With all the rugby going on at the moment, we have to confess to finding it hard to keep a handle on all of it and a balance with work and family. As a result it’s a slightly abbreviated look at some of this weekend’s action. After a bumper crop of top notch matches in Round 1, the pickings are slightly slimmer this weekend, but some big matches are on offer. We’ve picked out three that perhaps best capture the flavor of what is already proving to be a memorable World Cup.

First up is tomorrow’s headliner between hosts Japan and one of the tournament favorites Ireland. The Irish have recognized the potential banana skin posed by Japan in front of what should be a very vocal crowd in Fukoroi. Ireland field a full strength side with only one or two omissions, fully aware that Japan will throw everything at them. After Scotland’s annihilation at the hands of the Irish, Japan are probably looking at their final match of the Pool stages with the Scots to attempt one of the tournament’s big upsets. However, they couldn’t ask for better preparation than Ireland who would appear to be regaining the form that made them such a force in 2018.

For us though it is Sunday that provides the bulk of the action. It is Uruguay who caused the first big upset of the tournament, with their historic win over Fiji, and what a match it was! It caught the imagination of the fans in attendance and was a fabulous match to watch. Georgia also put on an impressive second half display against Wales. On the basis of that we think that Sunday’s fixture between Georgia and Uruguay could end up being one of the best Tier 2 Pool games of the entire tournament. Uruguay will have had a shorter turnaround than the Georgians but if they play with the same kind of heart and conviction they showed against Fiji, then as a spectacle this could be quite the match, as Georgia are also not short on passion and hard graft.

We end with THE big match of the weekend as Pool D’s heavyweights, Australia and Wales do battle. Wales may have blown Georgia away in the first half  of their World Cup opener but the Georgians came back with a real vengeance in the second half and caused the Welsh all kinds of problems. In Australia’s case they suffered a serious case of opening night nerves as Fiji had them on the ropes in the first half. They were able to regroup for the second half and ultimately secure the victory, but there is no denying that they had been asked some serious questions along the way. As a result this could be a very even contest on Sunday as both sides seek to gain ascendancy in Pool D.

Japan vs Ireland – Saturday, September 28th – Fukuroi

Arguably Ireland’s second most difficult game of the Pool stages and one which will require another emphatic performance similar to that against Scotland. Ireland will be well aware that they have struggled at times this year to hit the ground running. Should they have the kind of off day that we saw a lot of during the Six Nations, then Japan could fancy their chances at an upset akin to their triumph over South Africa in the last World Cup.

However, Ireland in their last three games prior to the World Cup would appear to have started to hit their straps again. The performance we saw against Scotland, admittedly an exceptionally poor Scottish effort, in tough conditions demonstrated that Ireland would appear to be back on an upward trajectory just when they need it most.

Japan got the job done against Russia, but didn’t look like the giant killers that some imagine they may be in front of their home crowds on Rugby’s biggest stage. There’s certainly enough there to cause Ireland problems, but at this stage we’re not quite envisaging an upset on Saturday, especially with Ireland fielding an exceptionally capable squad which clearly recognizes and respects the potential threat Japan could pose.

Ireland will want to see a good outing from winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney after they missed the Scotland game due to injury. Meanwhile Jacob Stockdale will need to be at his best to contain Japanese try scoring machine Kotaro Matsushima who looked outstanding against Russia. CJ Stander was back to his bruising best for Ireland and will really need to step up again against Japan’s Amanaki Mafi who is genuinely world class. Also after an outstanding contribution from Jack Carty who took over from Johnny Sexton in the last quarter against Scotland, the young Irish fly half gets the nod at the starting 10 spot for this match. Irish supporters will also be keen to see Joey Carberry make an appearance as Carty’s replacement, after Carberry’s absence with injury.

Overall, despite what we think will be an exceptionally vigorous Japanese challenge, there is just too much class, pedigree and experience in this Irish match day 23 to make the likelihood of an upset a reality. Japan will be brave make no mistake and cause Ireland some problems, but Ireland to ultimately seal the deal by 16 points!

Georgia vs Uruguay – Sunday, September 29th – Kumagaya

After both sides exploits against Wales and Fiji, we have to confess that we are really looking forward to this one. While Uruguay managed to win their match after a heroic effort, Georgia certainly gave Wales an uphill battle at times in the second half. Both these teams really play with their hearts on their sleeves and are likely to be firm crowd favorites during the pool stages.

Georgia are keen to make a statement this tournament as they continue to push for a spot in the Six Nations, and a strong third place finish in their pool would further strengthen that argument. Uruguay meanwhile will continue to be an emerging rugby force in the Americas and with an increasing number of their players plying their trade in Major league Rugby in the US and Top 14 in France, they will also be chasing that third spot and automatic qualification for the next World Cup in France in 2023.

As a result two highly entertaining sides with plenty of grit go head to head with each other. Georgia should have the better forward pack, but as Uruguay showed against Fiji their forwards are no slouches. Uruguay should have the edge in the backs, having displayed some lovely running in the Fiji game, but Georgia has also come a long way since the days of them being recognized as a bone crushing set of forwards but not much else. They too have some silky backs, and as we saw against Wales they were able to make some damaging incisions into the Welsh defenses. In short, two very high quality Tier 2 sides who should provide one of the best underdog competitions of the tournament. Georgia’s reputation being the more heavyweight of the two should see them through in a very tight contest by two points!

Australia vs Wales – Sunday, September 29th – Tokyo

Without a doubt the showpiece event of the weekend! Barring any major upsets this contest will decide Pool D, despite Wales and Australia in particular having their odd moments of uncertainty against Georgia and Fiji. Australia as we predicted found that their rather exuberant running game at times would catch them out against Fiji, particularly if the execution wasn’t quite up to scratch. It wasn’t in the first half and Fiji capitalized as there is nothing they love better than unstructured open play. Australia adopted a much more conservative approach in the second half and it paid dividends.

