The Wallabies face a tough route to title number three
The lowdown: Australia head into the tournament looking to be the first team to win the Rugby World Cup for the third time, but achieving this piece of history seems a tall order. A tumultuous build-up to the finals has involved a coaching change and mixed results. But there are signs of promise from a young team and it is never wise to write off an Australian sports team. Pool A is a tough group, so the Wallabies will need to discover some form to advance into the knockout stages.
The coach: Michael Cheika Cheika is one of the more interesting characters among rugby coaches. After playing for Sydney’s Randwick, he started his own fashion company, Live Fashion, which became a multi-million-dollar success. Since returning to rugby, Cheika has guided Leinster to the H Cup and the NSW Waratahs to the Super Rugby title. He was appointed coach of the Wallabies in October 2014.
Key player: Michael Hooper The 23-year-old was named captain of the Wallabies for the Test against France last summer and is set to lead the team into the Rugby World Cup. The powerful flanker was voted Australia’s player of the year in 2013 and helped the Waratahs win the Super Rugby series in 2014.
World ranking: 5 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Winners (1991, 1999) Fixtures: Fiji (Sept 23), Uruguay (Sept 27), England (Oct 3), Wales (Oct 10)
Group A: England
The lowdown: Home support could be crucial to England’s chances, with three group games at Twickenham. This could be enough to galvanise a sometimes unpolished England team, which will also be looking to build on a promising second place finish at the Six Nations.
The coach: Stuart Lancaster After the disappointing reigns of Andy Robinson and Martin Johnson, Lancaster has slowly but surely started to turn England around. His rigorous approach to preparation and development is beginning to pay dividends.
Key player: George Ford Since being named World Rugby Junior Player of the Year in 2011, Ford’s career has gone from strength to strength. The Bath fly-half is an influential playmaker and invaluable goal-kicker.
World ranking: 4 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Winners (2003) Fixtures: Fiji (Sept 18), Wales (Sept 26), Australia (Oct 3), Uruguay (Oct 10)
Group A: Wales
The lowdown: Wales head into the Rugby World Cup in strong form and it is not beyond the realms of possibility to see them challenging for the title. With strength in depth and a sprinkling of star quality, the Welsh will be a match for anyone on their day.
The coach: Warren Gatland The confident, no-nonsense Kiwi has already led Wales to two Six Nations Grand Slams and is now targeting a World Cup.
Key player: Sam Warburton Powerful flanker Warburton leads by example as captain with his tireless work rate. The Cardiff Blues player is an expert at breaking up play.
World ranking: 6 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Third (1987) Fixtures: Uruguay (Sept 20), England (Sept 26), Fiji (Oct 1), Australia (Oct 10)
Group A: Fiji
The lowdown: Fiji sealed qualification for the finals with a comprehensive 108-6 victory over the Cook Islands. Having played in all but one Rugby World Cups, the Fijians are experienced campaigners who are capable of a shock on their day.
The coach: John McKee The Kiwi has coached around the world, including stops in France and England. He has also worked closely with the Australian Rugby Union.
Key player: Metuisela Talebula Having successfully switched from the Fiji sevens team, Talebula – who can play as a back or full-back – has emerged as one of the team’s most exciting players.
World ranking: 10 World Cup appearances: 6 Previous best: Quarter-finals (1987, 2007) Fixtures: England (Sept 18), Australia (Sept 23), Wales (Oct 1), Uruguay (Oct 6)
Group A: Uruguay
The lowdown: Uruguay clinched qualification with a narrow two-leg victory over Russia. They look unlikely to get out of the group, but don’t expect them to be pushovers.
The coach: Pablo Lemoine The 40-year-old coach played for Uruguay at the 1999 and 2003 World Cups and has a good relationship with the players and fans.
Key player: Felipe Berchesi Uruguay will be looking to make the most of the young fly-half’s accurate kicking. He scored 42 points over the two qualifying legs against Russia.
