The 2015 Rugby World starts on Friday. Can New Zealand live up to their tag as pre-tournament favourites?
The 2015 Rugby World Cup gets under way this coming Friday. Having had a look at the teams in Pool’s A and B, part two of our Rugby World Cup preview looks at the contenders and whipping boys making up Pool’s C and D.
Pool C: New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga, Georgia and Namibia
All eyes will be on New Zealand to see if they can live up to their tag as World Cup favourites, a tag which they have not always worn comfortably in the past.
World Ranking: 1
Coach: Steve Hansen
Captain: Richie McCaw – McCaw has been captain of the All Blacks for seemingly ever, but his experience, leadership skills and breakdown work make him as invaluable as ever. A true great of the modern game.
Star Forward: Kieran Read – Considered by many to be the best Number 8 in the world in recent years, he was voted World Player of the Year in 2013. A great athlete with a terrific skill-set, all of New Zealand’s good work runs through him.
Star Back: Dan Carter – Virtually anyone in New Zealand’s back division could have been nominated for star back, but fly-half Carter remains the main attraction. The highest point-scorer in rugby history is on his way to Racing Metro in Paris after the tournament to become the highest paid player in history.
Verdict: Since being crowned world champions on home soil in 2011, the All Blacks have won 42 out of 47 test matches, with two draws and three losses. That in itself proves they are the definitive favourites. They’ve never won a World Cup outside of their homeland though, and whilst they are undoubtedly extraordinarily good, they are not invincible.
World Ranking: 8
Coach: Daniel Hourcade
Captain: Agustin Creevy – He may have only played last season in England’s second division with Worcester, but Creevy is nevertheless a fine hooker, one of the most mobile and skilful hookers in the world.
Star Forward: Marcos Ayerza – One of the best scrummaging props around, Ayerza is well known to English rugby fans after spending several trophy-laden years with Leicester. He is part of what is always a formidable Argentine forward pack.
Star Back: Nicolas Sanchez – Argentina’s increasingly adventurous backline will be well marshalled by Sanchez, who spent last season at European champions Toulon. The talented fly-half has the skills to unlock the tightest defences.
Verdict: The Pumas are unlikely to win this tournament, but no team will fancy playing them. They’ve always held their own against the best teams up front, and their recent win in South Africa showed their backline can work some magic as well. Their opening game against New Zealand at Wembley Stadium should be a great occasion, and with a likely quarter-final against Ireland or France, they will fancy their chances of a place in the semis.
World Ranking: 11
Coach: Mana Otai
Captain: Nili Latu – The hard hitting flanker has won 40 caps for Tonga, which is a lot considering how few matches Tonga play compared to other teams. He’s on his way to Newcastle after this tournament.
Star Forward: Soane Tonga’uiha – The giant prop is a well know figure in England after spending several years with Northampton. Now playing in France with Oyonnax, the 20 stone powerhouse is scary to tackle, and even scarier when he’s doing the tackling.
Star Back: Fetu’u Vainikolo – Also on his way to Oyonnax after two seasons in England with Exeter, the powerful winger has scored 12 tries in 22 games for Tonga, and has the pace and strength to worry any defence.
Verdict: To be ranked 11th in the world is some achievement for a nation with a population of around 105,000 (roughly the same as Mansfield). Tonga have never made the knockout stages of the World Cup, but they have pedigree, having taken a shock victory over France at the last tournament, and almost beating South Africa in the 2007 event. Beating Argentina to get out of the pool will be a tough ask though.
World Ranking: 16
Coach: Milton Haig
Captain: Mamuka Gorgodze – Otherwise known as ‘Gorgodzilla’, the rampaging back-rower is one of many Georgian forwards playing in France, in Gorgodze’s case with Toulon. The imposing captain made his international debut aged 18.
Star Forward: Aside from Gorgodze? Davit Zirakashvili – Another forward who plays in France, this time with Clermont Auvergne, Zirakashvili has been rated as one of the best tighthead props in the world, and is at the forefront on an extremely physical Georgian pack.
Star Back: Vasil Lobzhanidze – Georgia’s strength has always been in their forwards, but Lobzhanidze is already well on his way to stardom. The scrumhalf made his international debut earlier this year, and will become the youngest player in RWC history this tournament. He doesn’t turn 19 until mid-October.
Verdict: Results haven’t been great in the warm-up matches, with narrow defeats to Canada and Japan following a comfortable loss to Newcastle Falcons, but Georgia have the physicality and scrummaging ability to front up against the best teams. Reaching the knockout-stage looks unlikely, but two wins (probably against Tonga and Namibia) would be a good tournament for the Lelos.
World Ranking: 20
Coach: Phil Davies
Captain: Jacques Burger – Probably the greatest player Namibia has ever produced, the tackling machine that is Burger is well known in England after many successful years with Saracens, and Namibia will need him to be at his defensive best in this tournament.
Star Forward: Ditto – There is nobody else in the Namibian team with the stature or recognition of Burger.
Star Back: Chrysander Botha – Also playing in England with Exeter, the fullback missed most of last season with a broken leg, but he remains arguably Namibia’s most potent attacking weapon in the back-line, having scored 16 tries in 34 caps at international level.
Verdict: Although this is their fifth consecutive Rugby World Cup, Namibia have never won a match in the tournament, with their highlight probably being a 32-17 defeat to Ireland at the 2007 event. Even Tonga and Georgia will likely be too strong for them, and if they concede less than a hundred points against New Zealand, they will have probably done very well. But we all love an underdog.