Wales appeared to take their foot off the gas in the second half against Georgia, and got the rudest of wake up calls for the first quarter. A mistake they are unlikely to repeat against Australia. Much like Scotland though they have serious concerns about how deep they can go into this tournament should the injury gods not be kind to them in the Pool stages.

For a match of this significance both teams are packing a powerhouse match day 23 and bringing out all their big guns. While Wales managed to beat Australia in Cardiff last November for the first time in 8 years, it was at home, and the Welsh record against the Wallabies is not a favorable one. However, this Wallaby side blows so hot and cold, much like the French, that we are all wondering which Wallaby team will turn up on Sunday, even if it looks almost exactly the same on the team sheet bar one or two exceptions as the one that went up against Fiji. Wales meanwhile bring to Tokyo essentially the same team that faced off against Georgia.

The battle of the back rows should be one for the ages with David Pocock and Michael Hooper of Australia up against Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi. Newcomers Isi Naisarani for Australia and Aaron Wainwright for Wales have both impressed, and should be well mentored by the four veterans surrounding them. The battle between Justin Tipuric and David Pocock though is one of the key battles on the park. Pocock seems back to his best after injury and Tipuric is probably one of Test Rugby’s most dependable men in a crisis.

Australia though have gone for a sea change in the half backs, while Wales stick with the tried and trusted formula of Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. Biggar really seems to have a handle on how to pull Wales out of the fire should things start getting away from them and his goal kicking appears to be spot on. Australia bring Will Genia and Bernard Foley back into the mix and for a match of this importance, and despite being really impressed with Nic White, we feel it is the right call. Christian Lealiifano just didn’t seem in the match last weekend for the Wallabies and Bernard Foley and Matt Toomua look like more reliable platforms at number 10. The other notable inclusion for Australia is the long awaited return of Adam Ashley-Cooper on the right wing. However, we feel that the outstanding winger’s best days may be behind him, so expect to see Fijian missile Marika Koroibete and centre Samu Kerevi have more to say in the try scoring department for Australia on Sunday.

The benches look solid, but Australia may have the edge in their front row replacements, as we saw last week against Fiji. Otherwise we think it’s fairly even, and it’s another big call for Welsh fly half Rhys Patchell on the replacements bench. However, we’ve been fans of the Scarlets play maker for a while now and for the most part he seems to rise to big occasions like Sunday’s match.

Two very evenly matched teams face up in what should be a thrilling contest. Two teams who love to run the ball, with Wales perhaps having the better kicking game, but Australia a more enterprising and unpredictable back line. In the forwards it’s even stevens, with the Welsh pack perhaps being the more settled of the two. In short, almost impossible to call but we’re hedging our bets that Wales have a better understanding of the type of game they want to play and how to execute it. No we haven’t been taking betting tips from Rob Howley, but we’re giving it to Wales by three!

Canada and the USA kick off exceptionally challenging World Cup campaigns tomorrow. Canada get their journey in what is essentially the “Pool of no Hope” underway, while the USA commence operations in the “Pool of Death”. In short both teams have the unenviable task of collectively facing up to five of the best teams in the world.

In Canada’s case, New Zealand and South Africa are so beyond them in terms of skill levels at the moment that one is almost scared to watch. Although they managed to give Italy one hell of a scare at the last World Cup, given Canada’s form of late, it’s hard to imagine a repeat performance on the same scale. That leaves a possible consolation win against Namibia as the best that Canada can realistically look forward to, and even that could be a challenge.

For the USA, they start their World Cup journey against a menacing looking English side, widely tipped by many to top Pool C and ultimately have a shot at lifting the tournament’s silverware. If that wasn’t challenging enough the Eagles then have to face France and follow it up with Argentina. You could not ask for three tougher back to back matches at World Cup intensity. While it’s difficult to realistically see the Eagles getting past any of these three heavyweights, even mercurial France, you’d have to argue that they are in a better position than Canada at having an outside chance of causing an upset. With France prone to massive concentration lapses come World Cup, the USA may find les Bleus their biggest potential wild card. Although France beat Argentina by the narrowest of margins at the start of this tournament, and in our opinion some help from the officials, they seem incapable of playing a solid game of two halves at the moment. Argentina on the other hand got better as the match progressed. England would appear to be in a league of their own in terms of Pool C, so it is likely that the USA is targeting a performance tomorrow more than a result. Put in two good games against France and Argentina and then Tonga should be theirs for the taking.

The growth of professional rugby in North America through Major League Rugby is clearly starting to pay dividends, as the shock win for Uruguay today over Fiji showed. With many of the Uruguayan team plying their trade in the MLR, and for Canadian fans two players in the Toronto Arrows, the evidence was there for all to see as there were several standout performances from MLR based players. While it still may be a stretch for Canada or the USA to take down any of the six big guns they will be facing this World Cup, the boost to rugby in North America and the continued expansion of the MLR would be enormous were they to do so.

Italy vs Canada – Thursday, September 26th – Fukuoka

This match in the last World Cup provided the 2015 tournament with one of its most memorable tries, as Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe produced a mesmerizing display of footwork and ball handling skills. In case you’ve forgotten cast your minds back to this.

This will probably be the legendary Canadian winger’s last World Cup, but we can only hope that he still has a few more vintage moments like this left up his sleeve over the next three weeks. Sadly though the rest of his team have struggled to match up since the last World Cup, and even DTH himself has been ominously quiet in the red jersey for much of the four year period leading up to tomorrow.