World ranking: 19 World Cup appearances: 2 Previous best: Group stage (1999, 2003) Fixtures: Wales (Sept 20), Australia (Sept 27), Fiji (Oct 6), England (Oct 10)
Group B: South Africa
The Springboks look set to make a strong challenge for the title
The lowdown: Two-time champions South Africa shouldn’t be having too many sleepless nights over their Pool B opponents at the World Cup. The Springboks will be targeting top spot in the group, which will set up a clash against the runner-up of Pool A at Twickenham. How far they can go from that point will depend largely on coach Heyneke Meyer’s ability to field a settled team. Injuries have hampered South Africa’s preparations somewhat, but they still boast enough strength in depth to make them genuine title contenders.
The coach: Heyneke Meyer The well-respected South African has been at the helm of the Springboks since January 2012. Before joining the national team, he enjoyed a successful club coaching career that began with SWD Eagles in 1998. He then guided the Blue Bulls to the Currie Cup and the South African Super Rugby title.
Key player: Willie Le Roux Stopping Le Roux will be a constant challenge for South Africa’s opponents at the Rugby World Cup. The attacking full-back is always dangerous with his try-scoring ability, which was recognised by his nomination for the World Rugby Player of the Year award in 2014. He’s consistent, too, having started all 13 of South Africa’s Tests in 2014.
World ranking: 2 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Winners (1995, 2007) Fixtures: Japan (Sept 19), Samoa (Sept 26), Scotland (Oct 3), USA (Oct 7)
Group B: Samoa
The lowdown: Since reaching successive quarter-finals 1991 and 1995, Samoa have failed to reach those heights again. But they will feel confident of progressing from Pool B, with a final group match against Scotland to be vital.
The coach: Stephen Betham Coached Samoa to their first Sevens World Series title during the 2009-10 season and has since stepped up to simultaneously coach the 15s national side.
Key player: Kahn Fotuali'i The Northampton Saints scrum-half is one of Samoa’s most experienced players. The 33-year-old played all four of Samoa’s games at the 2011 World Cup.
World ranking: 9 World Cup appearances: 6 Previous best: Quarter-finals (1991, 1995) Fixtures: USA (Sept 20), South Africa (Sept 26), Japan (Oct 3), Scotland (Oct 10)
Group B: Scotland
The lowdown: Coming off the back of a harrowing Six Nations, where they lost all five games, Scotland will be desperate to prove a point at the World Cup. With a squad of talented young players, The Scots will hope to fulfil some of their potential.
The coach: Vern Cotter The New Zealander led Scotland to three wins out of four Tests during his first tour and will be looking to rekindle that form at the World Cup.
Key player: Stuart Hogg The 23-year-old full-back has carried his Glasgow Warriors club form through to the national team. He is adept at exploiting space and dealing with pressure.
World ranking: 11 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Fourth (1991) Fixtures: Japan (Sept 23), USA (Sept 27), South Africa (Oct 3), Samoa (Oct 10)
Group B: Japan
The lowdown: With an entertaining style of play, Japan will be looking to add to their solitary Rugby World Cup win, against Zimbabwe in 1991. In 2019, they host the World Cup, making this an important tournament for the Brave Blossom.
The coach: Eddie Jones The Australian, who came within a Johnny Wilkinson drop-kick of winning the 2001 World Cup, has substantial experience in club rugby. He has Japan playing a passing style of rugby.
Key player: Kenki Fukouka This exciting winger is likely to be Japan’s main attacking outlet with his blistering pace and try-scoring ability.
World ranking: 13 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Group stage (1987-2011) Fixtures: South Africa (Sept 19), Scotland (Sept 23), Samoa (Oct 3), USA (Oct 11)
Group B: USA
The lowdown: In a country dominated by American football, baseball and basketball, rugby union is slowly starting to gain a foothold. The Eagles have a respectable World Cup record and will be looking to add to their three wins.
The coach: Mike Tolkin Tolkin has been coaching since 1987, mostly in the New York area. He first got involved with the national team as defensive coach before stepping up to the head coach position in 2012.
Key player: Todd Clever The Eagles’ captain will be appearing at his third World Cup and his tireless work ethic will be vital. At 33 years old, the flanker’s experience is also invaluable.
