Rugby World Cup preview: Anticipation builds as Japan prepare to host


For the very first time in its history, an Asian country will be hosting the World Cup for the first. Japan are the hosts for a tournament that is going to be as keenly contested as previous World Cups have been.

Twenty countries will set out on their journey to proudly lift the cup in Yokohama on Saturday 2nd November. The tournament itself will kick off on Friday 20th September when the host nation will entertain Russia. The twenty sides are divided into four pools of five, with the top two in each qualifying for the quarter finals.

Pool A


Ireland will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing Six Nations, finishing third behind England and Wales, and will be aiming to improve a World Cup record of never getting past the quarter final stage, despite winning more World Cup games than anybody else. This will be Ireland’s last matches under coach Joe Schmidt who departs and leaves current defence coach Andy Farrell at the helm at the end of the tournament.

If Irish eyes will be smiling come November, a lot will depend on the experienced 34-year-old fly half Johnny Sexton. He was the winner of the World Player of the Year award in 2018 after Ireland’s Six Nations triumph and victory over the All Blacks. The main worry for the Irish will be Sexton’s fitness and form.

The men in green will be led by hooker Rory Best, who will retire after the competition. Since succeeding Paul O’Connell as captain in 2013, Best has led Ireland to three Six Nations titles. Other key players who are expected to make their mark are Leinster centre Garry Ringrose, Jordan Lamour alongside prop Tadhg Furlong, Leinster lock James Ryan and number eight Jack Conan.


Have been present at every World Cup and qualified for the World Cup finals after finishing in the top three of their pool in the 2015 World Cup.

Four years ago, under current England Coach Eddie Jones, they defied all the odds to beat South Africa 34-32. The men from The Land Of The Rising sun also completed two further victories against Samoa and the USA, but still failed to progress. Currently ranked 11 in the world, the hosts will be captained by 31-year-old kiwi born flanker Michael Leitch, with other players to look out for including, the shortest player at the World Cup, standing only five foot five inches scrum half Fumiaki Tanakaf. One of the most improved number eights in world rugby currently Hazuki Himeno has also been selected for the hosts who can’t be taken lightly in a well contested pool.


Currently ranked 20th in the world and qualified for the finals as the highest ranked European side in the rugby championship following the disqualification of Romania, Spain and Belgium. Russia are making just their second appearance at the World Cup and were part of the inaugural tournament in 1987 where they lost all four games. The side will be led by full back Vasily Artemyev, with two players currently playing for Sale Sharks Andrei Ostrikov and Valery Morozov players to watch out for, with the experienced 34-year-old fly-half Yuri Kushnarev so important for the Russian side.


World ranked 16, Samoa came bottom in the Pacific Nations Cup, but booked their place in Japan after defeating Germany in a play-off. Since 1999 Samoa boost a poor World Cup record of never getting out of the pool stage. New Zealand born Chris Uvi will skipper the side. The lock who currently ply’s his trade with Bristol Bears has so far made 12 test appearances for Samoa since making his debut against France in 2016. Four years ago in England it turned out to be a very disappointing time with Samoa finishing in fourth place in their pool. Key players to cast ones eyes over include the Northampton full back Ahsee Tuala, Harlequins number eight Elia Elia and Cardiff Blues centre Reynold Lee-Lo.


Since 1991 Scotland have failed to get past the quarters, losing to New Zealand in 1995 and 1999, Australia in 2003 and 2015 and Argentina in 2007. Gregor Townsend’s maverick Scots are just so unpredictable. On their day very good, on another day very poor. Recovering from a poor Six Nations that saw then finish fifth, the Scots will look to the Exeter Chief full back Stuart Hogg alongside Racing 92’s fly half Finn Russell as two key players in the squad.

Pool B


Canada qualified for the finals of the World Cup after toppling Germany, Hong Kong and Kenya in the World Cup repechage. Back in 1991 Canada made the quarters of the tournament with significant victories over Fiji and Romania. In their final pool game, they lost narrowly to France 19-13 before bowing out to New Zealand in the knockout stages. Under coach Kingsley Jones the experienced Welsh flanker will look to DTH van der Merwe, who plays for Glasgow Warriors along with Newcastle Falcons Evan Olmstead and current Cornish Pirates captain Brett Beukeboom to give the Canadians a chance of pulling of an almighty shock of qualifying.