Canada has struggled plain and simple since the last World Cup and now find themselves ranked 22nd in the world and if things don’t start to improve soon, could find themselves skirting the borders of becoming a Tier 3 nation. We’re still quite a ways from that, though the dizzying fall of Canadian rugby from being ranked 12th in the world at the start of the 2011 World Cup, to their current position of 22 makes for depressing reading. As to what’s gone wrong, there are a myriad of reasons, but gone wrong it has and given the rather daunting Pool Canada find themselves in this year, one has to wonder what further damage will be done to a country whose rugby identity seems in tatters.

Italy will be a tough call tomorrow, and unlikely to be such an opportunity for an upset as they were four years ago. While Italy themselves have failed to really progress beyond being Six Nations wooden spoon holders, the point is they still compete in such competitions as well as having the opportunity to face the big Southern Hemisphere sides every year in November. They have even claimed the odd big scalp such as South Africa, France and Argentina, something it would seem Canada can only dream about at present. Canada will bring plenty of passion and heart to proceedings tomorrow, but whether or not it will be enough to unseat a side to determined to finish with nothing less than third place in their Pool is questionable. Watch the above video again though and you can’t blame Canada for thinking big.

As Canada’s only outside chance at a big upset, we once again scratched our heads over the selection for this one

Let’s be completely honest, the chance of Canada in its present condition upsetting New Zealand or South Africa’s apple cart is such a pipe dream it’s sadly laughable. Surely an upset against Italy and a win over Namibia, thus potentially securing them a third place finish in the Pool and automatic qualification for the next World Cup, given their struggle to qualify for this one would have been the goal. Consequently, you would have thought the selectors would have placed all the emphasis on this match as Canada’s number one priority. Agreed one doesn’t want to completely lose face against New Zealand and South Africa, but the bigger picture should surely have been the priority. While we accept that the loss of Evan Olmstead and Taylor Paris have no doubt forced the selectors hand somewhat, we still remain somewhat baffled. In truth it’s only in the back row and on the wings, where we feel Canada will be truly competitive on Thursday. For the rest of it, well we may be surprised but we’re not holding our breath. Italy on the other hand appear to be taking no chances and field a squad that has proved themselves at European club level as well as catching the eye at times during the Six Nations.

Canada’s back row – something to get excited about

While we took one look at Italy’s back row offering for this match and almost recoiled in horror as it boasts some very frightening characters, Canada should also be able to provide plenty of heart and all out grit here to try and counter it. As regular readers of this blog know, we are huge fans of Toronto Arrows stalwart Mike Sheppard who finds himself moved from the second row to the back for this match. However, his work rate is off the charts and never say die attitude will be an enormous talisman to Canada tomorrow. Tyler Ardron has been hands down Canada’s best player of 2019, and Lucas Rumball appears to have recovered from the injury that saw him miss much of the Toronto Arrows MLR campaign. It may not be the world’s flashiest back row but it is one that can definitely muscle up to the likes of Sebastien Negri, Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn, even if the Italian trio are the more fancied unit. The three Canadians will put their bodies on the line and then some tomorrow and expect plenty of heroics from the Canuck trio.

Canada’s half back combination really needs to click tomorrow and hasn’t shown much evidence of it so far

We won’t say much about the choice of the rather pedestrian scrum half Gordon McRorie for this match, since we’ve said enough already on that score this year. However, he and Irish import Peter Nelson don’t appear to complement each other, and up against a very composed high energy Italian unit, we feel Canada is going to struggle tomorrow. Jamie Mackenzie makes the bench as scrum half cover, and we’d prefer to see him on sooner rather than later tomorrow, as Italy’s bench offerings for both positions will continue to provide pace and accuracy.

Canada may have DTH but Italy have Matteo Minozzi

Agreed DTH van der Merwe plays on the wing and Minozzi at fullback, but whatever DTH can do so can Minozzi and probably more at this stage. The electric Italian fullback really lit up the 2018 Six Nations for Italy and was one of the players of the tournament, but injury left him sidelined for a year. He appeared to be spooling up nicely against Namibia last week and Canada are going to have to watch him like a hawk, as just like DTH he is absolutely lethal given any kind of space. Tommaso Benvenuti against the legendary Canadian winger should also be a tasty match up, backed up by a bruising and highly mobile Italian centre unit. If Canada make the mistake of relying too heavily on DTH to get them out of jail or work miracles, as they tend to do all too often, Canada could be in for a long afternoon.

Verdict

This may have been one of the great matches of the 2015 World Cup Pool Stages, but we fear this edition may not have quite the same luster. If Canada are to reverse their seemingly inevitable slide into the abyss of Tier 3 rugby then arguably this is their biggest match of this World Cup, yet we can’t help feeling that they are heading into it with one hand tied behind their back. We sincerely hope it is not the case and we will have plenty of egg to wipe off our face tomorrow morning, but we simply can’t get the tea leaves to arrange themselves with any great degree of optimism. A tough encounter in which, as they always do, Canada will put up a brave fight, but which the Azurri will comfortably take by 21 points!

England vs USA – Thursday, September 26th – Kobe

If the USA are to make a statement that they are genuinely an emerging rugby power, and that the growth of a professional league in North America is strengthening that contention, then perhaps more than any other tomorrow’s match against England will be the proof, irrespective of the fact that an upset is not really on the cards. If the USA are able to make England question themselves to a greater degree than Tonga did, and on the basis of that go on to score an upset over Argentina or France, then the argument that American rugby has come of age will be hard to dispute. They certainly have the squad to do it tomorrow with a good mix of players plying their trade in Europe and the MLR.

England bring their usual powerhouse squad, and know that they may be facing a side very keen to make a point. England perhaps underestimated Tonga at their peril in their World Cup opener and at times seemed off the mark. However, they still ultimately kept Tonga comfortably at bay and perhaps most telling of all not a single Tongan crossed the English whitewash. The USA might be able to match it up front with England relatively well tomorrow but we’re not convinced their backs are of equal caliber. England will want an emphatic victory over a challenging opponent tomorrow that pushes them hard in preparation for their crucial encounters with France and Argentina – we think in the shape of the Eagles they may well get it.

