(POOL A) Scotland, Japan, Samoa, Russia
Last year Ireland collected Player, Coach and Team of the Year at the World Rugby Awards, having won a Grand Slam and beaten the All Blacks, they were shaping up as potential World Cup favourites. Now though there is a sense that Ireland may have peaked too early for Japan with a poor 2019 Six Nations and mixed performances in the World Cup warm up matches meaning questions are starting to be asked of Joe Schmidt’s team. The Irish game is based on kicking and possession yet against the mobility of the southern hemisphere sides could look flat footed rather than dominant. Ireland have already been overpowered by England’s physicality twice this year and as favourites to top Pool A, a quarter final against South Africa or New Zealand looks challenging. Ireland have never reached a World Cup semi-final before but still have an experienced squad capable of restoring there 2018 form. Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray remain one of the best half-back pairs in the world, there forward pack has great depth from Peter O’Mahony to Tadhg Furlong and Jacob Stockdale is finding form on the wing.
(Key player) Johnny Sexton/Fly-half: Reigning World Rugby Player of the Year and key to Irelands organisation and control, with Sexton fit they have a chance of reaching that elusive semi-final.
(One to watch) Jordan Lamour/Wing or Fullback: Lamour is a versatile back who at only 22 has won everything with Leinster and a Grand Slam for his country, when Ireland need a spark in the 2nd half he’s the man.
(POOL A) Ireland, Japan, Samoa, Russia
At the 2015 World Cup, Scotland were denied a historic win over Australia that would’ve seen them progress to the semi-finals, due to an incorrect penalty being gifted to the Wallabies in the dying seconds. Since then Gregor Townsend, former Glasgow Warriors head coach, has taken charge. Bringing through plenty of players he previously worked with into the national team setup. Nine of the 14 backs selected in Townsends World Cup squad have played for the Warriors and it’s shown through the electric pace and improvisation Scotland have in attack. Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell in particular offer the X-factor to unlock defences but Scotland’s fluidity leaves them vulnerable, reliant on out scoring teams rather than controlling games. There forward pack looks a bit lightweight and lacks the depth of the other Home Nations, such as fellow Pool A side Ireland, who Townsend is yet to win against. Tournament hosts Japan are also in their pool meaning qualification to the knockouts might be challenging however Scotland remain a dark horse. If their forwards can stay fit, then their attack will always be a threat in the knockout matches.
(Key player) Finn Russell/Fly-half: Russell has magic in his hands and feet, IF given space he’s capable of cutting teams apart with outrageous skill.
(One to watch) Hamish Watson/Flanker: Injured for most of the Six Nations but quietly becoming one of the northern hemisphere’s best flankers.
(POOL D) Australia, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay
Wales won their third Grand Slam under Warren Gatland at this years Six Nations whilst scoring the joint lowest amount of tries and winning the least lineouts and turnovers. Crucially they also conceded the lowest amount of tries, proving once again that a world class defence can win tournaments for Gatland. The Welsh pride themselves on their team spirit, relentless tackling and becoming the fittest squad in the world, it’s this work ethic which briefly got them ranked world number one. But playing a tough defensive game, across potentially seven matches risks fatigue with Taulupe Faletau and Gareth Anscombe already major injury losses. Wales share Pool D with Australia who they failed to beat for a decade between 2008-18 but the Wallabies have their own issues and a quarter-final against France or England looks assured. Especially given Fiji are the only real threat to Pool D’s qualification places. However, Wales won’t get much further than the quarter-finals unless they start scoring more tries. They are too reliant on the individual quality of George North or Liam Williams and look one dimensional in attack compared to fellow favourites, New Zealand, South Africa and England.
(Key player) Alun Wyn Jones/Lock: Personifies the sports cliché ‘Captain, Leader, Legend’, if Wales are to grind their way to a first World Cup win then it’ll be Jones who ensures they give everything on the pitch.
(One to watch) Josh Adams/Wing: Scored 4 tries in his first 11 Wales caps, one of which sealed a win over England, could help revive the Welsh attack in what will be his first World Cup.
(POOL C) France, Argentina, Tonga, USA
England appear to be peaking at just the right time under Eddie Jones. Due to injury and Jones’s selection the England starting XV has rarely looked settled, yet this has produced dynamic play through forcing players out of position and into different combinations. Henry Slade’s injury has seen a return of the Ford/Farrell combination alongside Tuilagi, giving England two exceptional midfield options once he’s back. Similarly, the return of Sam Underhill means England can now choose to operate with two openside flankers. Unlike the other Home Nations, England also possess the athletes to rival the southern hemisphere. Itoje, Tuilagi and the Vunipola’s have the power and mobility to ensure the English are dynamic in attack and defence. England can be the best team in the world but only for 30-minute spells at the moment, tending to blitz teams before letting the intensity drop. This was clear in the Six Nations when they surrendered a 31-0 lead to Scotland. There is also vulnerability at full-back with Eliot Daly’s defence questionable and the lack of a specialist 15 in the squad baffling. Pool C is tough with France and Argentina also competing to qualify, England must be more consistent from the start to ensure they get to the final.
(Key player) The Vunipola’s/Number 8 and Loose-head Prop: Admittedly not ‘a’ key player but Billy and Mako Vunipola are two of the best in the world when they are fit, their powerful running could make the difference in a potential semi-final against the All Blacks.
(One to watch) Sam Underhill/Flanker: Tenacious, energetic and a tough tackler, Sam Underhill will be a nightmare for opposition back-rows if Jones gives him the minutes.