Ireland (World Ranking 1)
They may be the top ranked team in the world at the moment, but Ireland are certainly not the favourites for this tournament. The Joe Schmidt era has been a series of highs; a test win in South Africa, two wins against the All Blacks, three Six Nations Championships (including a Grand Slam in 2018), a series win in Australia, and if you’d analysed their chances at the start of the year, a fair few people would have picked them to go close in Japan, but that changed with defeats to England and Wales in this year’s Six Nations. A thrashing by England at a sun-drenched Twickenham in a World Cup warm up a few weeks ago added to the feeling that they had peaked too early and certain players were over the hill. Back to back wins over Wales have stopped the slide, but the jury is still out.
There’s a strong core of experience in Rory Best, Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney, but are some of those players past their best? Devin Toner appears to be, being the shock exclusion to see South African born second row Jean Kleyn jump on the plane to Japan just a few weeks after qualifying via the residency rule. There are plenty of other fresh faces through the likes of James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Jacob Stockdale, and more strength in depth than four years ago, but there’s still the nagging feeling that if they suffer a couple of key injuries, the quarter finals could remain the furthest Ireland have gone in any World Cup.
Scotland (World Ranking 7)
Vern Cotter entered this World Cup cycle as Head Coach, but with his contract expiring in June 2017, Gregor Townsend was destined from a long way out to be in charge come this tournament, with his appointment being announced a full 10 months before he took the reins. With 82 caps for Scotland, and a spell as assistant coach between 2009 and 2012 behind him, he was a popular choice, but he has overseen mixed results and performances. In his first six months in charge he beat Australia home and away, but also lost to Fiji. They gave the All Blacks a run for their money at Murrayfield in November 2017 and the following year managed to finish third in the Six Nations (their highest finish since 2013). The summer tour that followed (with a fairly young and inexperienced team) saw victories against Canada and Argentina, but defeat (for the first time) to the USA.
They finished fifth in this year’s Six Nations, with the highlight undoubtedly the comeback at Twickenham to draw 38-38, having been 31-0 down in the first half. Thirteen of the squad have previous World Cup experience, with back-rower John Barclay back for a third go; at the other end of the spectrum, former New Zealand Under 20 & New Zealand Maori representative Blade Thomson makes the squad having debuted against France just last month. Capable but limited, Scotland have some stars in their ranks through the likes of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, but getting out of the pool seems likely to be their limit again.
Japan (World Ranking 10)
After shocking the World by beating South Africa at the last World Cup, any surprise element has gone. With Eddie Jones swapping cherry blossoms for red roses, Jamie Joseph took over as Head Coach in 2016 and with Tony Brown alongside him, reaching the quarter finals is clearly the objective, but is it realistic? Since that famous day in Brighton, they have managed one more victory against a Tier 1 Nation, beating Italy 34-17 at home in June last year. There was also a draw against France, but also 11 losses against the elite. Joseph knows if they are going to beat Ireland and/or Scotland it’ll be tight, saying:
‘We’re not the type of team that will overwhelm a Tier 1 team, so it’ll be a point or two points if we are going to be successful. There is going to be a lot of pressure and that’s the type of scenario we’ve been preparing for the last three years.’
15 of the 31 man squad qualify via residency and Joseph acknowledges this is an important factor as they try to compete with the top teams; Michael Leitch leads the team as he did in 2015, in what is his third World Cup. Second row Luke Thompson, at 38, will be playing in his fourth tournament. In the backs Ataata Moeakiola and Kenki Fukuoka will lively on the wings. Joseph says that the Japanese game is based around speed, skill and structure and that their high level of fitness, in humid conditions could be a deciding factor. Will Ireland and Scotland be able to match that if their games are tight coming into the closing stages?
Samoa (World Ranking 16)
Qualification for the tournament wasn’t glamorous with a two leg play-off against Germany eventually booking Samoa’s ticket to another big dance. Samoa have had only six matches against Tier 1 opposition since the last World Cup and they are on their third Head Coach during this cycle. Steve Jackson is now the man in charge and the former North Harbour Head Coach/Blues Assistant Coach has overseen two wins in seven tests since taking over 12 months ago. Getting their best players on the park remains their biggest challenge to see them make a serious challenge. Michael Alaalatoa, the Crusaders prop, has recently joined the squad and will emulate his father Vili, who played for Samoa (also as a prop) at the 1991 World Cup. Tim Nanai-Williams continues to bring plenty of experience in the outside backs and Chris Vui, who captained Jackson’s North Harbour side to the Mitre 10 Championship title in 2016, can show his talents in both the second and back row. A win against Russia seems inevitable but after that it appears they will be short against the other three teams in the pool and will need an inspired performance mixed with an off day for their opponents to get a second victory and a shot at third position.
Russia (World Ranking 20)
Samoa’s playoff against Germany was because the Germans were second in the Rugby Europe Championship, played during 2017 & 2018. Russia finished first in that competition, hence their direct qualification, but that was after Romania, Spain and Belgium were deducted points for fielding ineligible players.
Having played in one previous tournament (2011), kicking the tournament off against Japan is undoubtedly the biggest game in their rugby history and although they are huge outsiders, they did run Japan close in November last year, losing 32-27, with a late Michael Leitch try getting Japan over the line. That said, recent matches have not gone well, with an 85-15 defeat to Italy in mid-August followed a fortnight later by a 35-22 loss to Jersey Reds, a club in England’s second tier. Welshman Lyn Jones is their Head Coach having been appointed in August 2018 and their strengths will be their organisation, physicality and a willingness to throw the ball around; they will concede plenty of tries but they’ll score a few too.
Key Game: Scotland v Japan, 13th October. The last game in the group and the pool stages as a whole. I’m expecting this to be a winner takes all fixture with the victorious team meeting the winner of Pool B (New Zealand/South Africa) in the quarter final. What toll will the previous group games have had on the respective squads? Will Japan be able to upset the odds and make the quarter finals for the first time? In my opinion, it’ll be tight, but Scotland will be set for the challenge of the home nation and get the job done.
Pool Prediction: Ireland and Scotland meet in their first game and that is likely to dictate the top two places. The Irish should be too strong for the Scots and after that I expect results in the pool to follow the World Rankings with Japan qualifying for the 2021 tournament, by finishing third. Samoa v Russia could be an entertaining one for the neutrals; physical and full of tries.
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