You might end up seeing the name John Quill a lot in this tournament

If the niggling injuries that have haunted the big American back rower don’t come back to haunt him this World Cup, then Quill could be one of the Eagles big breakout players this tournament. We’ve been particularly impressed with his antics in the MLR with Rugby United New York this season, and he couldn’t ask for a better test of his mettle in the shape of England’s Tom Curry. Curry is arguably one of England’s most important players, and in our opinion an English Captain in waiting for the next tournament in 2023. If Quill can match up to him, then the USA have a genuine big match talent for this World Cup. With Quill ably assisted by another of the USA’s headline grabbing players, number 8 Cam Dolan, expect some fireworks in this part of the park from the Americans, even up against the likes of Curry, Billy Vunipola and Mark Wilson.

Another benchmark of how far the USA has come will be the contest between AJ MacGinty and England’s George Ford

The USA’s Irish import brings some real pedigree to the Eagles. He is already a well recognized facet of the English Premiership in his regular exploits with Sale Sharks, but MacGinty is a talent that the USA holds dear to its plans for this World Cup. If MacGinty can run the game for the Americans to the degree where his opposite number George Ford is unable to really carve out a genuine advantage for England, then the Americans could definitely rattle the English. As we have seen on numerous occasions this year when England, and Ford in particular are spooked, they tend to unravel slightly. When he is on form there is no denying that MacGinty is capable of pulling it off, and the Eagles will be placing a great deal of trust in their play maker tomorrow. If MacGinty can keep them in it and force Ford’s hand, then the Eagles will certainly be able to keep the English on their toes. Owen Farrell will ultimately be there for England to restore order should MacGinty become too problematic, but expect the American play maker to make life difficult at times for England, and punish them with the boot for any disciplinary infractions.

At the end of the day though it’s that English set of backs that will really test how far the Eagles have come in the last four years

The Americans may be courageous and play with plenty of heart in this part of the park, but we have trouble seeing them really containing the likes of Piers Francis, Joe Cokanasiga, Jamie Joseph and Anthony Watson. Despite some feeling that Elliot Daly shouldn’t be England’s first choice fullback we beg to differ. Sure he makes the odd mistake but in general he is a pretty reliable and capable backstop for England with a rather handy boot. Our one over riding impression of MLR rugby is that while there may be lots of tries by the league’s backs they emanate from generally poor back line defense. A trait which the Americans may end up paying heavily for tomorrow. While their forwards may be able to grunt it out with England, defensively we feel they may struggle to contain England at the back.

Verdict

While we don’t feel this is a match that’s too hard to call, we do feel that it could well be one of the most interesting of the Pool Stages. A big brash rugby nation desperate to prove that it is a growing force to be reckoned with, up against the game’s traditional order. While the Eagles will clearly want to cause the upset of the century, a solid performance against England that sees them remain competitive with the Men in White till the final whistle will be more important than the result. If they do manage that then they will make a big statement about where Rugby in the US is headed. England should anticipate a Test match that will be excellent preparation for their must win encounters with France and Argentina, but one which they should ultimately emerge comfortable winners by 18 points!

 

It is widely assumed that Ireland and Scotland will be the teams that progress from Pool A to the quarter finals. There is the wild card that is Japan and how home advantage could cause them to create two upsets this tournament as opposed to their one historic victory in the last World Cup, but for most their money is on the two Celtic tigers to progress to the next round. What faces either of them is a rather intimidating quarter final prospect with either New Zealand or South Africa. On the basis of today’s dust up between the two Pool B Southern Hemisphere superpowers, you could argue that a quarter final date with South Africa would be marginally preferable to one with New Zealand. Consequently in a World Cup opener for Scotland and Ireland, the stakes could not be higher in a must win match scenario.

Despite the form that catapulted them to dizzying heights in 2018, seeming to have deserted them, Ireland still look the better placed of the two sides to have South Africa as opposed to New Zealand on their dance card in four weeks time. Scotland will bring plenty to the table tomorrow and are more than up to the task of ripping up Ireland’s preferred quarter final invitation, but they will need a performance of the ages to do it, despite Ireland’s recent wobbles. With Ireland having dispatched Six Nations Grand Slam Champions Wales twice over the summer at home and away, it could be argued they are the side with less to prove tomorrow. Yes we know there was that horror show at Twickenham, for which there is little or no explanation, but Ireland do seem to have moved on from that. However, it is Scotland who on their day can play a style of rugby akin to a Northern Hemisphere version of Fiji at full throttle. In short, there are no guarantees tomorrow.

Ireland vs Scotland – Sunday, September 22nd – Yokohama

Tomorrow is a must win match for both teams plain and simple. You could have argued that the teams might have been able to judge that call a bit better after watching today’s match between New Zealand and South Africa and deciding who they would rather face. However, this is the first match of a long tournament for both teams, and while the omens look good for both teams progressing to the semi-final, barring the threat that Japan could pose on home soil, we can’t help feeling that after today South Africa is the preferred quarter final opponent of choice for both teams. However, that’s not exactly a comforting thought.  South Africa may have lost today and not looked as sharp and polished as New Zealand at times, but there is no denying they put up one hell of a fight! In short, New Zealand or South Africa are daunting potential opponents in your first kick at the knockout stages, and to be honest if we were Ireland or Scotland we’d want neither, as the likelihood of it all ending in tears is just too strong a possibility.

