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 most 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!

It’s actually a fairly busy weekend in Test Rugby terms, as there are a plethora of “friendlies” taking place in both Hemispheres. Sadly it will be quite a challenge for us to get easy access to any of them here in Canada, the only exception to that being the Canada/USA game in Vancouver on Saturday. However, as of Thursday night, there is very little information about the Canada game, such as team lineups, referees etc. If they do put something out tomorrow we may have time to have a look at it, but otherwise for all intents and purposes it’s a mystery game. You’ll be able to watch it on TSN where hopefully it becomes less of an enigma.

The big action is in Europe with England taking on Italy on Friday, and Scotland hosting Georgia. We don’t have access to these games via regular channels/streaming services here in Canada. With both games likely to be a foregone conclusion in terms of the winners, with no disrespect to Italy or Georgia, we’ll just be looking at the Ireland/Wales game.

Wales take a full strength team to Dublin, and one which will most likely start against Australia, Fiji and Georgia in the World Cup. By the same token Wales and Coach Warren Gatland will hope that the injury gods are kind to them on Saturday, as in the game last weekend it was clear that as good as Wales are, outside of their first choice match day 23 travelling to Dublin, depth is limited.

Ireland bring out a star studded cast for this one and the expectations on them will be high. While injuries will be a concern for the Coaching staff, Ireland really need to make a statement that they mean business at the World Cup, something that it’s been hard to believe in much this year. After their blowout against England a fortnight ago, they salvaged some pride against a second string Welsh side in Cardiff last Saturday, but it wasn’t exactly a performance that would have caused either of their potential quarter final opponents, New Zealand or South Africa, any sleepless nights. The problem is so far this year Ireland have looked average at best and downright awful for a lot of the time. With a potential pool decider against Scotland as their World Cup opener only 15 days away, Ireland need to find their groove fast and make it stick.

So here’s what got us talking in relation to the last big show in Dublin before all eyes turn to the land of the rising sun.

Ireland vs Wales – Saturday, September 7th – Dublin

Two all star squads go head to head in Dublin on Saturday, but it begs the question – how hard will they really go at it with the main event less than two weeks away, and neither side wanting to be burdened with injuries? You could argue that Ireland will want to lay down a marker against the second best team in the world if you believe World Rugby’s ranking system (and we’re in the non believer camp). We are not denying that Wales are an outstanding team at the moment and clear contenders for World Cup glory. However, we struggle to believe they have the kind of depth necessary to rival New Zealand’s dominance of said ranking system in the last few years. Furthermore, if Ireland had beaten Wales last weekend by fifteen points last Saturday, then they would have become number one in the world, which based on their form of 2019 would have been absurd. So like we say no disrespect to the teams themselves, but we don’t place much stock in the ranking system.

Whichever way you cut it this weekend though an interesting contest is still on offer. Ireland are likely to want to make some kind of statement against Wales, as the last time they met Alun Wyn Jones and his merry men this year in the Six Nations, they received a rather harsh schooling in the finer arts of the oval ball. The humiliation of that loss and the fact they failed to get any points on the board until the last play of the game, is probably still hurting, especially as the game was originally touted as the biggest game of the tournament. Wales clearly read the script that matched the billing but Ireland were on a completely different set of pace notes altogether.

Ireland got a much needed win last weekend but it still failed to impress, and make us really believe that this Irish side is the same one that took the world by storm in 2018. Perhaps we’ll see glimmers of that this weekend, but it still seems too little too late heading into the World Cup. Whether or not Coach Joe Schmidt has tried to lull the rest of the world into complacency regarding Ireland and the World Cup, and really does have an arsenal of tactics up his sleeve that he is waiting to unleash and catch everyone completely off guard remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Irish fans will want to see some kind of a convincing performance on Saturday, as well as the medics playing solitaire in the tunnels of the Aviva as opposed to running about the pitch. For Wales it will be business as usual, and there is no denying that an away win over an all star Irish squad would be just the tonic to get this Welsh squad in the right frame of mind for the big show in Japan and that niggly opener against Georgia.

