrasive flanker Hamish Watson is likely to star.
France are like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get. Consistently inconsistent and maddeningly erratic, they are led by long-suffering skipper Guilhem Guirado and their four-year build-up has been markedly manic and disorganised in terms of selection and style of play. Half-back Antoine Dupont is the latest in a long line of little generals – he will marshal a heavy pack, but will their traditional forward strength wilt in the Asian heat and humidity?
The Flying Fijians were somehow seeded in Pool 4 with Namibia and Russia and behind the likes of Italy and Georgia in Pool 3. By far the most entertaining side to watch, they combine peerless athleticism with outrageous offloads. Traditionally, organisation is their weak point but with livewires Frank Lomani and former Glasgow warrior Niko Matawalu at scrum-half and the classy Ben Volavola of Racing Métro at 10, they could easily cause an upset in Pool D. Their X-Factor is huge and expect them to be everyone’s second team by the end of the tournament.
How to watch the Rugby World Cup 2019
In the UK, ITV and S4C are the channels covering the matches – Japan is around eight hours ahead, so most games are in the morning UK time.
READ MORE | Full Fixtures and Schedules
The 2019 Rugby World Cup begins on Friday, as hosts Japan face Russia at the Tokyo Stadium in Chofu.
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