So the priorities tomorrow will be pretty simple for Ireland and Scotland – throw everything at each other including the kitchen sink and get the win, but in doing so avoid the types of injuries that invariably have caused Ireland to never get beyond the quarter finals in a World Cup, and Scotland only manage a semi-final once, way back in 1991.

It’s not quite Ireland’s best, but not far from it

For us there are three notable omissions for a game of such stature from an Irish point of view. Dan Leavy, but that was always going to be the case after that horrific injury earlier this year, and Rob Kearney and Keith Earls. With Kearney and Earls being wrapped in cotton wool for the quarter finals and beyond, should Ireland make a break with World Cup history, their omission is understandable even if they could have played this match. Scotland are going to put Ireland to the test under the high ball, and Ireland will miss their version of Israel Folau, as Rob Kearney sits this one out and Jordan Larmour gets his biggest chance to date to prove he is the future of Ireland’s 15 jersey. Andrew Conway may have more gas out wide than Keith Earls, but Earls sheer reliability and work rate is something that Ireland has found great comfort in when the chips are down. Otherwise this is Ireland at maximum strength and Scotland will have to be at their best to keep them in check. It’s a very good Scottish team, make no mistake, but Ireland if they click have the kind of cohesive pedigree in this match day 23 that could take them back to the glory days of 2018. Either way we’ll find out tomorrow if Ireland’s drop in form was simply a ruse to keep everyone guessing till Japan, or if the rest of the world really has got Ireland taped once and for all.

While Ireland need Rory Best’s leadership on the pitch, others will really need to take the mantle for the future tomorrow

Many have argued, ourselves included that second rower James Ryan is the future of the Irish captaincy. While he may be a little green around the edges, no pun intended, he is part of the leadership cadre that will need to step up to provide support to Rory Best who is clearly battling with the demands of the role at times in the twilight of his outstanding career. Others like Peter O’Mahony and Jonathan Sexton will also need to put their shoulder to the wheel over the coming weeks, as part of a watertight and cohesive collective Irish leadership, especially as this is something that Scotland seemed to have had more success in building. While we feel slightly treacherous in admitting this, we have to admit we felt that in terms of Ireland’s set pieces in their final warm up game with Wales, Hooker Niall Scannell made a better fist of it than Best, and when the Irish Captain did come on in the final quarter Ireland’s dominance of the game started to slip. While Best may still be the talisman to the squad, there are other players whose quiet leadership and skill sets now need to come to the fore.

Is Hamish Watson Scotland’s most important player?

In big crunch matches like this, we’d argue yes. As most readers know we are huge fans of the Scottish wrecking ball, as he is just everywhere on the park for Scotland. If Scotland need a talisman on Sunday, then Watson embodies it by the bucket load. We regard Watson as the Northern Hemisphere’s version of New Zealand’s Ardie Savea, and we’d argue you’d be hard pressed to top that as a compliment. Sure Scotland have some genuine game changers and play makers in the likes of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and the secret tactical nuclear missile they keep on the bench in the shape of winger Darcy Graham, but for us nobody epitomizes the surprise package of frenetic pace and skill that Scotland have become better than Hamish Watson. Whenever he gets the ball, Scotland experience a sea change in momentum, and Ireland will need to work hard at keeping the dynamic forward in check.

Sexton needs to develop the kind of relationship with Stockdale that Damian Penaud and Antoine Dupont showed today for France

If you watched arguably the day’s most exciting match, that between France and Argentina, then that partnership between Penaud and Dupont was a thing of beauty. Penaud knows how to use space and Dupont knows how to put him there. Ireland’s key play maker fly half Jonathan Sexton and winger Jacob Stockdale will need to develop a similar relationship tomorrow and for the rest of the tournament. When Sexton does bring out his first choice set of conducting batons, Ireland veritably hum and speed and space merchants like Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour but especially Jacob Stockdale shine. We haven’t seen much of it to be honest so far from Ireland and Sexton in 2019, and Stockdale has been ominously quiet for much of the year, but you know it’s there if Ireland can get it right. Having watched South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe carve huge chunks of space out of the New Zealand defence today seemingly at will, then Ireland need to start practicing for whoever their dance partner may end up being come the quarter finals.

Verdict

It may be damp tomorrow in Yokohama which may make ball handling a nightmare, especially given the humidity. Apparently both teams have been practicing chucking balls around lathered in shampoo, baby oil etc so they should be in good stead to handle the conditions. Both these teams, but Scotland in particular, love to run and we hope the conditions don’t stifle this ambition too much. Either way it should be a highly charged and entertaining high stakes spectacle. Hard to call, but on paper this does look like the Irish side that turned the rugby world upside down last year, with Scotland perhaps relishing the underdog tag, albeit one loaded with X-factor. A tough contest in store but one which a better drilled and perhaps more comprehensively coached Irish side should clinch by 8 points!

The World Cup’s fourth Pool Match is almost larger than the tournament itself. Many people with good reason, see South Africa and New Zealand as the two teams leading the charge to lift the Webb Ellis trophy on November 2nd, with England, Wales and Ireland snapping closely at their heels. Nevertheless, there is no question that this is THE match of the Pool stages. If you only watch one Pool game in this year’s tournament then this is it, as it simply doesn’t get any bigger than this!

This is one of rugby’s greatest traditional rivalries at the best of times and throw in the added pressure of a World Cup and the intensity goes through the roof. South Africa have come a long way in the relatively short space of less than two years, and you could argue that their rise has highlighted some emerging cracks in New Zealand’s dominance of the global game since 2011.

With that said though New Zealand still look the most finished product of any team out there, and have a depth of talent that is the envy of the rest of the world. South Africa have become a real thorn in their side, but only just and consistent failures in performance are something you rarely see from the All Blacks. They may stumble at one hurdle, but are likely to take the next one completely in their stride.

