13 September 2019, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

RUGBY WORLD CUP PREVIEW – POOL D

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 conclude our tournament preview with a breakdown of Pool D.

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Pool D: Australia, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay, Wales

The Wallabies and Wales will be locked in a high-stakes two-horse race for Pool D supremacy. Topping the pool will be paramount for these heavyweights of world rugby in order to avoid a likely quarterfinal clash with England (who are earmarked to top Pool C) and set-up a more favourable showdown with either Argentina or France.

Australia

The Wallabies are still trying to reaffirm themselves as the truly elite juggernaut they’ve been for much of their history. Michael Cheika guided Australia all the way to the final four years ago and will aim to go one better this time around.

That run was a reminder that Australians are born competitors and, as such, the brighter the stage, the better they are. However, their struggles over the past two years, which have seen them win just six of their last 16 Tests, suggest it’ll be tough for them to reach the final four in Japan.

Rugby Australia have had to fight fires off the field, as well. The ongoing Israel Folau saga is well-documented and has robbed Cheika of arguably his best player. A try-scoring machine and master of the sky, Folau was often the lone shining light for the Wallabies in recent years and it was evident in the Rugby Championship just how big of a loss he is.

The Michael Hooper-led side did manage a home win over the Pumas and recorded a record 47-26 win over a 14-man All Blacks, however, the demons resurfaced in the 36-0 hiding at the hands of their arch-rivals the following week.

The impact of the returning James O’Connor, outside impressive inside centre Samu Kerevi, was one of the main positives that came out of the Rugby Championship campaign, along with Kurtley Beale showing signs of returning to his brilliant best back at fullback.

While the Wallabies have a dominant history over Wales, it’s clear that the teams are on opposite trajectories. The Welsh won the last meeting between the sides 9-6 in Cardiff at the end of last year and all signs point to them repeating that feat to finish top of Pool D.

Forwards: Michael Hooper (captain), Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Adam Coleman, Jack Dempsey, Folau Fainga’a, Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Isi Naisarani, David Pocock, Izack Rodda, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Rob Simmons, Scott Sio, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Jordan Uelese.

Backs: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Tevita Kuridrani, Christian Lealiifano, James O’Connor, Jordan Petaia, Matt To’omua, Nic White.

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Fiji

Full of athletes and ball players, Fiji are a joy to watch and will want to cause a couple of upsets. They’ve enjoyed an extremely successful World Cup cycle that has seen them score major wins over France, Scotland and Italy, beat the Maori All Blacks for the first time in 62 years, push Ireland to the limit and triumph in the Pacific Nations Cup in each of the four years.

The majority of the squad ply their trade in Europe, including Brive-based captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu, one of five players who’ll be participating in their third World Cup.

Other Fijian French Top 14 stars include lock Leone Nakarawa, centres Levani Botia and Waisea Nayacalevu and wings Filipo Nakosi. John McKee has been in charge since 2014 and if anyone can mastermind a shock result or two, it’s the New Zealander.

Forwards: Dominiko Waqaniburotu (captain), Campese Ma’afu, Eroni Mawi, Peni Ravai, Manasa Saulo, Kalivati Tawake, Mesulame Dolokoto, Samuel Matavesi, Ratu Veremalua Vugakoto, Tevita Cavubati, Leone Nakarawa, Apisalome Ratuniyarawa, Tevita Ratuva, Semi Kunatani, Viliame Mata, Mosese Voka, Peceli Yato.

Backs: Frank Lomani, Nikola Matawalu, Henry Seniloli, Levani Botia, Jale Vatubua, Ben Volavola, Vereniki Goneva, Filipo Nakosi, Waisea Nayacalevu, Semi Ra.

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Georgia

The rising force of European rugby, Georgia were one of the 12 automatic qualifiers for the tournament. They’ve risen above Italy in the world rankings to 12th and will want to put up a fight for third place.

They’ve won five of their six Tests this season, losing only to Scotland. Like Fiji, they have a Kiwi coach at the helm in Milton Haig, who has managed to bolster his squad by convincing the country’s all-time leading try-scorer, Mamuka Gorgodze, to come out of international retirement.

