Rugby World Cup Preview

The Rugby World Cup is due to kick off on 18th September, with ten of the best rugby sides on the planet joined by a smattering of others. The 2011 campaign was marked by a number of close, hard fought battles, particularly as it reached the knockout stages, and 2015 is shaping up to be very similar. New Zealand are looking for their third title, as are Australia and the South African Springboks, with the home nation England aiming for number two. There are challengers like Ireland and Wales, the sleeping giants of Italy and Argentina, and some tricky teams such as Fiji and Samoa. But who will contest for the Webb Ellis trophy on 31st October?Pool AAustralia – World Ranking: 2. ?The two time winners are coming into the tournament in decent form, having lost just once in 2015 so far to the All Blacks. A Rugby Championship victory has boosted the confidence down under, and under the leadership of ex-Leinster coach Michael Cheika, are the eight to one, third favourites to lift the Webb Ellis. A disappointing loss to Ireland in the 2011 tournament didn’t stop them from a semi-final place, where they were beaten by the All Blacks.EnglandWorld Ranking: 4. ?English Rugby has gone through transition since its 2003 World Cup win. A poor performance in 2011 had them eliminated by the French, despite topping their pool. There is a lot of pressure on Stuart Lancaster’s inexperienced side to deliver on home turf after losing the Six Nations to Ireland in spring. The second fixture against Wales will decide second spot in the pool, the winners likely to run into South Africa.Wales – World Ranking: 5 ?Wales have never done better than third in a World Cup, but are boosted by an impressive 2011 campaign, where they knocked out Ireland before losing narrowly to France in the semis. They were dealt a blow with the loss of Leigh Halfpenny to injury in the final World Cup warm up against Italy. Defeat to England saw them miss out on the Six Nations on points difference. Avenging that loss in Twickenham next week will be key to them reaching the quarters. ?Fiji – World Ranking: 9?The Flying Fijians are heading for their sixth World Cup, and for a nation of their size, their record isn’t too shabby. Two quarter finals (most recently 2007) weren’t backed up in 2011 however, where they were convincingly eliminated in the pool stages, suffering three heavy defeats along the way. A similar situation should occur this year, but if the big sides have an off-day, Fiji could spring a surprise.Uruguay –World Ranking: 19?The Teros have never reached the quarter final stages, and unless a major illness hits every member of every other squad in this pool, they won’t do it this time. None of their current squad ply their trade in tier one European clubs. Expect a last placed finish.????????? Pool B: South Africa – World Ranking: 3?Two time champions, the third best team in the world are coming in on a bit of a low after a poor Rugby Championship. The side that ended the two year unbeaten run of the All Blacks in 2014 haven’t been able to follow up on that in 2015, losing three times in the Championship, including once to Argentina. They should reach the semis at least, where they’ll potentially run into Ireland, or failing that, a good French side.Scotland – World Ranking: 10?Scotland’s poor performances in 2015 will worry them a little, but they are blessed with a weak looking group, with three of the other four teams of a similar calibre to them. But they will need to step it up a level in order to progress. A wooden spoon Six Nations campaign has been somewhat diluted by two wins in the run up to the World Cup, both over an improving Italian side, one impressive, one close. They’ve been at every World Cup so far, a semi-final spot in 1991 their best, but if they are to repeat that feat, they’ll likely have to beat the Australians, a feat which is unlikely to happen.Samoa – World Ranking: 12?Similar to the Fijians in more ways than one, Samoa will fancy their chances to grab second in Pool B. A key final round fixture against the Scots will decide second place, and a strong Pacific Nations Cup campaign has given the Manu’s cause for hope. The addition of all three Pisi brothers to the final 31 man squad gives them flair and some deft handling skills, particularly from Ken. 11 English based players means they won’t have any fear of being caught cold without home comfort.Japan – World Ranking: 13.?Having been there since the start, and with an improving Sevens side, a home World Cup in 2019 should be the aim for the Japanese. The likes of Takashi Kikutani being omitted from the final 31 man selection, while unsurprising (he’s in his mid-thirties), could be costly. He is Japan’s third top try scorer of all time (32 in 68 appearances for the Cherry Blossoms).U.S.A – World Ranking: 15?Like the Japanese, the USA are slowly but surely improving as a rugby side. Having garnered only one victory in three of their six appearances at rugby’s major tournament so far, they will look to try and take two this year. Interestingly, one of those three wins came against the Japanese, in the 2003 competition Down Under. Some European experience will make their games against Scotland and Japan interesting but a 5th place finish in the Pacific