France will stage the most closely-contested Rugby World Cup in history, leaving fans salivating and strapping in for a rollercoaster ride unlike any other when the competition gets underway on September 8, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The tenth edition of the quadrennial global showpiece is set to be the most open yet, with defending champions South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland and hosts France all being strong contenders while the likes of Australia and England could come good as dark horses.
With anticipation mounting, we continue our tournament preview with a breakdown of Pool B.
Pool B: Ireland, Romania, Scotland, South Africa, Tonga
Defending champions South Africa find themselves in the pool of death with the number one ranked team in the world, Ireland, and resurgent Scotland, along with Romania and Tonga.
The stars have aligned for Ireland to not only finally progress past the quarterfinal stage but, for the very first time, make a serious run at the title and are fourth outright.
This is the generation to end decades of misery and early exits in the global showpiece, with Andy Farrell having constructed a green machine firing on all cylinders.
Unrivalled in their relentlessness on both sides of the ball, the Irish pile on pressure with seemingly never-ending phase play in which every player knows exactly what’s expected of him and collaborates seamlessly with those around him.
Defensively, they’re as passionate and structurally sound as it gets with cyborg-like conditioning that allows them to push a pace for the full 80 minutes that few teams can keep up with.
In captain Johnny Sexton, they have one of the most decorated flyhalves in the history of the game as well as one of the craftiest, a seasoned general who over the last two years has steered them to a historic series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand, the Six Nations Grand Slam, victories over fellow top World Cup contenders the Springboks and France and the No 1 spot in the world rankings.
Add the likes of 2022 World Player of the Year Josh van der Flier, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, Jamison Gibson-Park, James Lowe, Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen and it’s not hard to see why Irish eyes are smiling going into the tournament.
Forwards: Ryan Baird, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher, David Kilcoyne, Jeremy Loughman, Joe McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony, Tom O’Toole, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Dan Sheehan, Josh van der Flier.
Backs: Bundee Aki, Ross Byrne, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, Keith Earls, Jamison Gibson-Park, Mack Hansen, Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, Stuart McCloskey, Conor Murray, Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, Jonathan Sexton (captain).
Head coach: Andy Farrell.
Romania, who’ve roped in former Scotland and Fiji coach Vern Cotter as a consultant, are in for a rough ride, starting with opening games against Ireland and the Springboks.
Their preparations this season include high points in wins over Poland (67-27), Belgium (56-3) and Spain (31-25), however, heavy defeats to Portugal (38-20) and, most recently, Georgia (56-6) showed they’re destined to prop up the pool.
Forwards: Alexandru Savin, Gheorghe Gajion, Thomas Cretu, Alexandru Gordas, Costel Burtila, Iulian Hartig, Ovidiu Cojocaru, Robert Irimescu, Florin Bardasu, Adrian Motoc, Marius Iftimiciuc, Stefan Iancu, Cristi Chirica (captain), Mihai Macovei, Vlad Neculau, Dragos Ser, Cristi Boboc, Florian Rosu, Damian Stratila.
Backs: Gabriel Rupanu, Florin Surugiu, Alin Conache, Gabriel Pop, Mihai Muresan, Tudor Boldor, Nicolas Onutu, Marius Simionescu, Paul Popoaia, Taylor Gontineac, Jason Tomane, Tangimana Fonovai, Tevita Manumua, Hinckley Vaovasa.
Head coach: Eugen Apjok.
After the horror show in Japan in 2019, which saw them fail to make the knockouts for only the second time, Scotland have emerged as one of the most improved sides of this four-year cycle and find themselves fifth in the world rankings ahead of the likes of England, Australia, Argentina and Wales.
They’re, thus, the unluckiest team of the entire draw to be grouped with two powerhouses in No 1-ranked Ireland and second-ranked South Africa. A spot in either Pools C or D would likely have seen them qualify for the quarterfinals. Instead, things point to them suffering the same fate as four years ago.
Not to be written off, though, the Scots will be a tricky test for both Pool A favourites. Star flyhalf Finn Russell has matured and found the consistency he’d lacked in seasons past, evolving into the polished pivot he was meant to be whilst retaining the mercurial flair that makes him a unique threat.
With him pulling the strings more assuredly, Scotland will be a confident and tactically sound tough nut to crack.
