10 September 2019, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

RUGBY WORLD CUP PREVIEW – POOL A

The Land of the Rising Sun is set to host the most closely-contested Rugby World Cup in history, setting the stage for unrivalled drama and excitement when the competition kicks off on September 20, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

Twenty teams will converge on Japan to vie for the most coveted prize in the game, the Webb Ellis Cup – a golden symbol of excellence reserved for only the truly great teams. The ninth edition of the quadrennial global showpiece is set to be the most open yet, with defending champions New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Wales, Ireland and England all entering as legitimate title contenders.

It’s the world in union, and it’s bound to thrill as the tournament touches down in Asia for the first time ever. With anticipation mounting, we kick-off our tournament preview with a breakdown of Pool A.

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Pool A: Ireland, Japan, Russia, Samoa, Scotland

Northern Hemisphere sides Ireland and Scotland look poised to top Pool A, however, Samoa and the hosts will be determined to upset the applecart, while Russia will want to give a good account of themselves. With the top two teams on a collision course with the Springboks and All Blacks in the quarterfinals, South African supporters should keep a keen eye on the Pool A action.

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Ireland

Perennial World Cup underachievers, Ireland have never progressed to the semi-finals. The 2019 edition of the showpiece tournament is an opportunity for them to finally come good on the biggest stage of them all. They have a settled, experienced side with a host of world-class players and one of the sharpest minds in the game at the helm.

Joe Schmidt’s meticulous planning and squad shaping over the past four years have seen the Irish achieve incredible success in recent years – among the highlights being a third Six Nations Grand Slam, beating the Springboks, sealing a series win over the Wallabies and recording two historic wins over the All Blacks.

They were slow out of the gate this year, relinquishing the Six Nations crown to Wales and suffering a 57-15 thrashing at the hands of England recently. However, they’ve shown what they’re capable of in the back-to-back wins over Wales over the past fortnight, which sees them top the world rankings for the first time.

Often stretched thin at the World Cup, they boast unprecedented depth this time around – the type of strength in numbers to make a real run at the title – and, having won six of their last seven against Scotland, Ireland should comfortably top the pool.

Forwards: Rory Best (captain), Niall Scannell, Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong, John Ryan, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock.

Backs: Conor Murray, Luke McGrath, Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, Jack Carty, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Chris Farrell, Jacob Stockdale, Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway.

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Japan

As the tournament darlings, the Brave Blossoms will have a nation behind them as they aim to cause a couple of upsets and perhaps even earn a historic playoff berth.

They shocked the world when they famously beat the Springboks 34-32 in the 2015 tournament in a performance that perfectly sums up the Japanese style of play – passionate, fearless and free-flowing (or “like water” to use a Bruce Lee reference.) If things fall into place for the hosts, the final pool game against Scotland at the Yokohama International Stadium on Sunday, 13 October could be for a place in the quarterfinals – a perfect stage for them to create more history.

They’ve greatly benefitted from top coaching, with Eddie Jones – the mastermind of the seismic upset of the Springboks – laying the groundwork and putting structures in place and Jamie Joseph continuing the good work, which included a third Pacific Nations title this year.

Joseph, who guided the Highlanders to their maiden Super Rugby title in 2014, has included three South African-born players in his 31-man squad – flank Lappies Labuschagne, who captained the team to a 34-21 win over Fiji on debut in July, lock Wimpie van der Walt and utility back Kotaro Matsushima.

Forwards: Michael Leitch (captain), Keita Inagaki, Yusuke Kizu, Jiwon Koo, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Valu, Takuya Kitade, Atsushi Sakate, Shota Horie, Luke Thompson, Wimpie van der Walt, Uwe Helu, James Moore, Hendrik Tui, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno, Amanaki Mafi.

Backs: Kaito Shigeno, Fumiaki Tanaka, Yutaka Nagare, Yu Tamura, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka, Ataata Moeakiola, Lomano Lemeki, William Tupou, Ryoto Nakamura, Timothy Lafaele, Kotaro Matsushima, Ryohei Yamanaka.

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Russia

One can call the Russian class of 2019 the “fortunate ones” as they initially failed to qualify for the World Cup before lady luck smiled on them. Romania had sewn up this spot, however, they, Spain and Belgium were all docked points for fielding ineligible players in the Rugby Europe Championship, opening the door for Russia to emerge as the shock highest-ranked European side (excluding Georgia, who qualified automatically).

