Wales (World Ranking 5)
After 11 years in Wales, Warren Gatland is coming home to his Chiefs in Super Rugby, but not before his third crack at the Webb Ellis Cup. A semi-final appearance in 2011 and a quarter final four years ago is a decent return, but Gatland undoubtedly has his eyes on the top prize this time around. Assistant Coach Rob Howley being sent home on the eve of the tournament for suspected betting infringements was an unexpected diversion this week and an unwanted one but there is enough experience in this group to refocus quickly and get off to a convincing winning start against Georgia on Monday. Captain Alun Wyn Jones at 34, and with 128 caps to his name, remains the undoubted talisman, but has strong support throughout the group from the likes of hooker Ken Owens, flanker Justin Tipuric, and in the backs first five Dan Biggar, centre Jonathan Davies and back three options George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams – for most of those, this will be their last crack at a World Cup. Although Gareth Anscombe suffered an injury during a warm-up match against England last month, another former Blue Hadleigh Parkes has made his mark in the first choice midfield line-up since debuting two years ago.
Their schedule is reasonable, with Australia coming after Georgia and then Fiji and Uruguay to finish off group proceedings. Wales will have been happy to finally get the Wallaby hold over them loosened with a 9-6 win in Cardiff last November; that victory ended a thirteen match losing streak against the Australians. A few months later, Wales clinched their third Grand Slam of the Gatland era. Results have been patchy in warm-up matches, losing away to England, before beating Eddie Jones’ team the following weekend in Cardiff. Back to back losses against Ireland followed, but there’s no sense of panic, no signs of concern. Gatland and his staff have the squad well conditioned and he has shown his tactical abilities over many years. I’m expecting them to match their achievements of 2011 in getting to the last four and after that, who knows.
Australia (World Ranking 6)
After a horrendous 2018, all hope for an Aussie tilt at a third Rugby World Cup looked lost. Four wins from thirteen tests was their worst calendar year record since 1958. 2019 hardly started well off the field, with the Israel Folau saga, but come the Rugby Championship, an away loss to South Africa followed by a home victory against Argentina was their build-up to a convincing 47-26 win against the All Blacks. For all the promise shown there, the backlash in Auckland was swift and decisive seven days later. Michael Hooper leads the squad as he approaches his century of caps (currently on 95). All Australian fans (and plenty of neutrals) will be praying David Pocock stays fit; World Class for over a decade, he has decided to call it a day after the tournament.
There’s plenty of experience, especially in the backs, with Adam Ashley-Cooper, Will Genia, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale all having been around for multiple World Cups, with stints abroad in-between. Samu Kerevi is an important midfield ingredient and has strength and an offloading game to boot. A testing group could be just what the Wallabies need. A tough start against Fiji and the pool matches end against Georgia will keep them at it in their quest to make the last eight and there, one of the teams from Pool C awaits, and all of those will be tough to beat. It could be a case of who can handles injuries the best come quarter-final time, and if things are pretty equal on that front, a semi-final may be out of reach this time around.
Fiji (World Ranking 9)
Fiji meet Wales and Australia in pool play just like they did in England four years ago. With England in that pool as well, fourth was realistically the best they could hope for, and although they were far from disgraced, their sole victory was against Uruguay. As a result of finishing fourth, they missed out on automatic qualification for Japan. They finished top of the 2016 & 2017 Pacific Nations Cup to clinch their eighth appearance, having only missed the 1995 tournament to date. During this cycle, Fiji have beaten Scotland at home in June 2017 and memorably France in Paris last November. This needs to be tempered by the fact that Scotland got revenge at Murrayfield two weeks before that French match, winning 54-17. This year, defeat to Japan has been followed by wins over Canada, Samoa and Tonga, but despite the talent at their disposal, bridging the gap to beat either Wales or Australia seems too far. Head Coach John McKee has been in charge since 2014 and has named fifteen World Cup debutants, along with five players entering their third tournament. Those five include influential second row and captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu and his locking partner Leone Nakarawa.
Unsurprisingly there is plenty in their backline to excite including Semi Radradra and former Crusader Ben Volavola, with Frank Lomani likely to set the tone from halfback. Australia first up is key and to advance you feel they have to win that. For me though, they are still short of the overall qualities of Wales and Australia and their World Cup will end up being about making sure automatic qualification for 2023 is secured.
Georgia (World Ranking 12)
Georgia line up for their fifth consecutive Rugby World Cup having had their most successive tournament last time round. They finished third in the pool containing the All Blacks and Argentina, defeating Tonga and Namibia. Since then, Milton Haig’s team have won three of four Rugby Europe International Championships; in more identifiable terms, Europe’s second division. Having already qualified for Japan, Haig was able to look at developing more depth. Most of the forwards play professionally in France with the backs spread out, primarily in Russia, France, or Georgia’s own league. There’s plenty of experience with Georgian legend Mamuka Gorgodze lining up in the second row for the fourth time at a World Cup, having reversed his 2017 decision to retire from international duty. Midfielder Davit Kacharava has 116 caps while at the other end of the spectrum, Montpellier first five Gela Aprasidze may be relatively inexperienced, but will add spark if given the opportunity. Two wins is the objective, anything less will be a step back.
Uruguay (World Ranking 19)
Far and away the group outsiders, Uruguay qualified via a two leg play off versus Canada at the start of 2018. They have the unenviable task of having their first three games (against Fiji, Georgia and Australia) in an eleven day period. After missing the 2007 and 2011 editions, Los Teros joined the table in England four years ago and since then, like the USA & Canadian teams, they have seen a number of their players join the professional Major League in North America. Argentine Esteban Menesse has been in charge for four years now and has overseen mixed results. Late last year they suffered a heavy defeat to Fiji and rather more worrying, was their 41-21 loss to Spain in June. Juan Manuel Gaminara is their captain, in his second World Cup. Felipe Berchesi, their playmaker at first five, plays for US Dax in the French second division, which gives you some context as to the gulf in class. It’s hard to be positive for their chances.
Key Game: Fiji v Georgia, 3rd October. Likely in my opinion to decide third place and automatic qualification for the next tournament. It should be an absolute cracker, a contrast of styles and if I have to get off the fence, I’ll take Fiji to win, assuming the weather makes for running rugby conditions.
Prediction: If Pool C is the Pool of Death, this one is surely second hardest. Fiji and Georgia will test the two favourites but ultimately I expect the World Rankings to be an accurate guide to how placings will finish.
Quarter Final Draw Prediction:
England v Australia
New Zealand v Scotland
Wales v Argentina
Ireland v South Africa
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