Forwards: Ewan Ashman, Jamie Bhatti, Dave Cherry, Luke Crosbie, Scott Cummings, Rory Darge, Jack Dempsey, Matt Fagerson, Zander Fagerson, Grant Gilchrist, Richie Gray, WP Nel, Jamie Ritchie (captain), Pierre Schoeman, Javan Sebastian, Sam Skinner, Rory Sutherland, George Turner, Hamish Watson.
Backs: Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Ben Healy, George Horne, Huw Jones, Blair Kinghorn, Ali Price, Cameron Redpath, Finn Russell, Ollie Smith, Kyle Steyn, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe, Ben White.
Head coach: Gregor Townsend.
South Africa (4.50)
The Springboks will be out to make more history in France. Four years ago in Japan, Siya Kolisi and company became the first team to lose a pool game and go on to win the global showpiece.
This time around, they’ll aim to become the first Springbok side to retain the title and the first team to win the Webb Ellis Cup for a fourth time (they’re tied with the All Blacks for most title triumphs with three).
It’ll be the toughest road any Springbok team have had to travel as progressing out of the pool of death, which will be no easy feat, will see them face either Les Bleus or the All Blacks in the quarterfinals.
The squad that triumphed in the Land of the Rising Sun in 2019 have largely remained intact. The veterans have enough left in the tank while younger impact players provide exuberance and balance.
However, the enormity of losing their two most valuable backline players, Handre Pollard and Lukhanyo Am, and lineout general Lood de Jager to injury cannot be overstated.
The key trio have been placed on standby and could yet be called up in the event of injury and with only one recognised flyhalf in the squad in Manie Libbok, fans are hopeful that Pollard, in particular, features after all.
With their experience, unmatched pack of forwards, strike power out wide and feared Bomb Squad, the Boks can beat anyone on any given day if they execute their gameplan clinically like they did in their record 35-7 bashing of the All Blacks in their final warm-up game, landing them third outright.
Forwards: Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Frans Malherbe, Ox Nche, Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Jean Kleyn, Marvin Orie, RG Snyman, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Kwagga Smith, Marco van Staden, Duane Vermeulen, Jasper Wiese.
Backs: Faf de Klerk, Jaden Hendrikse, Cobus Reinach, Grant Williams, Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse, Damian de Allende, Andre Esterhuizen, Jesse Kriel, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Canan Moodie.
Head coach: Jacques Nienaber.
With World Rugby eligibility rules allowing a capped player to switch allegiance to another country for which they’re eligible following a three-year cooling-off period, Tonga head into the tournament with their best-ever squad.
Bolstering the ranks are ex-All Blacks Charles Piutau, Vaea Fifita, Malakai Fekitoa, George Moala and Augustine Pulu as well as former Wallaby Adam Coleman. Another former Australian ace, Israel Folau, was set to feature but has been ruled out with a knee injury.
Coached by former Wallabies No 8 Toutai Kefu, recent wins over a star-studded Australia A side (27-21) and Canada (28-3) suggest Tonga won’t be pushovers and entertainers alone.
Forwards: Sosefo ‘Apikotoa, Adam Coleman, Vaea Fifita, Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Feao Fotuaika, Solomone Funaki, Tanginoa Halaifonua, Sione Havili Talitui, Tau Kolomatangi, Paula Latu, Samiuela Lousi, Sitiveni Mafi, Siua Maile, Samiuela Moli, Paula Ngauamo, Semisi Paea, Ben Tameifuna, Sione Vailanu.
Backs: Pita Ahki, Malakai Fekitoa, William Havili, Fine Inisi, Solomone Kata, Otumaka Mausia, George Moala, Manu Paea, Charles Piutau, Augustine Pulu, Sonatane Takulua (captain), Kyren Taumoefolau, Afusipa Taumoepeau, Anzelo Tuitavuki.
Head coach: Toutai Kefu.
Ireland v Romania
Saturday, 9 September – 15:30
South Africa v Scotland
Sunday, 10 September – 17:45
Ireland v Tonga
Saturday, 16 September – 21:00
South Africa v Romania
Sunday, 17 September – 15:00
South Africa v Ireland
Saturday, 23 September – 21:00
Scotland v Tonga
Sunday, 24 September – 17:45
Scotland v Romania
Saturday, 30 September – 21:00
South Africa v Tonga
Sunday, 1 October – 21:00
Ireland v Scotland
Saturday, 7 October – 21:00
Tonga v Romania
Sunday, 8 October – 17:45