It’s Rory Best’s last performance in Dublin in an Irish jersey and he’ll want to make it count

Niall Scannell certainly impressed last weekend in Cardiff, as Ireland’s set pieces and particularly the lineout looked much more solid, after the mess we saw at Twickenham. It was unfortunate that Ireland’s fortunes in the match last Saturday in Cardiff started to slide once he went to the bench and Rory Best came on. The Irish Captain’s form has deserted him lately and there was little question that Scannell looked the more effective in the number two jersey. All that said though there is no question that Best’s leadership and motivation for his charges is still an enormously important contribution. Say what you will but he was always going to get the starter jersey for this match, and we have a hunch that it may well prove to be one that helps him find the spark that has been so valuable to this Irish team over the last five years.

We wouldn’t want to be in Jean Kleyn’s shoes

There is no getting away from the fact that the omission of Devin Toner from Coach Joe Schmidt’s World Cup squad raised many an eyebrow including quite a few of ours. Toner may not be the flashiest player on the park, but there is no denying the value of his presence in this Irish team over the years. While we have mixed feelings on the residency rule that has allowed South African Jean Kleyn to qualify for Ireland just in time for the World Cup, he has clearly demonstrated a set of qualities that Schmidt feels he needs in Japan, particularly in terms of physicality against sides like New Zealand and South Africa. Something which Toner who has battled with injury in the last year has at times failed to deliver. Nevertheless, Toner’s omission from the squad has certainly been seen as a controversial call, and the pressure on Kleyn on Saturday to justify his selection in front of a dubious public will be immense.

Once again it’s another powerhouse back row contest

Last week’s was excellent and this weekend’s billing should provide more of the same fare. Another of Ireland’s South Africans CJ Stander will also be under the spotlight, as the utility flanker has failed to really standout this past season. Wales see the return of Superman in the shape of Justin Tipuric, while Ross Moriarty and the impressive Aaron Wainwright also look to rattle Ireland, with Josh Navidi waiting on the bench. Jack Conan was one of Ireland’s better players last week, and we all know what Josh van der Flier can do, even if we haven’t seen as much of it as we would have perhaps liked this year. However, just like last weekend this should be a contest that should have us glued to our TV screens.

In the half backs, Ireland start their big guns against the Welsh apprentices, with roles reversed once the benches come into play

A long awaited first outing in an Irish jersey since the Six Nations sees Jonathan Sexton take the helm at fly half, with his powerhouse partner Conor Murray taking the scrum half berth. Ireland’s dynamic duo face off against Welsh youngsters Rhys Patchell and Tomos Williams. Patchell completely revitalized Wales when he came off the bench last weekend, and if he can hold his own against one of the world’s best in Sexton, then Wales could ask for no better preparation for Japan. In terms of the Irish contingent, they need to have one of those games that sees Murray seize every opportunity that comes his way, and Sexton needs to find the precision and accuracy that seemed to desert him in the Six Nations. Once the benches come into play then it’s Welsh maestros Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies up against Irish novices Luke McGrath and Jack Carty. How these battles play out and how they may change the ebb and flow of the game, just as they did last weekend, will be fascinating to watch.

What Justin Tipuric is to Wales – Keith Earls is to Ireland

You may raise your eyebrows at the above statement, and rightly so when you consider one is a forward and the other a winger. In our opinion what makes these two players so valuable is their reliability. When the chips are down and you need a player to step up and do something remarkable, then Ireland’s Keith Earls tends to be a very safe bet. A player, like Tipuric for Wales, who knows exactly what his job is and just goes about it with maximum effort and efficiency. Earls has that knack of being in the right place at the right time, whether it’s for a try saving tackle, spotting a gap that everyone else has missed or on the end of one of Sexton’s audacious kicks. He’s one of our favorite Irish players and probably one of Ireland’s greatest unsung heroes. This may well be his last World Cup and as a result we expect him to be making plenty of headlines this fall in Japan.

Verdict

Two powerhouse teams go head to head in a match that should provide plenty of entertaining rugby.  How hard the two sides will go at each other remains to be seen, but certainly in Ireland’s case they may be willing to up the ante, despite the injury risk. It’s Coach Joe Schmidt and Captain Rory Best’s last game at the Aviva in Dublin, and despite what’s at stake in Japan, you can’t help feeling that their teammates are likely to want to give them a fitting sendoff. We think Ireland will play with a little more edge than a strong Welsh team mindful of the bigger prize at stake at the end of the month. As a result we’re giving it to Ireland by four, in a tight contest that should reaffirm Wales as genuine World Cup contenders and Ireland as the team that finally shows us that all the hype last year was justified in terms of their own World Cup aspirations!