Under former Harlequins coach Conor O’Shea the Azzurri are an improving outfit. Having pushed Ireland, Wales Scotland and France recently, they will be looking for an improvement to their current World Cup record of 11 wins in 28 matches. The Italian side have appeared in every World Cup but have yet to progress to the knockout phase. World ranked 14th Italy have named a mixture of young players and veterans in their squad of 31 with the evergreen Sergio Parisse a certainty to start at number eight in the Italians opening match against Namibia. The 36-year-old will be looking to add to his collection of 13 World Cup caps, which potentially looks to be his last crack at World Cup glory. Centre Michele Campagnaro, who has made the move to Harlequins from Wasps for the forthcoming Gallagher Premiership campaign, is a key player for the Italian’s chances of getting out of the group.


By winning last year’s Rugby Africa Gold Cup after beating Kenya 53-28 in the final, Namibia will be making another appearance in the World Cup. The minnows, with the majority of players completely amateur, have shipped an incredible 1,148 points in their 19 World Cup games. The player to watch out for looks to be the exciting back rower Janco Venter. Currently featuring for Jersey Reds, the 25-year-old made his World Cup debut in 2015 against the All Blacks and was Namibia’s player of the tournament in the 2018 African championships.

New Zealand

Bidding for a third World Cup triumph in a row, New Zealand will be the team to beat in Japan. Champions in 1987, the All Blacks had to wait 24 years to lift the trophy again and defended their title in style in 2015. Outgoing coach Steve Hansen and captain Kieran Read will be looking for another trophy before saying goodbye to the All Blacks. Hansen has once again put his faith in old timers to land the treble, with household names looking very likely to succeed in Japan, including fly-half Beauden Barrett and scrum-half Aaron Smith. The squad just oozes class in every position, and it will take a brave man to bet against Read lifting the trophy in November.

South Africa

After a significant slump in recent years the Springboks are beginning to show signs of turning a corner and getting back to their best. Since 2015, stalwarts such as Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers and Victor Matfield have retired and a new exciting generation has emerged. Winger Aphiwe Dyanty is one of those having lifted the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year Award in 2018. He started 13 of South Africa’s 14 tests in 2018, claiming six tries to boot. With Sale Sharks scrum-half Faf de Hlerk and fly-half Handre Pollard alongside forward Pieter Steph du Toit, who was named 2018 SA Rugby Player of the Year, you can certainly expect another bold showing in the tournament by the Springboks.

Pool C


The Pumas have appeared at every World Cup and made the quarter- finals for the first time in 1999. Argentina have also reached the semi-finals in 2007 after a memorable opening win against France. In the last World Cup back in 2015 the Pumas had a fantastic tournament, once again reaching the semis before getting knocked out by Australia. They have undoubtably progressed in recent years and will cause problems to the other four sides in what is already being classed as the pool of death. Back in 2015 Nicolas Sanchez had the honour of being the top points scorer in the World Cup. The Pumas strength in depth will be on defence, but they also offer more variety in attack these days with the likes of Matias Moroni, Ramiro Moyano, Bautista Delguy and Emiliano Boffelli. With the bulk of the squad from Jaguares and a key player in captain Pablo Matera, expect a positive showing from Argentina.


Already installed as one of the favourites by the bookmakers, surely there can’t be a better time for the Red Rose side to be crowned champions. England remain the only northern hemisphere side to life the trophy back in 2003. Still in the back of everybody’s minds will be England’s lowest point in rugby when they exited out of the tournament at the pool stage back in 2015. If the side that overwhelmed Ireland in Dublin in the opening round of this year’s Six Nations turn up in every game, then England have an outstanding chance of lifting the trophy. The major doubt has to be if this squad of players under coach Eddie Jones got the temperament to win a World Cup. A lot will be resting on the shoulders of captain Owen Farrell with his ferocious will to win. Jones had no room for sentiment when he picked his 31 man squad, with no places for experienced players including Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care. If a fully fit England side with world class finishers like Jonny May prosper in Japan, come November they could well be crowned champions of the world.


Have played in three finals but yet to lift the trophy. Twice losing to the All Blacks in 1987 and 2011 and once again losing out to New Zealand in 2015. Consistency as always is the problem with the guys in blue. The squad named by coach Jacques Brunel on paper appears to have the talent to succeed, but whether they be consistent in all games remains the question. France have wingers with electric pace in the shape of Sofiane Guitoune, Alivereti Raka and Maxime Medard to worry defences alongside dynamic centres in Wesley Fofana and Romain Ntamack. Despite all this talent, will they have enough to get out of the pool of death. It won’t be easy for them.