Coached by former Dragons, Ospreys and London Welsh mentor Lyn Jones, Russia have nothing to lose and will be targeting at least one win. Frankly, though, they’ll be out of their depth and with their leaky defence, which saw the Azzurri annihilate them 85-15 in their recent warm-up game, they’ll be nothing more than cannon fodder.

Forwards: Azamat Bitiev, Andrey Garbuzov, Kirill Gotovtsev, Victor Gresev, Bogdan Fedotko, Vitaliy Zhivatov, Evgeny Matveev, Andrey Polivalov, Vladimir Podrezov, Evgeny Yelgin, Stanislav Selsky, Nikita Vavilin, Sergey Chernyshev, Tagir Gadzhiev, Roman Khodin, Andrei Ostrikov, Valery Morozov, Anton Sychev.

Backs: Vasily Artemyev (captain), Igor Galinovsky, Kirill Golosnitsky, Vasily Dorofeev, Yuri Kushnarev, German Davydov, Dmitry Perov, Vladislav Sozonov, Dmitry Gerasimov, Ramil Gaysin, Denis Simplikevich, Vladimir Ostroushko, Sergey Yanyushkin.

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Samoa

Both feared and respected, Samoa will seek to put their stamp on the tournament. Sadly, Samoan rugby has been on a downward spiral in recent years and they struggled just to make it to Japan. After finishing third in the Pacific Tri-Nations behind Fiji and Tonga, they had to go the extra, which saw them beat Germany in a two-leg play-off. Their form in the warm-up matches in recent weeks further highlighted their current struggles. The 25-17 win over Tonga was the only positive as they crashed to losses to USA (13-10), Fiji (10-3) and Australia (34-15).

The Pacific Islanders have a capable coach in former Blues assistant Steve Jackson and game-breakers like veteran flyhalf Tusi Pisi and the versatile Tim Nanai-Williams, while the pack features the likes of Crusaders prop Michael Alaalatoa and loose forwards TJ Ioane and Jack Lam. It’s collectively where Samoa are found wanting, particularly in the set pieces. Their main focus will be on the clash against Scotland, but they could find it tough getting past the hosts.

Forwards: Chris Vui (captain), Afaesetiti Amosa, TJ Ioane, Jack Lam, Piula Fa’asalele, Josh Tyrell, Teofilo Paulo, Kane Leaupepe, Senio Toleafoa, Michael Alaalatoa, Paul Alo-Emile, James Lay, Jordan Lay, Logovi’i Mulipola, Motu Matu’u, Ray Niuia, Seilala Lam.

Backs: Ed Fidow, Tim Nanai-Williams, Ahsee Tuala, Belgium Tuatagaloa, Henry Taefu, Alapati Leiua, Reynold Lee-Lo, Kieron Fonotia, AJ Atatimu, Tusi Pisi, Ulupano Seuteni, Dwayne Polotaivao, Melani Matavao, Scott Malolua.

BET: POOL A WINNER

Scotland

Kicking off their campaign with the virtual pool decider against Ireland at the Yokohama International Stadium on Sunday, 22 September is the best possible scenario for Scotland.

Should the crunch clash have taken place, later on, the Scots might’ve overlooked the likes of Samoa and Japan, who are plotting to snatch a play-off place at their expense. Win or lose out of the gate, they’ll know exactly what’s required of them, which will ensure they focus on the journey rather than the destination.

Scotland have long shown glimpses of greatness to suggest they’ll edge closer to the upper echelons of world rugby, but – mainly due to a lack of depth – they’ve struggled to make the consistent progress of the likes of Argentina. They’d have a promising season, like last year, when they placed third in the Six Nations, only to drop to fifth in this year’s Northern Hemisphere showpiece.

Gregor Townsend’s charges’ contrasting performances in the recent warm-up Tests against France further illustrate their erratic nature – being blown out 32-3 in Nice the one week and claiming a 17-14 win in Edinburgh the next. Given their depth issues, injuries could have a major bearing on their campaign. As long as key players like scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw and star flyhalf Finn Russell stay fit, they’ll punch their ticket to the quarterfinals as pool runners-up.

Forwards: Stuart McInally (captain), John Barclay, Simon Berghan, Fraser Brown, Scott Cummings, Allan Dell, Zander Fagerson, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Willem Nel, Gordon Reid, Jamie Ritchie, Blade Thomson, Ben Toolis, George Turner, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson.

Backs: Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Adam Hastings, Stuart Hogg, George Horne, Pete Horne, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland, Ali Price, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Duncan Taylor.

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