If you’re were an English supporter last weekend, you would have been dancing in the aisles, but for Irish supporters, players and management alike it will be a day they will want to forget as soon as possible. That was an impressive English performance that put a hapless Irish side to the sword at Twickenham last Saturday. With one final “easy” match against Italy in two weeks, England will be boarding the plane to Japan in an ebullient and confident mood. Barring their problems at scrum half they are without doubt the finished product and have clearly done their homework for the World Cup.

As for Ireland, with three weeks to go before the tournament kicks off in Japan, on the basis of what we saw at Twickenham Ireland look woefully unprepared and the best they can hope for is their traditional quarter final exit. In their present condition they won’t be able to hold a candle to either of their potential quarter final opponents, South Africa and New Zealand and that’s assuming they even make it out of the pool stages. There was absolutely nothing positive that came out of Twickenham last Saturday for Ireland. The leaders didn’t step up, the players seemed incapable for the most part of executing any sort of a game plan and Ireland were made to look completely and utterly inept. There were ten positive minutes of play at the beginning of the match culminating in Jacob Stockdale’s try, but for the rest of it until Bundee Aki got a consolation try at the end of the game there was simply nothing in between. All we saw was England in overdrive, and a bunch of individuals wearing green shirts that we thought said Ireland on them, running around like headless chickens. We don’t mean to be cruel but in terms of Ireland’s preparation for the world’s biggest stage for the sport it was painful to watch. Furthermore it leaves a side who were touted only as recently as last year as genuine trophy contenders, with a mountain of work to get through and very little time in which to do it.

Wales vs Ireland – Saturday, August 31st – Cardiff

Wales have had the advantage of a break since getting one back against the English in Cardiff, in their two match series. It was a solid if unspectacular performance in which they showed some real Welsh character and kept a capable English side at bay. Refreshed and hopefully fit, providing their training regime in between these matches hasn’t been too hectic, Wales should be in good stead to deal with an Irish side desperate to turn things around after their humiliation last week at the hands of the English.

We feel we’ve already trash talked Ireland enough above and to continue doing so would simply be poor taste. However, this weekend despite the fact that the results of these warm up matches are not necessarily the be all and end all, performances are and last weekend Ireland showed us neither. Nevertheless, Ireland may have had us all cringing in front of our television screens last Saturday, but we still find it hard to believe that they have suddenly become a second rate side. Sure their performance in the Six Nations did very little to put in a convincing argument that Ireland were on track for World Cup glory, but this is still a team with considerable depth and talent, which when it clicks can be lethal. Where that form has gone is anyone’s guess, but we still feel that it is still too early to write Ireland off as perennial World Cup wannabees, a label that they have had to live with since the tournament’s inception in 1987.

Welsh experimentation could be the salvation Ireland needs on Saturday

Wales give some players they have yet to really try out on the big stage some much needed exposure this Saturday, and that in itself could be just the tonic Ireland needs to get themselves back in a winning head space. By the same token it could also be their undoing as they face up to a squad of players that they may be familiar with from the PRO14 but not as a Test unit. For the most part it’s a Welsh squad of young bucks, who while they may lack Test experience, ooze some quality and are clearly the next generation in Wales’ growing armory. There are a few familiar names there, but as a look at what Wales has in the tank Saturday’s squad should provide us with a fascinating insight into how far Wales could go in Japan if the inevitable injuries to their regular starters start to take their toll.

The Rory Best question

We’ve sadly said it before, and in doing so feel almost treacherous, but has age and the sun set on Ireland’s venerable Captain? We’d argue not just yet, but despite having been at the forefront of some of Ireland’s greatest performances in the last ten years, there is no denying that form has started to desert the Irish leader. A series of poor performances, especially at the set pieces in the Six Nations and then the shocker at Twickenham last weekend have not painted Best in the best of light. Furthermore, Ireland have left it rather late to develop a real understudy to the Ulsterman. Saturday sees Niall Scannell get a much needed and long overdue start. However, with it being Ireland’s last performance at the Aviva in Dublin next weekend before Japan, and thus Best’s last game in an Irish jersey at the ground, expect to see Best start again next weekend. It is with extremely divided loyalties that we argue that Best perhaps needs less time now and the likes of Scannell and others more, irrespective of history and tradition. Ireland have serious issues in the Hooker department and the set pieces which have been such a strong part of Ireland’s game plan in the last few years. Our best piece of advice for Best – watch a replay of South Africa’s last game against Argentina this year in which Schalk Brits who is a year older than Best, also Captained the team at Hooker and put on an inspirational display. You’re going to need some of that in Japan Rory!

