The 2015 Rugby World Cup gets under way on Friday, so can England make home advantage count?
Christmas has come early for rugby fans the world over as the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England and Cardiff gets under way on Friday 18 September when England play Fiji at Twickenham. In all, 48 matches will be played across 13 venues, with 20 nations battling to be crowned world champions, with the showpiece event coming to a conclusion on October 31 for the RWC final, also at Twickenham. In part one of our Rugby World Cup preview, we take a look at who’s hot and who’s not from the 10 teams that make up Pool’s A and B.
Pool A: Australia, England, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay
The ‘Pool of Death’ features three teams ranked in the top five in the world, and only two of them can make the quarter-finals.
World Ranking: 2
Coach: Michael Cheika
Captain: Stephen Moore – The hooker has won 96 caps for the Wallabies, and led the ACT Brumbies to the Super 15 semi-finals this year.
Star Forward: Michael Hooper /A brilliant operator in both the breakdown and in open-play. He’s the latest in a long-line of fine open-side flankers from Australia, and is already nearing 50 caps for Australia, despite only being 23 years-old.
Star Back: Israel Folau – Having already played at the highest level in both Rugby League and Aussie rules, Folau made a seamless transition to the Union game in 2013. Tall, quick and powerful, the fullback could be one of the stars of the tournament.
Verdict: Australia’s recent rise under Michael Cheika was evidenced in last month’s win over New Zealand (though they were battered by the same opposition a week later). The scrum, traditionally their Achilles heel, looks noticeably improved, which will only make their already slick back-line even more dangerous. They will need to be on their A-game in this pool, with England and Wales also aiming for the knockout stages, but if the Wallabies do reach the quarter-finals, anything is possible.
World Ranking: 4
Coach: Stuart Lancaster
Captain: Chris Robshaw – The flanker has his critics, but he has been at the helm since 2012, and always leads by example. His high work-rate will be crucial to England’s success.
Star Forward: Courtney Lawes – England’s success will start from the front, and Lawes has emerged into one of the best second-rowers in the world. Already a demon tackler and a great athlete in open-play, he has proved in recent years to be a fine lineout operator as well.
Star Back: George Ford – Ford has only been England’s first choice fly-half for less than a year, but the 22 year-old has the attacking instincts and the temperament to light up this tournament. Will need to kick his goals if England are to go far.
Verdict: Injuries and fluctuating form of individual players has meant that team selection in the last couple of years hasn’t been as consistent as everyone would have liked. The scrum in the warm-up matches also didn’t convince, but England have home advantage, and have proven themselves capable of beating anyone in recent years. In the pool of death however, they will need to hit the ground running ASAP.
World Ranking: 5
Coach: Warren Gatland
Captain: Sam Warburton – The flanker is out to make up for his controversial red-card in the 2011 RWC semi-final defeat against France, and remains an integral member of the Welsh squad.
Star Forward: Justin Tipuric – Hasn’t always started regularly for Wales, with Warburton often ahead of him in the pecking-order, but he has a wonderful skill-set and great athleticism. Most signs point to Warburton being moved from 7 to 6 to accommodate Tipuric.
Star Back: George North – The giant winger has finally recovered from a series of concussions that have blighted his year so far. Already with over 50 caps to his name at the age of 23, North has the power and pace to terrorise the best defences.
Verdict: This is one of the most talented squads Wales has ever assembled, and yet there is every chance that the semi-finalists from 2011 may not get out of the pool-stage. Beating England and Australia would have been difficult enough, but the injury to talismanic fullback and goal-kicker Leigh Halfpenny could be a hammer blow for their chances. Warren Gatland however loves nothing more than defying the odds.
World Ranking: 9
Coach: John McKee
Captain: Akapusi Qera – Previously a star for Gloucester and now with Montpellier, the flanker is a proven performer in Europe. Powerful in the tackle and with ball in hand, he could inspire Fiji to great things.
Star Forward: Ditto – Qera is by far the most important forward in the Fijian squad.
Star Back: Nemani Nadolo – Fiji have long been blessed with great backs, and Nadolo could be the cream of the crop for the current generation. He’s scored a heap of tries for the Crusaders in New Zealand, and also has a great kicking game. To top it all, the winger is 6 ft 5 in and over 19 stone.
Verdict: If any one of England, Wales or Australia fails to bring their A-game, a major shock could be on the cards. Fiji have improved immeasurably since the 2011 RWC, and would have had a great chance of making the knockout-stages if they had been drawn in any of the other pools. Traditionally the great entertainers in world rugby, they will have the chance to showcase their talents on the opening night against England.
World Ranking: 19
Coach: Pablo Lemoine
Captain: Santiago Vilaseca – The second rower has 33 caps for Uruguay, and that I’m afraid is the extent of my knowledge.
Star Forward: Mario Sagario – Again, truth betold, I don’t know a lot about the prop either, but I’ve picked him as he’s the only forward who plays in Europe, with French second division side Massy. He is part of a scrum that performed well in qualifying though.
Star Back: Agustin Ormaechea – Slightly more well know than the rest of the squad, the scrum-half also plays his rugby in the French second division with Stade Montois. He was also crucial to Uruguay’s qualification success for this tournament.