New Zealand vs South Africa – Saturday, September 21st – Yokohama

So many matchups – so many questions

As a who’s who of Test rugby heavyweights lining up against each other, the contest breaks down into a question of units vs individuals within those units. Start with the front row. New Zealand pack the better unit, but if Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff show up in excess for the Springboks then New Zealand could well look out of puff before too long. When you move to the second row then South Africa are fielding a more accomplished unit but Sam Whitelock is just such a presence for New Zealand on the field that he alone could potentially negate anything South Africa throws at the All Blacks. It’s a better All Black back row on paper, but if Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen and Pieter Steph du Toit really bring their A game can New Zealand contain them, especially once the benches come into play?

It’s a sharper looking and more settled halfback unit for South Africa, but if Mo’unga really clicks at Test level on the biggest stage you’d argue he has enough X-factor to leave South Africa clutching at straws. It’s only really in the backs that New Zealand start to pull away. The All Blacks center pairing is likely to run rings around the Springbok offering and we think is likely to prove the best in the tournament in the shape of Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown. On the wings you’d also have to give it to New Zealand, but South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe is such a game changer that he could turn the game on its head at a pivotal moment in the Springboks favor. Lastly you’d have to say that New Zealand has the last line of defence sewn up with Beauden Barrett, but he is not as accustomed to the role as South Africa’s Willie le Roux who when on song can be unstoppable.

On the benches you’d have to argue it’s anybody’s day, but both sides pack a few individuals who could end up being the talking points of the tournament. New Zealand give us Sonny Bill Williams and TJ Perenara and South Africa give us Rugby Championship sensation Herschel Jantjies and RG Snyman (with the latter being perhaps one of the most frightening looking players in the tournament akin to the great Sebastien Chabal of France – just looking at these guys you know it’s going to hurt!)

Aaron Smith vs TJ Perenara, and how long will the latter actually spend on the bench

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. New Zealand’s form scrum half for a match of this nature is without a doubt TJ Perenara in our opinion. Thus imagine our surprise to see him on the bench. This guy packs more intensity than a roomful of politicians squabbling over Brexit. Aaron Smith is a solid offering but he just doesn’t pack the speed and turn of pace that Perenara brings, and has also been running the show in some of New Zealand’s more recent slip ups. Coach Steve Hansen still seems to regard Smith as his go to starting scrum half, but we feel he’d be better placed to have Perenara calling the shots. Consequently we feel that you’re going to see Perenara sooner rather than later tomorrow. If things are not quite going New Zealand’s way, expect to see Smith replaced before the first half whistle.

They may have lost a little of their shine lately but we think New Zealand are still the side everyone knows they have to beat in this tournament

At the end of the day, South Africa are in it to win it make no mistake, and have proven themselves more than capable of doing so. However, we still have trouble buying into the argument that New Zealand are a force that is slowly waning. Possibly in the long term yes, but not this tournament. Whether or not they will ultimately win the thing remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised to see them as one of the parties in attendance on November 2nd. Before any team can even contemplate winning the World Cup they know they have to beat New Zealand first, unless someone else does the job for them on the road to the final. For South Africa their chance to lift the Webb Ellis trophy starts tomorrow, but they have the unenviable task of having to potentially face the All Blacks twice should both teams make it to the final. So the ultimate question on everyone’s lips is – is this a dress rehearsal for the final? If only we had a crystal ball. Either way the winner tomorrow will have a gentler route through the quarter-finals so a win is an absolute must for both teams, and one of rugby’s greatest rivalries will live up to the intensity such encounters are famous for.

Verdict

This has caused more debate than any other topic related to the World Cup. It’s the first crunch match even though it isn’t the knockout stages. It will be a big, loud and potentially epic contest that will have all of us glued to our television screens, along with the rest of the world. Whoever comes out on top may not necessarily win the World Cup, but it will tell us a great deal about what the rest of the teams will have to do to get to the final. South Africa have consistently surprised us this past year, and could well do it again. However, as good as they are, we think it’s still too early to say that they have dethroned the All Blacks in the race to the finish line. A tight and at times thrilling encounter that makes no excuses when it comes to physicality, but one which should see New Zealand just come out on top in one for the ages by 2 points!

Aptly named the Pool of Death, Pool C sees three heavyweights who all have a chance of going through to the knockout stages. It could be easily argued that England are the best prepared of the three to make it out alive, but Argentina and France are more than capable of upsetting the established order. That being said though, tomorrow’s encounter is beyond critical for Argentina and France, as a loss for either team will then make their encounters with England a matter of life and death. Both these teams have flair and panache by the bucket load, but consistency is simply not a weapon in their armory. Argentina have not fared well internationally of late, and France fluctuate between hopeless and inspired in equal measure. The bottom line – on their day when either of these teams click they are a joy to watch and can potentially beat anyone.

Consequently, tomorrow’s match is one to savor and should be a contest with both sides throwing their proverbial kitchen sinks at each other. Both teams are intensely physical yet possess some of the silkiest backs in the modern game. It’s the World Cup’s first genuine clash of giants and one which we’ve been looking forward to since the Pools were announced.

France vs Argentina – Saturday, September 21st – Tokyo

Northern Hemisphere flair merchants meet their Southern Hemisphere counterparts

In terms of ability and play styles you couldn’t ask for two more evenly matched sides. Their starting XVs pack thirty players who almost complement each other in terms of ability. In short, there is very little in it. If we were to pick out any differences in quality between the two sides then it would be the benches, with France packing the more heavyweight bench in terms of proven ability. The key for Argentina will be being able to be in it toe to toe with France till at least the 70th minute without having to draw too heavily on their own bench.