This weekend we find out how essential Devin Toner is to Ireland

Ian Henderson was one of the few standout players for Ireland last weekend, but with Rory Best continually missing him on lineout throws his value was limited. Devin Toner was on the bench and didn’t have enough time to make an impact when he eventually did come on, but there was definitely a feeling that Ireland were missing his towering presence. This weekend he once again warms the bench, but Ireland’s stocks will be deep here with the incomparable James Ryan getting his first start. If the lineout continues to falter, it will be interesting to see if the injection of Toner gives it the settled stability that it missed last weekend. Many, ourselves included, feel that Toner is the missing ingredient for the big games, and provided his form continues then Ryan is the other part of the equation. Certainly in Ryan’s case he has been one of the few Irish players who has not suffered the drop in form that the rest of his teammates have suffered in the past twelve months.

Contest of the afternoon – the back rows

This is what we would base the price of our tickets on at the Principality Stadium, if we were lucky enough to be in attendance. Josh Navidi shifts to the number eight position for Wales as well as taking on the Captaincy, and in doing so is reunited with Aaron Shingler in the starting fifteen. With the exciting James Davies thrown into the mix and the mighty Ross Moriarty on the bench, this is a class Welsh act. Up against them is a mouthwatering offering from Ireland. Peter O’Mahony lines up and takes the Captain’s mantle, something we expect him to do a lot in Japan, but on this occasion he needs to be a bit more vocal in leadership than he was at Twickenham. Alongside him are Jack Conan who comes in for the out of form CJ Stander, and to be honest we think he is the form number eight for Ireland going into the tournament. Also of huge interest for us is the first appearance of Tadgh Beirne at flanker for Ireland. He has already proved his credentials in the green jersey in the second row, but the bruising utility forward is a menace wherever you put him, and it is hoped that this Irish back row will provide the bite that was clearly lacking at Twickenham. A contest of epic proportions awaits in this part of the park and we can’t wait.

Wales and Ireland give their young fly halves a chance on center stage under the bright lights

Ireland need some answers heading to Japan in terms of understudy material, with lingering injury concerns over Joey Carberry and Jonathan Sexton being wrapped in cotton wool prior to the tournament. Ross Byrne didn’t quite make the grade last weekend. Now it’s Jack Carty’s chance and with no replacement on the bench for him, it’s a big call on Saturday. Meanwhile Wales finally give the green light to youngster Jarrod Evans. With Gareth Anscombe out of the World Cup, Wales desperately need to find a capable understudy for Dan Biggar. Evans is a serious but inexperienced talent and Saturday will be his biggest test to date. If he passes it with flying colors then Wales can start to relax somewhat, but if he fluffs his lines, then like England at scrum half, Wales will head to Japan with some lingering problem areas. Rhys Patchell awaits on the bench and Coach Warren Gatland is clearly using this match to get this aspect of his World Cup to do list sorted out.

Verdict

Ireland simply can’t be any worse than they were on Saturday at Twickenham – or can they? Cardiff is never an easy place to play, and this may be a relatively inexperienced Welsh squad, but it’s one that has a ton of gas and some genuine skill to boot. If it fires and catches Ireland unawares, Ireland could once again find themselves sliding into touch on yet another banana skin they were unprepared for. We think there is simply too much experience in this Irish offering for lightning to strike twice. Ireland need both a performance and a result on Saturday, and emphatic ones at that. The danger is that a touch of desperation may unsettle an Irish performance driven by the need to prove to themselves and the world at large that they are still the real deal. Nevertheless we think Ireland will have regrouped sufficiently and some calmer heads such as James Ryan will help order prevail. Consequently a fascinating and at times thrilling contest on offer with the more experienced Irish outfit to take the spoils by five points!