Verdict: Everyone loves an underdog, and Uruguay might just need that kind of support, as the smart money suggests they’ll be facing four heavy defeats, given that most of the squad are amateurs. If they can keep England, Wales and Australia to less than a hundred points each, they will probably consider that a success.
Pool B: South Africa, Scotland, Samoa, Japan and the United States
South Africa will be the overwhelming favourites to top Pool B, but the battle to join them in the knockout-stages could get very interesting.
World Ranking: 3
Coach: Heyneke Meyer
Captain: Jean de Villiers – The powerful and heavily experienced centre has only recently returned from several months out after a knee dislocation. This will be his last World Cup.
Star Forward: Eben Etzebeth – Plenty to choose from in this department, but Etzebeth gets the nod for his brilliant set-piece and ball carrying work. Already very experienced despite being aged 23, the 6 ft 8 in second-rower was nominated for world player of the year in 2013.
Star Back: Bryan Habana -Plenty of others to choose from here as well, but Habana remains one of the most recognised and celebrated players in world rugby. 59 tries in 110 caps for the Springboks tells its own story.
Verdict: The Boks haven’t been on great form in 2015, evidenced in a surprising and harrowing defeat at home to Argentina last month. There is plenty of talent and experience across the team, and they should comfortably top the pool, but is their game too conservative? Will almost certainly play one of England, Wales or Australia in the quarter-finals, and recent form would not put them as favourites to beat any of them.
World Ranking: 10
Coach: Vern Cotter
Captain: Greig Laidlaw – The scrum-half and goal-kicker has been an integral part of Scotland’s squad for the last four years, and was a key player in Gloucester’s Euro Challenge Cup success last season.
Star Forward: Richie Gray – You can’t miss him. He’s 6 ft 10 in and has a mop of blonde hair on his head. He’s also been one of the best second-rowers in the northern hemisphere in recent years, and his lineout work and ball carrying ability will be crucial to Scotland’s success.
Star Back: Stuart Hogg – One of the quickest men in world rugby, Hogg will be at the forefront of what looks an increasingly promising Scottish backline. Opponents will kick loosely to him at their peril, as the fullback is one of the best counter-attackers in the world.
Verdict: Scottish fans have been used to promise turning to dust in recent years. A positive November series in 2014 was offset by five defeats from five in this year’s Six Nations. They’ve looked good again in their warm-up matches, but a place in the quarter-finals is probably the maximum they can achieve, and even that won’t be easy.
World Ranking: 12
Coach: Stephen Betham
Captain: Ofisa Treviranus – The flanker used to represent Samoa on the Rugby Sevens world circuit, and has played in England with London Irish since 2011.
Star Forward: Joe Tekori – Samoa’s main strengths are in their back division, but Tekori will be pivotal to their success, with the second-rower having had a long and successful career in France with Castres and Toulouse.
Star Back: George Pisi – One third of the George, Ken and Tusi Pisi brothers on show for Samoa, with George and Ken also having played a key role in Northampton’s recent successes, George gets the nod as star back for his greater experience and the cutting edge he provides in Samoa’s midfield.
Verdict: Samoa have dropped down the rankings recently, having been ranked as high as seventh in 2012, but they remain a highly dangerous side, as was shown in their narrow defeat at home to New Zealand in July. Always a physical side with great attacking flair, South Africa and Scotland will not fancy playing them. A place in the quarter-finals would be a success.
World Ranking: 13
Coach: Eddie Jones
Captain: Michael Leitch – New Zealand born Leitch is one of the few Japanese forwards who has made an impact outside of Japan, having played in the 2015 Super 15 season with the Waikato Chiefs in New Zealand.
Star Forward: Ditto – Japan don’t have too many other forwards of note, and flanker Leitch has been pivotal to Japan’s recent rise up the rankings.
Star Back: Fumiaki Tanaka – The scrum-half was the first Japanese player to play in the Super 15 when he signed for the Otago Highlanders in 2013, where his performances have drawn widespread praise. At 5 ft 5 in and 11 stone, he has also proved that small guys can play rugby as well.
Verdict: Japan have never reached the knockout-stages, but they look to have made significant improvements in the last four years, helped by veteran Australian coach Eddie Jones, and were briefly ranked in the top-ten last year. They will still be underdogs to make the knockout stages, but will fancy their chances of causing an upset against Scotland and/or Samoa.
World Ranking: 15
Coach: Mike Tolkin
Captain: Chris Wyles /A familiar player to fans in England after his many successful years at Saracens, Wyles can cover a multitude of positions in the back-line and will be crucial to the Eagles success.
Star Forward: Samu Manoa /A genuine world class player, the back-rower is on his way to French giants Toulon after a successful spell at Northampton, and he has the all-round game and leadership skills to inspire the USA to a shock result or two.
Star Back: Taku Ngwenya /Anyone who saw Ngwenya burn off Bryan Habana on the wing at the 2007 World Cup needs no more evidence of the skills of the Biarritz flyer, who is often regarded as the fastest man in world rugby.
Verdict: In the shape of Manoa, Wyles and Ngwenya, the USA have some world class talent in their ranks, with many of their squad now playing in the top European leagues. They will miss Stade Francais second-rower Scott LaValla to injury, but they have the talent to cause an upset, should Scotland or Samoa falter at the wrong moment. A quarter-final place will still be a long shot though.
Read part two of our Rugby World Cup preview for the rundown of the teams making up Pool’s C and D.