One area where France will not need flair will be in the front row. Argentina despite in our opinion having a better second and back row, their scrum as a whole continues to creak, whereas France looks more than comfortable here. In the physical contests in the loose, Argentina’s brute force coupled with some genuine flair, spearheaded by Captain Pablo Matera is going to a problem for France all afternoon. France will need to rely on their ability to grind teams down at the breakdown, and force the Argentinians into costly handling errors due to their more expansive style of play up front.

In the backs though it is a fair contest but once again French Coach Jacques Brunel has demonstrated his propensity to tinker with players out of position, as Virimi Vakatawa finds himself moved from the wing to centre. Meanwhile warm up sensation winger Alivereti Raka doesn’t even get a look in on the bench. However with Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud thrown into the mix then flair is the key word, with Penaud being touted as one of the potential players of the tournament. However, Argentina simply ooze class and flair from 11-15 and we’d argue are the more dynamic and cohesive unit, which France could spend more time trying to contain than creating opportunities of their own. However, this part of the park should provide the kind of flat out entertainment that we are hoping these two sides will put on show tomorrow.

Will France regret the omission of Felix Lambey in their World Cup plans, especially against that Pumas second row

When Coach Jacques Brunel announced his World Cup squad, we like most were shocked at not seeing the outstanding second rower on the team sheet. Like most readers of this blog know, we don’t place a great deal of faith in Brunel as a Coach, and this decision simply reinforced that opinion. A bruising ball carrier and a solid bet in the lineouts, with an ability to create turnovers akin to South Africa’s Malcolm Marx on a good day, Lambey we felt was a shoe in. Given the lineout stealing abilities of Argentina’s Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini, we would have thought that Lambey is the kind of player you would at least want on the bench. Not to be it would seem. Arthur Iturria and Sebastien Vahaamahina are outstanding players in their own right, with Vahaamahina likely to be effective at providing the kind of niggle Argentina’s Lavanini excels at. However, we prefer Iturria in the back row, and are still scratching our heads at the omission of one of France’s best emerging talents by a country mile. Lambey may still make it to Japan, if the injury gods are unkind to France, but we fear it is one selection decision that France will deeply regret in the weeks to come.

Experience vs youth in the halfbacks – which pair will seize the day?

Argentina field two accomplished veterans in the half back department – scrum half Tomas Cubelli and fly half Nicolas Sanchez. France meanwhile offer up two young bucks by comparison, but that is not said disparagingly as both fly half Romain Ntamack and scrum half Antoine Dupont have been two of the most successful aspects of French rugby this year. Dynamic is an understatement when talking of these two, especially Dupont. Argentina may have the wiser heads, but there is no denying that the French youngsters can turn a game upside down in the blink of an eye. France back them up with a pair of veterans on the bench in the shape of Camille Lopez and Maxime Machenaud, but there is no denying the all out ability of the two French youngsters being given the starting berths at 9 and 10. In terms of X-factor tomorrow our money is on France, and if the rest of the French team can keep up with this dynamic duo, it could be a long and challenging afternoon for Argentina.

Verdict

A game that is almost impossible to call much like the one following it in Pool B between South Africa and New Zealand. Of one thing we can be certain, entertainment is on the cards. However, our money is on the South Americans but not by much. Coach Brunel seems to be tinkering a bit too much for our liking whereas this Argentinian pack are exceptionally familiar with each other and have been playing together in their assigned positions for the better part of a year. Furthermore, the World Cup always seems to bring out the best in Argentina regardless of what they may have looked like heading into the tournament. You could argue the same for France, but Argentina still look the more settled and cohesive of the two. Consequently, our money is on the Pumas by four points provided they can keep the French bench at bay in the final ten minutes, in a match that should see the lead change hands on a regular basis!

While the opener with Japan and Russia had its merit, there is no denying that this is the first of the weekend’s key fixtures that have got everyone talking. Australia come into this tournament rather like the Southern Hemisphere’s version of France. Brilliant one day, hopeless the next – the question on everyone’s lips is which Australian team will show up in Sapporo tomorrow and will it be good enough to maintain consistency over seven matches on the trot? We have to be honest we have our doubts.

Up against them is a Fijian side that packs more excitement than a river barge full of fireworks in Sydney Harbor on New Year’s Eve. Fiji have become everyone’s banana skin in waiting and Australia know that if they are not at their best, they could very well slide into touch and out of the tournament before it’s really got going. Perhaps because of that it is no coincidence that Australia’s starting XV for tomorrow boasts 3 Fijian born players, who may have that edge in understanding how to get past their fellow countrymen in white jerseys.

Fiji have always been entertaining to watch at World Cups, but there is something distinctly different about the 2019 edition. Renowned for extraordinary speed and ball handling skills, Fiji has now developed a holistic approach to their game that also boasts a competent forward pack. The worrying thing for opposition sides is that many of those forwards also boast the same speed and ball handling skills that in the past have made their backs so famous. Fiji still lack a lot of the overall structure necessary to win at this level, but there is no denying that they have the power, pace and above all skill to upset many an apple cart, as France found out the hard way last November.

Australia vs Fiji – Saturday, September 21st – Sapporo

Australia will want to keep this game tight, as any propensity for loose play could see Fiji run riot

Don’t expect any fireworks from the Wallabies tomorrow in Sapporo. Their biggest concern will be keeping this game as tight and structured as possible, as space and loose play are just a few of Fiji’s favorite things. Australia have their own attacking threats up the middle and out wide make no mistake, but their defensive skills will be put to the Test first and foremost. We just think it is unlikely that Australia are going to lay on too much of the razzle dazzle in attack, when they have a set of Fijian opportunistic speedsters waiting to pounce on any mistake, and let’s face it when Australian execution on attack is off, it’s really off. As a result if you’re looking for excitement from the Wallabies tomorrow, you’re probably backing the wrong horse. True blue conservatism is likely to be the order of the day, especially with opening night jitters coming into play for Australia.

