10 September 2019, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

RUGBY WORLD CUP PREVIEW – POOL B

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 continue our tournament preview with a breakdown of Pool B.

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Pool B: Canada, Italy, Namibia, New Zealand, South Africa

Who will top Pool B? That’s the big question as the All Blacks and Springboks all but have the quarterfinal places on lock. It’s a potentially tournament-defining distinction as whichever of the two Southern Hemisphere giants top the pool will sidestep a tough last-eight encounter against Ireland, who are expected to boss Pool A.

Canada

Canada were the last team to qualify for the global tournament and will be driven to do more than simply make up the numbers in Japan. Coached by former Wales flank Kingsley Jones, they triumphed in a repechage competition that included Hong Kong, Kenya and Germany to continue their record of making every edition of the World Cup.

From a player point of view, South African rugby lovers will be most familiar with utility back DTH van der Merwe, who plies his trade at Scottish club Glasgow Warriors.

Forwards: Tyler Ardron (captain), Kyle Baillie, Justin Blanchet, Hubert Buydens, Luke Campbell, Matt Heaton, Eric Howard, Jake Ilnicki, Cole Keith, Conor Keys, Evan Olmstead, Benoit Piffero, Andrew Quattrin, Lucas Rumball, Djustice Sears-Duru, Mike Sheppard, Matthew Tierney.

Backs: Nick Blevins, Andrew Coe, Jeff Hassler, Ciaran Hearn, Ben LeSage, Phil Mack, Jamie Mackenzie, Gordon McRorie, Peter Nelson, Shane O’Leary, Patrick Parfrey, Taylor Paris, Conor Trainor, DTH van der Merwe.

BET: POOL B WINNER

Italy

With a whopping 23 tournament debutants in their ranks, the 2019 World Cup looks set to be a baptism of fire for the young Azzurri side. Skipper Sergio Parisse, vice-captain Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni – all Test centurions – lend much-needed experience to coach Conor O’Shea’s squad and the legendary trio will want to end their illustrious international careers on a high in Japan.

Winless in this year’s Six Nations and thrashed by France (47-19) and England (37-0) in their recent warm-up matches, Italy won’t trouble the All Blacks and Springboks. They’ll beat Canada and Namibia, though.

Forwards: Sergio Parisse (captain), Luca Bigi, Dean Budd, Oliviero Fabiani, Simone Ferrari, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrea Lovotti, Maxime Mbanda, Sebastian Negri, Tiziano Pasquali, Jake Polledri, Nicola Quaglio, Marco Riccioni, Federico Ruzza, David Sisi, Abraham Steyn, Federico Zani, Alessandro Zanni.

Backs: Tommaso Allan, Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Benvenuti, Giulio Bisegni, Callum Braley, Michele Campagnaro, Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward, Matteo Minozzi, Luca Morisi, Edoardo Padovani, Guglielmo Palazzani, Tito Tebaldi.

BET: POOL B WINNER

Namibia

Namibia are the proverbial big fish in a small pond when it comes to the Africa Gold Cup, which they won in dominant fashion to book their place at the showpiece tournament.

But when it comes to the World Cup, they’re sardines in shark-infested waters and with Jacques Burger having retired back in 2015, the most recognisable player in this year’s crop is the legendary hardman’s successor as captain – Sharks centre Johan Deysel.

Coached by former Welsh international Phil Davies, they’ll view the clash against Canada as their opportunity to make a name for themselves on the game’s grandest stage.

Forwards: Andre Rademeyer, Nelius Theron, Desiderius Sethie, AJ de Klerk, Johannes Coetzee, Obert Nortje, Louis van der Westhuizen, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Tjiuee Uanivi, Johan Retief, Thomasau Forbes, Rohan Kitshoff, Max Katjijeko, Prince Gaoseb, Wian Conradie, PJ van Lill, Adriaan Booysen, Janco Venter.

Backs: Johan Deysel (captain), Cliven Loubser, Helarius Kisting, Damian Stevens, Eugene Jantjies, Darryl de la Harpe, Justin Newman, JC Greyling, Johann Tromp, Chad Plato, Lesley Klim, Janry du Toit, PJ Walters.

BET: POOL B WINNER

New Zealand

The All Blacks haven’t been their dominant selves in 2019. They barely avoided a first-ever defeat to Argentina in Buenos Aires, were held to a draw by the Springboks in Wellington and crashed to a record 47-26 defeat to the Wallabies. The pummelling in Perth, it must be noted, stemmed from a red card to lock Scott Barrett just before half-time.