Pool D: Ireland, France, Italy, Romania and Canada
Ireland and France will be favourites to progress from this most European of pools, but how much further they’ll advance is anyone’s guess.
World Ranking: 6
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Paul O’Connell – Ireland’s inspirational leader and second-rower has won over 100 caps at international level, and this will his last chance to add a World Cup winner’s medal to what has been a glittering career.
Star Forward: Sean O’Brien – The back-rower has had his injury concerns in recent years, but on his day he remains one of the best forwards in Europe, frequently able to smash through opposition defences whilst putting in a big defensive shift as well.
Star Back: Jonathan Sexton – Arguably the best fly-half in Europe over the course of the last four years, Sexton has been pivotal to Ireland’s recent successes, and will be crucial in getting his side’s often functional back-line moving in top gear.
Verdict: Two Six Nations titles in the last two seasons would make Ireland a clear contender for a World Cup triumph, as would last season’s victories over South Africa and Australia. Their warm-up matches were less than convincing though, amid concerns that their conservative and methodical approach is too limited. They should make the quarter-finals, but they will want to top the pool if they are to avoid New Zealand at that stage.
World Ranking: 7
Coach: Philippe Saint-Andre
Captain: Thierry Dusautoir – Captain of Les Blues for several years now, the flanker was named man of the match in the 2011 RWC final defeat to New Zealand after a heroic performance, and will be out to go one better this time around.
Star Forward: Louis Picamoles – Injuries have limited his appearances for France in the last couple of years, but the Number 8 looked back to his best in the warm-up matches, and his ability to break the gain-line on a regular basis will be invaluable for the French.
Star Back: Wesley Fofana – One of the best centres in Europe in recent years, Fofana has the pace, footwork and elusiveness to slip through any defence. Know in France as ‘the Cheetah’, he scored a memorable try against England in the 2013 Six Nations.
Verdict: Predicting anything with France is often a pointless exercise. No other team could go from losing to Tonga in the pool-stage in the 2011 RWC to almost winning the tournament itself three weeks later. They’ve done little in the last four years to suggest they will win here, but no team will fancy playing them, New Zealand included.
World Ranking: 14
Coach: Jacques Brunel
Captain: Sergio Parisse – Italy’s leader and inspiration will miss the opening game against France, and the nations hopes rest on Parisse not missing any more matches. The Number 8 has the all-round game to get into almost any team on earth.
Star Forward: Ditto – Italy do have other good forwards playing at the highest level, but Parisse is still the man of the moment. If Italy are to reach the knockout stages for the first time in their history, they need Parisse on top form, particularly when they play Ireland.
Star Back: Andrea Masi – A mainstay of Italy’s backline for over a decade, Masi can play at centre, wing or fullback. Has played in England for Wasps since 2012, and was named Six Nations Player of the Championship in 2011.
Verdict: Back in 2013, Italy beat both France and Ireland in the Six Nations, suggesting this year’s RWC could be the time they make the knockout-stage for the first time. Alas, results since then have worsened, with the Azzurri dropping down to 14th in the world rankings. They should beat Romania and Canada, but beating Ireland or France still looks a tough ask.
World Ranking: 17
Coach: Lynn Howells
Captain: Mihai Macovei – The flanker is among a number of Romania forwards playing in France, in his case with second division side Colomiers. He has 64 caps at international level.
Star Forward: Mihai Lazăr – One of the few Romanians in the squad playing at the highest level, the prop was a part of the Castres squad that won the French Top 14 title in 2013, and has been a regular for the side since 2012. He is also closing in on 50 caps for Romania.
Star Back: Cătălin Fercu – The highly experienced fullback has won 80 caps for Romania, and joined English side Saracens in 2014, making him the only Romanian back to play outside of his homeland.
Verdict: The Oaks have qualified for all eight Rugby World Cups, winning a match in every tournament until the last edition in 2011. France and Ireland will be too strong for them here, but if they can beat Canada and run Italy close, they will have given a good account of themselves. Still not anywhere near the force they were in the 1980s, when they beat France, Wales and Scotland during that period.
World Ranking: 18
Coach: Kieran Crowley
Captain: Tyler Ardon – The youngest captain at this tournament, the 24 year-old back-rower has been a regular for the Ospreys in Wales since 2013, and is one of only six squad members playing for a top division side in Europe.
Star Forward: Jamie Cudmore – The 37 year-old second-rower has been a regular starter for French giants Clermont Auvergne for a decade, and is probably the only real world class player in the Canadian squad. He also worked for a drug-dealer in his youth before rugby turned his life around.
Star Back: DTH van der Merwe – The South African-born speedster can cover a multitude of positions in the back-line, and spent the last six years playing in the Celtic Pro12 with Glasgow Warriors, where he was frequently amongst the tries. He will join the Llanelli Scarlets after this tournament.
Verdict: Canada have some pedigree in this competition, having made the quarter-finals in 1991, the only occasion when they have reached the knockout stages. Their warm-up matches have included heavy defeats to the United States and Fiji, which doesn’t bode well, but a win against Romania would be a satisfactory tournament for the Maple Leafs.
UK viewers can watch every single RWC match on ITV. It all starts on Friday 18 September when England play Fiji. Get ready, because there will be plenty of blood, sweat and tears along the way.
Full Rugby World Cup fixtures here.