Forwards: Giorgi Nemsadze (captain), Jaba Bregvadze, Levan Chilachava, Beka Gigashvili, Otar Giorgadze, Guram Gogichashvili, Beka Gorgadze, Mamuka Gorgodze, Vano Karkadze, Lasha Lomidze, Shalva Mamukashvili, Giorgi Melikidze, Kote Mikautadze, Mikheil Nariashvili, Beka Saginadze, Shalva Sutiashvili, Giorgi Tkhilaishvili.

Backs: Tedo Abzhandadze, Gela Aprasidze, Giorgi Begadze, Zurab Dzneladze, David Katcharava, Lasha Khmaladze, Giorgi Kveseladze, Vasil Lobzhanidze, Lasha Malaguradze, Ioseb Matiashvili, Tamaz Mchedlidza, Mirian Modebadze, Merab Sharikadze, Alexander Todua.

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Uruguay

Coached by Argentinian Esteban Meneses, Uruguay qualified for their fourth World Cup by beating Canada in a two-match play-off. Los Teros picked up a win in each of their first two appearances in the showpiece tournament – in 1999 and 2003 – but went winless in 2015, and they’ll find it difficult to break their drought in Japan. Personnel wise, brothers Agustín and Juan Diego Ormaechea will follow in their father Diego’s footsteps when they make their respective World Cup debuts.

Forwards: Juan Manuel Gaminara (captain), Diego Arbelo, Manuel Ardao, Santiago Civetta, Manuel Diana, Ignacio Dotti, Juan Echeverría, Facundo Gattas, Joaquín Jaunsolo, Germán Kessler, Franco Lamana, Manuel Leindekar, Diego Magno, Alejandro Nieto, Juan Diego Ormaechea, Guillermo Pujadas, Juan Pedro Rombys, Mateo Sanguinetti.

Backs: Santiago Arata, Felipe Berchesi, Juan Manuel Cat, Agustín Della Corte, Felipe Etcheverry, Federico Favaro, Nicolás Freitas, Tomás Inciarte, Leandro Leivas, Gastón Mieres, Agustín Ormaechea, Rodrigo Silva, Santiago Vilaseca.

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Wales

Warren Gatland, arguably the best coach in world rugby, has created a monster. The Welsh stormed to their first Six Nations title since 2013 and first Grand Slam since 2012 to kick-off the year, and after England ended their record 14-match winning streak in their first warm-up Test at Twickenham last month, they bounced back with a 13-6 win in the return fixture in Cardiff the next week, which saw them shoot to the summit of the world rankings for the first time in history.

Back-to-back losses to Ireland over the past fortnight have cost them top spot and robbed them of momentum, however, they are the real deal.

The loss of flyhalf Gareth Anscombe to a knee injury in the defeat to England is a massive blow, but the vastly experienced Dan Biggar is a more than capable replacement. No.8 Taulupe Faletau will also miss the tournament after suffering a broken collarbone in training.

Wales, nevertheless, boast their strongest-ever World Cup squad, led by talismanic lock Alun Wyn Jones, with Gatland stacking the deck by opting for an 18-13 forwards-backs split. Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric are battle-tested warhorses, Jonathan Davies and George North are among the best in the business in their respective positions while Leigh Halfpenny is a goal-kicker extraordinaire.

There’s great unity in this squad – they play for each other and for their respected mentor, who’ll bring down the curtain on his highly-successful 12-year reign in Japan.

The New Zealander’s taken Wales to new heights, guiding them to four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and a World Cup semi-final, and the players will do everything in their power to give him a perfect send-off.

Forwards: Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Jake Ball, Adam Beard, Rhys Carre, James Davies, Elliot Dee, Ryan Elias, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Wyn Jones, Dillon Lewis, Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi, Ken Owens, Aaron Shingler, Nicky Smith, Justin Tipuric, Aaron Wainwright.

Backs: Josh Adams, Hallam Amos, Dan Biggar, Aled Davies, Gareth Davies, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Hadleigh Parkes, Rhys Patchell, Owen Watkin, Tomos Williams, Liam Williams.

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