Nations Cup earlier this season should be mirrored in this pool. Pool C?New Zealand – World Ranking: 1?The best side in the game since the last World Cup, and they are now aiming to become the first team to retain it, and cement their place in the rugby hall of fame. With explosive running in the back line, and a pack that’ll rough up any other in the scrum, it’ll take a special side to stop the All Blacks from making history. Two years unbeaten before being stopped by South Africa, Bledisloe Cup champions 2015 after avenging a loss to the Wallabies, and the influential Dan Carter still in the squad makes the pre-tournament favourites the team to beat. They’ll blast their way to the final, where there could be a small hiccup, but expect them to stamp authority. Argentina – World Ranking: 8?Los Pumas have benefitted since being added to the old Tri Nations to form the Rugby Championship in 2012. With an impressive victory in Durban against South Africa this year with a young side (only six of the 31 man squad are over 30) and players reaching their peak, Los Pumas can be quietly confident that they could reach a semi-final. Part of that win over the Springboks was a hat trick of tries from Juan Imhoff. A new club being set up (UAR) after the World Cup means that only 7 players are actually contracted to clubs.Tonga – World Ranking: 11?2011 was a stunning World Cup campaign for the Tongans, with a sensational victory over ‘07, finalists France being the highlights. Since then, victories over Scotland, Romania, Japan and the USA sees the Islanders come into this year’s tournament in a small vein of form. Strength in the scrum will be key in their first two fixtures, which should see two victories, but facing the champions and then a resurgent Argentina should snuff out any hope of qualification.Georgia – World Ranking: 16?Ireland fans know all about Georgian rugby. It was 2007 when Eddie O’Sullivan’s side were minutes away from being stunned by a last minute try, only for Ronan O’Gara’s boot to save the Irish. One win in the last two campaigns and the same must surely be the aim. With a largely French based side, they’re 2000/1 to come out on top, according to Paddy Power.Namibia – World Ranking: 20?One of only two African sides to reach this year’s competition, but their fate will be very different to South Africa’s. It can be almost guaranteed that they will come bottom of the group with no points. It might seem harsh, but looking at the rest of the group, can anyone argue? Pool D?France – World Ranking: 7?The French are always under pressure to perform in major tournaments, and are looking to go one better than 2011, when they were losing finalists (and somewhat unlucky at that) to New Zealand. Phillipe Saint-Andres has named a very attacking side, and after a poor Six Nations, will want to bring some fight into their first game at Twickenham on the 19th.Ireland – World Ranking: 6?Irish media have hyped this Irish side up to be one of the best of all time, but they were brought back down to earth last weekend as Joe Schmidt’s team lost their final warm up game to England. The final group game against France will be key. Victory should give a quarter final against Argentina, but a loss sets Ireland up for a clash against the All Blacks. This is Paul O’Connell’s last hurrah as an Irish player; he retires at the end of the tournament. Schmidt will have a big decision to make at full back, and he needs to get the strongest pack in the Northern Hemisphere together in the scum. This team may be good, but it won’t be good enough. Heartbreak at the last hurdle is likely, which seems to be a common occurrence for Irish rugby over the years.Italy – World Ranking : 14?The lowest ranked of the Six Nations at this World Cup, the Italians are always that side that might spring an upset, best proved with their stunning win in the 2014 Six Nations in Paris. However, they are hit with a blow as the inspirational Sergio Parisse will miss their opening game against the French. Jacques Brunel has beaten both Ireland and France in his time in charge of the Azzuri.Canada – World Ranking: 18?A stalwart at every World Cup since 1987, their best performance was in the quarter finals in 1991. However, they have no victory over a Tier 1 side in a decade, and with a majority home based squad, their adaptation will need to be sharp to escape the group.Romania – World Ranking: 17?While their squad is littered with experience, the Romanians have never qualified out of the pools at a World Cup, their best effort being one victory in four different World Cups of the seven they’ve taken part in. Csaba Gal and Florian Vlaicu will have to link together in the centre for any hope of a better performance this yearOverview – This is New Zealand’s trophy to lose. While there will be strong challenges, the All Blacks should have enough in the tank to retain the Webb Ellis Cup. The current Irish side is arguably one of the best we’ve ever had, but they will fall just short of the mark. While it would be nice to send Paul O’Connell away with a World Cup medal, there is no place for sentiment in rugby. With Warren Gatland and Stuart Lancaster both under pressure to deliver, Pool A should be the best to watch, with some cracking quarter finals to be seen.