World ranking: 16 World Cup appearances: 6 Previous best: Group stage (1987-91, 1999-2011) Fixtures: Samoa (Sept 20), Scotland (Sept 27), South Africa (Oct 7), Japan (Oct 11)
Group C: New Zealand
The reigning world champions will once again be the team to beat
The lowdown: There are no sure things in sport, but New Zealand retaining the Webb Ellis Cup seems an almost certainty. The All Blacks have been the team to beat over the past couple of years, losing only one of 28 Test matches played in 2013 and 2014. World-class players grace every department of the squad, from influential captain Richie McCaw to World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick and all-conquering defender Dan Carter. Watching how the opposition plan to stop New Zealand’s irrepressible brand of attacking rugby will make for a fascinating spectacle.
The coach: Steve Hansen Hansen stepped up from assistant to former coach Graham Henry, who led the All Blacks to the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Having spent seven years as Henry’s right-hand man, plus time coaching Canterbury and Wales, Hansen was perfectly placed to carry on his predecessor’s good work.
Key player: Israel Dagg With his blistering pace and try-scoring ability, Dagg has the ability to turn games in New Zealand’s favour. The former sevens international scored five tries four years ago and will be looking to add to that tally as the All Blacks attempt to defend their crown.
World ranking: 1 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Winners (1987, 2011) Fixtures: Argentina (Sept 20), Namibia (Sept 24), Georgia (Oct 2), Tonga (Oct 9)
Group C: Argentina
The lowdown: Since finishing third at the 2007 World Cup, Argentina’s expectations have risen. With a victory over Australia during the 2014 Rugby Championship, they’ve shown they can be a match for anyone on their day.
The coach: Daniel Hourcade Hourcade cut his teeth as coach of Argentina’s sevens and under-21 teams before stepping up the top job in October 2013. His dynamic approach has closed the gap between Argentina and the sport’s heavyweights.
Key player: Juan Martin Hernandez Injury robbed the fly-half of a chance to play at the 2011 World Cup, but he’s recently rediscovered the form that saw him nominated for the World Rugby Player of the Year award after a stellar 2007 tournament.
World ranking: 8 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Third (2007) Fixtures: New Zealand (Sept 20), Georgia (Sept 25), Tonga (Oct 4), Namibia (Oct 11)
Group C: Tonga
The lowdown: Victory over France during the last World Cup four years ago showed Tonga’s potential and they will be looking to build on that this time round. A good start against Georgia and Namibia is vital.
The coach: Mana Otai Otai has been in charge of Tonga since 2012 after captaining the team at the 1995 World Cup. He is assisted by South Africa’s World Cup-winning coach Jake White as technical adviser.
Key player: Joe Tuineau The former American footballer has been getting better and better for Tonga and brings a dose of unpredictability to the team’s play.
World ranking: 12 World Cup appearances: 6 Previous best: Group stage (1987, 1995-2011) Fixtures: Georgia (Sept 19), Namibia (Sept 29), Argentina (Oct 4), New Zealand (Oct 9)
Group C: Georgia
The lowdown: Georgia have been gradually improving since making their debut at the 2003 World Cup. The best of the rest in Europe outside of the Six Nations elite, they will be targeting group wins against Tonga and Namibia and eyeing an upset against Argentina.
The coach: Milton Haig The experienced New Zealander took charge of the Georgians in 2011. He guided them to their second successive European Nations Cup grand slam earlier this year.
Key player: Zurab Zhvania The physically imposing Stade Francais player is a constant threat near the tryline. He’s usually deployed by Georgia as a prop or hooker.
World ranking: 13 World Cup appearances: 3 Previous best: Group stage (2003-2011) Fixtures: Tonga (Sept 19), Argentina (Sept 25), New Zealand (Oct 2), Namibia (Oct 7)
Group C: Namibia
The lowdown: Namibia scraped into the World Cup after a less-than-convincing qualifying campaign. They will be up against it in Pool C.
The coach: Phil Davies Former Welsh international Davies took over from Danie Vermeulen in June 2015, having previously been a technical advisor for Namibia. His previous coaching career took in spells at Leeds Tykes, Scarlets and Cardiff Blues.
Key player: Jacques Burger Despite a series of knee injuries over the years, Burger is still one of Namibia’s standout players. The forward seems to be everywhere on the pitch and has unwavering stamina.