Be that as it may, Steve Hansen’s mighty men relinquished the Rugby Championship crown to South Africa and weeks later were knocked off their perch as the number one team in the world by Wales – the first time in a decade that they didn’t find themselves at the summit of the world rankings.

This has sparked talk that they’ve lost their aura of invincibility, and while there might be a degree of truth to that, don’t let their underwhelming Rugby Championship fool you – the All Blacks are still the odds-on favourites to complete an unprecedented World Cup treble. After all the stuttering, they reminded of their dominance in the 36-0 destruction of the Wallabies in Auckland to retain the Bledisloe Cup and thumped Tonga 92-7 in their last warm-up game.

Some have labelled the squad tasked with retaining the Webb Ellis Cup as the “Old Blacks” or a “Dad’s Army” as nine players are on the wrong side of 30. Objectively, the men in question – captain Kieran Read (33, 121 Tests), Dane Coles (32, 64), Joe Moody (30, 40), Samuel Whitelock (30, 111), Matt Todd (31, 20), Aaron Smith (30, 86), Ryan Crotty (30, 44), Sonny Bill Williams (33, 53) and Ben Smith (33, 79) – will walk into any team in the world, and Hansen has ensured there are no ‘passengers’ among the 31-group, even making the tough and unexpected call of axing Test centurion Owen Franks.

What this core group’s age and experience point to is an end of an era, which coupled with Hansen’s recording-breaking tenure at the helm also coming to an end after the global showpiece, will only add fuel to the two-time defending champions’ fire. Primed to peak at the World Cup, we suspect they’ll edge out the Springboks for that all-important top spot.

Forwards: Kieran Read (captain), Scott Barrett, Sam Cane, Dane Coles, Liam Coltman, Luke Jacobson, Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli, Joe Moody, Brodie Retallick, Ardie Savea, Angus Ta’avao, Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tuungafasi, Sam Whitelock

Backs: Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Richie Mo’unga, TJ Perenara, Sevu Reece, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith, Brad Weber, Sonny Bill Williams.

BET: POOL B WINNER

South Africa

Renaissance man Rassie Erasmus has spectacularly revived the Springboks since taking over the reins from Allister Coetzee in 2018. The master strategist has taken South Africa from all-time lows like the 57-0 drubbing by the All Blacks at North Harbour Stadium in 2017 – which eclipsed the 53-3 hiding by England at Twickenham in 2002 as the heaviest defeat in Springbok history – to a rare victory over the self-same All Blacks on New Zealand soil in 2018 and a triumphant Rugby Championship campaign this year.

Erasmus has given the Springboks their edge back – that renowned ruggedness and fear factor that propelled them to World Cup glory in 1995 and 2007. With a clear vision and plan to achieve short and long-term goals, Erasmus based his game plan on the traditional strengths of Springbok rugby – physical dominance and pinpoint tactical kicking – and assembled a squad best suited for this style.

That squad is now a settled group with strong leadership, a solid spine, tried-and-tested combinations and a good mix of youthful exuberance and grizzled experience. Included in their ranks are arguably the best players in world rugby in their respective positions in hooker Malcolm Marx and blindside flank Pieter-Steph du Toit, as well as flyhalf Handre Pollard, who has matured into the elite Springbok he seemed destined to become and on whose shoulders much of South Africa’s hopes will rest.

Buoyed by a maiden Rugby Championship crown, which broke a decade-long trophy drought, the Springboks are unbeaten in 2019 – having claimed wins over the Wallabies (35-17), Pumas (46-13 and 24-18) and Japan (41-7) along with a 16-all draw with the All Blacks in Wellington – and they’re in with a real shout.

The resignation of Swys de Bruyn as assistant coach due to personal reasons last month came as a shock but the matter was cerebrally handled and the late addition of ex-Irish international Felix Jones – a defensive guru – to the coaching staff is a major coup, so much so that it has Ireland coach Joe Schmidt worried ahead of the teams’ potential quarterfinal showdown, which is how we see things panning out.

Forwards: Siya Kolisi (captain), Schalk Brits, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Francois Louw, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Franco Mostert, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, Kwagga Smith, RG Snyman, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen.

Backs: Damian de Allende, Lukhanyo Am, Warrick Gelant, Elton Jantjies, Herschel Jantjies, Faf de Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe, Jesse Kriel, Makazole Mapimpi, Sbu Nkosi, Handre Pollard, Cobus Reinach, Willie le Roux, Frans Steyn.

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