World ranked 13 booked their place as one of the top two finishers in the Pacific Nations Cup. Tonga have a remarkable record having played in every World Cup apart from 1991. They are considered by many to really struggle in this group, having to face England, Argentina and France in their opening three matches. The Pacific Islanders will look to the experienced 29-year-old Castres forward Steve Mafi and kicker Sonatane Takulua to boost their chances of trying to get out of the toughest pool.


Defeated Canada in a two-match play-off with an aggregate score of 8-44 to qualify as America’s number one. Have qualified for every World Cup bar 1995, but have a poor record, winning just three of 25 matches. Under highly respected and experienced coach Garry Gold the Eagles face a tough task to get out of the pool.  The majority of Gold’s squad come from MLR teams such as San Diego Legion, Houston Saber Cats, Seattle Seawolves and Rugby United alongside specialist sevens players. Former Leicester Tigers wing Blaine Scully has been named captain and will be a real driving force for the Eagles during Japan 2019. Sale Sharks fans will be keen to see one of their favourite players back out on the pitch after a shoulder injury last season. But in truth, it would appear that USA will be battling for fourth spot alongside Tonga.

Pool D


The Aussies were the first team to win the tournament twice with victories in 1991 and 1999. Went almighty close to the hat trick in 2003, before losing to England. Lost out to New Zealand in both the 2011 and 2015 semi-finals. The Wallabies will go into this World Cup on the back of some recent Test defeats including nine in 2018. They have lost the knack of closing out tough games along with making mistakes at crucial times. However, one can never write of the Wallabies in a World Cup. Once again Australia will be led by the experienced back rower Michael Hooper, who is approaching a century of Test caps. Hooper, forms a devastating back row partnership with David Pocock. In the backs Australia can turn to Mr century maker of Tests scrum-half Will Genia. Under coach Michael Cheika, who has had to endure a turbulent 18 months after being given a vote of confidence by his union’s chief executive as well as having to field questions over the sacking of Israel Folau, it will need a rapid turn of form for Australia to once again get their hands on the trophy.


The Pacific Islanders will go into this World Cup determined to show they’re not just Seven kings. Shrewd coach New Zealander John McKee is already beginning to see the rewards of his time in charge after Fiji produced a shock 21-14 victory over France in Paris last autumn. One player expected to sparkle for Fiji is centre Semi Raadrada. The Toulon player has express pace and will take a lot of stopping. Lock Leone Nakarawa is another player expected to shine. Fiji will have the toughest of starts in the pool when they open their campaign against Australia on the 21st September.


Finished third in Pool C behind New Zealand and Argentina to earn automatic qualification. First appearance came in the 2003 finals and pushed Ireland all the way in 2007 with a narrow 14-10 loss before recording their first tournament victory over Namibia. Since then they have made further improvements by claiming wins over Tonga and another victory against Namibia in 2015. Haven’t got the kindest of draws at this year’s tournament after having to face Wales and Australia in the pool. Key players to watch will be the Wasps prop Zurab Zhvania, who has had big game experience previously with Stade Francais along with fly-half Lasha Malaguradze who has already received 91 caps and is the veteran of two World Cups.


Have defied the odds to qualify for three previous tournaments. Experienced a bad World Cup last time out by shipping 216 points and scoring just 30 in four pool defeats. Los Toros will now have the benefit of all of Uruguay’s top players being professional whereas back in 2015 they were out and out amateurs. Uruguay will welcome back veteran lock Rodrigo Capo at the age of 39. The Castres second row played his one and only World Cup competition back in 2003. On paper very much the whipping boys of the pool.


Third place in 1987 remains their best performance to date. Have reached the quarter-finals in 1999, 2003 and 2015, but failed to get out of the pool back in 1991 and 2007. On paper the draw appears to have worked out very well in Wales’ favour. Look certainties to get out of the pool with only Australia to fear. Gatland will have one last hurrah in Japan before returning back to his native New Zealand after over a decade as Wales head coach. For Wales to succeed in Japan they will look to their excellent defence. In the Six Nations recently they conceded only seven tries in the tournament and at Murrayfield made 228 tackles against Scotland. Wales have an experienced core of players including Jonathan Davies, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric and George North, nearing 100 caps, supplementing the leadership of veteran second-row Alun Wyn Jones, voted the world’s best player in Rugby World this year.

Providing a cutting edge in the wide channels, Wales have strength in both Liam Williams and Josh Adams. With the draw looking perfect for the Welsh Dragon, this could be the moment that Wales could be destined for their first World Cup final at the ninth attempt. If the top two, New Zealand and Wales, justify their seeding by going all the way, the final would be Gatland’s last shot and final time to try and overturn an awful record of losing all 11 Tests against the All Blacks over a period of 11 years.


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