World ranking: 21 World Cup appearances: 4 Previous best: Group stage (1999-2011) Fixtures: New Zealand (Sept 24), Tonga (Sept 29), Georgia (Oct 7), Argentina (Oct 11)
Group D: France
Les Bleus are sure to entertain but a lack of consistency remains their Achilles’ heel The lowdown: Predictably unpredictable, France are one of the sport’s most enigmatic teams. They were disappointing in the most recent Six Nations, finishing fourth with only two wins in a campaign that included the mad 55-35 defeat to England. There attacking ability isn’t in doubt, but when it comes to defending, serious gaps can be found. If they can tighten up a bit at the back while maintaining their free-flowing style, they could go far and banish the memories of three final defeats.
The coach: Philippe Saint-Andre The former France winger and captain will step down at the end of the World Cup so will want to end his reign in style. Finding a settled team has been a problem for him, but he is not short on talented players from which to choose. If he can hit upon a balanced team, France could cause a surprise.
Key player: Yoann Huget Huget’s pace will be a huge asset for France at the World Cup. He showed his ability during the Six Nations, when his ability to beat players out wide created try-scoring opportunities. He can also score tries himself and doesn’t neglect his defensive duties either.
World ranking: 7 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Runners-up (1987, 1999, 2011) Fixtures: Italy (Sept 19), Romania (Sept 23), Canada (Oct 1), Ireland (Oct 11)
The lowdown: Champions of the past two Six Nations, Ireland are the northern hemisphere’s form team and genuine contenders for the World Cup. They can adapt their game depending on the opponent, making them one of the most feared teams in rugby.
The coach: Joe Schmidt Famed for his attention to detail and tactical flexibility, Schmidt has transformed Ireland since taking charge in 2013. Back-to-back Six Nations titles have set the stage for a serious tilt at the World Cup. Key player: Simon Zebo Exciting and unpredictable, Zebo can spark Ireland into life when he’s on the ball. The talented 25-year-old wing is certainly worth keeping an eye on for his ability to pull a trick out of the bag.
World ranking: 3 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Quarter-finals (1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011) Fixtures: Canada (Sept 19), Romania (Sept 27), Italy (Oct 4), France Oct 11)
The lowdown: On their day, Italy can cause problems for any team. Unfortunately for the Tifosi, the team’s day doesn’t come around very often. But if they can repeat the performance from their disciplined victory over Scotland at the Six Nations, they could cause an upset.
The coach: Jacques Brunel Brunel will surely be alarmed by Italy’s collapse in the final games of the Six Nations and will be looking for a response here. His extensive domestic coaching experience in his native France will prove vital.
Key player: Michele Campagnaro The explosive 22-year-old is strong in the tackle and dangerous going forward. The centre will be one of Italy’s biggest threats.
World ranking: 15 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Group stage (1987-2011) Fixtures: France (Sept 19), Canada (Sept 26), Ireland (Oct 4), Romania (Oct 11)
The lowdown: Despite not being widely renowned as rugby nation, Canada has strong pedigree. They reached the quarter-finals in 1991 and shocked Tonga at the past World Cup. They will be targeting two group wins this time around. The coach: Kieran Crowley Crowley made his name as a full-back for New Zealand, playing for the All Blacks at the 1987 and 1991 World Cups. His winning experience has added another dimension to this Canucks side. Key player: Tyler Ardron The 24-year-old plies his trade for Ospreys in Wales and has established himself as a good all-rounder who can shine in the back or second row.
World ranking: 18 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Quarter-finals (1991) Fixtures: Ireland (Sept 19), Italy (Sept 26), France (Oct 1), Romania (Oct 6)
The lowdown: Powerful Romania will cause problems for their Pool D opponents. Their physically imposing players will contest scrums with relish and will be aiming for two group wins.
The coach: Lynn Howells Howells has plenty of coaching experience in Europe. He worked as assistant to Graham Henry with Wales at the 1999 World Cup and has been with Romania since 2012. Key player: Catalin Fercu Highly respected by his club side Saracens, Fercu will be the thorn in the side of Romania’s Pool D opponents. The 28-year-old back can cause havoc down the wing.
World ranking: 17 World Cup appearances: 7 Previous best: Group stage (1987-2011) Fixtures: France (Sept 23), Ireland (Sept 27), Canada (Oct 6), Italy (Oct 11)