By Harry Jones, Alex Jennings, Jordan Camp and Sammy Mngqosini
September 18 2019, 14.45
Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Samoa, Russia
As hosts of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Japan will open the tournament against Russia on Friday. The group also consists of two home nation sides in Scotland and Ireland, with Samoa taking up the final spot in Pool A.
Ireland begin the tournament as the world’s highest-ranked side, but an underwhelming Six Nations and heavy warm-up defeat at Twickenham has wounded the team considered New Zealand’s closest contender at the start of the year. If Ireland are to progress further than the quarter-finals for the first time in their history, it’s vital they keep their “axis of excellence,” Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, fit and firing.
Due to Scotland’s quarter-final finish in 2015, they were rewarded with automatic qualification for this year’s tournament. The Scots played a huge part in Japan’s failure to make it out of Pool B in 2015, beating them 45-10 and leapfrogging them into second-place behind South Africa. The two sides will meet again on Sunday October 13 when the hosts will be looking for one thing – revenge.
When Karne Hesketh bundled over the line to defeat South Africa in 2015, the sporting world was shaken to its core. As they prepare to host their first World Cup, the central question is “can they do it again?” Scotland, their conquerors in 2015, appear the most vulnerable. While Japanese progress isn’t expected, it’s certainly more likely than four years ago.
Samoa, currently ranked 16th in the world, have failed to move beyond the group stages at four previous Rugby World Cups, a trend which is likely to continue. Coach Steve Jackson, in his debut World Cup, will field a severely weakened team as some players have opted to play for European clubs over country duty. The Pacific Islanders’ physical strength will test most teams but will likely result in a fourth-place group finish with the only possible win coming from the match against Russia.
‘The Bears’ only qualified for their second-ever World Cup after Romania, Belgium and Spain were sanctioned for fielding ineligible players in qualifying. Sale prop Valery Morozov is one of just two squad members who ply their trade outside Russia, whilst fly-half Yuri Kushnarev has 109 caps and 772 points to his name. A debut World Cup win against the hosts and a respectful showing elsewhere will be the target for the minnows.
Surprise Package: Japan
Whipping Boys: Russia