This edition of the Flying Fijians is a lot more than just fleet footed dazzling ball handling skills

Like we said above, Fijian rugby is clearly a different beast than what we’re used to. They can still take your breath away starting deep in their own 22, from some outlandish ball playing up the entire length of the field, but now they can also set that in motion from the set pieces. They are better organised and are much more of a team effort than a collection of individuals naturally blessed with the kind of skills most players only develop after years of grueling effort. In short, they have been and continue to be one of our favorite sides to watch, but the odds on them getting past some of the big teams are significantly increased as they have become much more clinical and accomplished in their approach to the game.

Their scrum may still be a little suspect, and question marks still linger around their overall defensive skills. However, on attack they can menace from the set pieces and in open play. Expect to see second rower Leone Nakarawa transform from a lineout wrecking force of nature to instant winger in the blink of an eye, while Peceli Yato causes just as much grief in the back row. They have an accomplished half back pairing, and then there’s the small matter of some of those backs, with Semi Radradra being any defensive coach’s worst nightmare, but plenty of others dominating the headlines while on club duty in France such as Waisea Nayaclevu, Josua Tuisova and Levani Botia.

If you are suffering from opening night nerves, something Australia have seemed prone to, then Fiji is probably the last side you want to meet

Australia do seem to be rattled by big occasions lately, and the opening game of a World Cup is a prime example of where the Wallabies’ nerves could get the better of them, especially against a side as unpredictable as Fiji. Australia would probably have been much more comfortable with someone like Uruguay or Georgia as their first order of business. Their recent warm up encounter with Samoa was a tight affair and didn’t exactly make the Wallabies look like giant killers, and Fiji are twice the side that Samoa is. Fiji are likely to come into this match feeling like they have nothing to lose, and eager to chance their hand at spoiling Australia and Wales’ assumed progress to the knockout stages. Australia on the other hand are under all kinds of pressure from the get go. A dismal couple of years since the last World Cup and a public back home demanding results lest the game slip further into obscurity in the Australian sporting psyche, means that they have much more to prove than Fiji.

Verdict

Australia should and can win this match. However, we very much doubt that it will be a comfortable affair for the Wallabies. We fully expect to see Fiji run them very close at times and genuinely strike fear into the hearts of Michael Hooper and his charges. Expect to see the odd dazed look from Wallaby players as Fiji pull off a seemingly impossible try. Nevertheless, Australia seem pretty hell bent on laying down a marker that they want to maintain for the rest of this World Cup and tomorrow’s match will be the first step in the process. Let’s face it, everyone had written them off at the last World Cup and they made it to the final. An edgy but conservative display from Australia should get them their first win of the tournament by six points, but Fiji to give them numerous hair raising moments that will test their resolve to the full!

 

If like us you love your Test Rugby, then you’ve already negotiated with the family that for all intents and purposes this weekend, you will be around but in body only. Your mind, spirit and attention however will be firmly focused on a TV, computer or tablet screen be it in your house, your mates’ houses or at a bar. If you’re one of the lucky ones who took out a second mortgage to spend some time with your heroes live in Japan over the next seven weeks, then we salute you and wish we could join you.

Yes it’s a rugby lover’s Christmas present that sadly only comes around once every four years. Seven glorious weeks of Test Rugby with the stakes getting higher and higher each weekend. This opening weekend however sees a raft of key matches that will very much determine the likely pecking order of the finalists as they enter the knockout stages in four weeks time.

It’s shaping up to be one of the most open World Cups in as long as we can remember, and we really hope it lives up to its promise. The last World Cup was very much the South vs the Rest of the World, but this year’s edition is very much a case of North vs South and may the best team win.

As much as we’d like to, we can’t possibly cover all 48 matches. Instead we’ll focus on what we consider to be the critical Pool games in terms of potential progression to the knockout stages. Naturally once the tournament does get to the knockouts then we’re into every match lock, stock and barrel.

For this weekend we’ve picked out four matches that are likely to have an enormous bearing on what the quarter finals should look like. First up we have a look at Australia vs Fiji. Fiji could well be the banana skin that Pool D’s two heavyweights, Australia and Wales slip up on. Next up it’s a key Pool C fixture between Argentina and France. Both teams have caused no end of grief for the established favorites in tournaments gone by, and Pool C is the tournament’s only real Pool of Death as three teams, England, Argentina and France have the chance to go through. England look well placed to top the table, but France and Argentina excel at raining on other people’s parades and the Men in White will be keenly aware of this fact.

Also on Saturday is the tournament’s clash of titans, as New Zealand and South Africa do battle with each other in Pool B, in arguably the most anticipated match of the Pool stages. Both of these teams are strong favorites to lift the trophy and a terrifying prospect for Ireland, Scotland and Japan in Pool A as whoever emerges from the Pool stages will have to brace for a nightmare quarter final with either of these two Southern Hemisphere giants.

Lastly on Sunday, we’ll be taking a look at Pool A’s first but probably deciding game, between Ireland and Scotland. Japan could well pull off a miracle and emerge as the second team to go on to the quarters from Pool A, but most people’s money, ours included and with no disrespect to Japan, is on Ireland and Scotland to get to the knockout stages. Consequently Sunday’s match will most likely decide who tops the Pool and thus what kind of quarter final opponent they will have to look forward to in either South Africa or New Zealand.

A thrilling weekend in prospect and one that will definitely get the tournament off to an explosive start. Starting tomorrow, rather than our usual five pointer previews we’ll be distilling our thoughts down to three key questions per match. We’ll get back to our regular format come the quarters, but for now with everything we have to look at between now and October 19th, we’ll need to keep it simple. We’ll be pushing them out starting tomorrow, so stay tuned and here’s to a great tournament in the making!