September 19 2019, 11.55
Australia, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay, Wales
Two-time winners Australia are looking to go one better than in 2015, when they were beaten finalists, write Angus Oliver, Dan Alexander, Matthew Verri and William Cracknell. The Wallabies’ form has been poor by their high standards, losing thirteen of their past twenty matches. Despite this, Michael Cheika’s squad is stacked with an embarrassment of riches: versatile back-row options in Hooper, Pocock and Kepu, as well as an explosive and dynamic back line. If their superstar individuals perform as a cohesive unit they will cause plenty of problems for opposition defences and should see them go deep into the tournament – but question marks remain.
Often billed as the ‘surprise package’, Fiji arrive in Japan with a core of world class players and the potential to finally live up to that billing. Expect slick and attractive offloading rugby through the power of forwards Nakarawa, Mata and Yato, who lead the French Top 14 forwards in defenders beaten and metres gained this year. Olympic sevens gold medallist Tuisova and Radradra, who recently converted from NRL, will provide electric pace and power in the backs. Whether John McKee’s side can maintain their energy for eighty minutes and whether the defence can withstand the Welsh and Australian attacking talent will determine if they can progress from the group.
Georgia arrive in Japan knowing they face an uphill battle to get out of their group, something they haven’t done at any of their previous four World Cup appearances. Recent matches against Scotland ended in defeat but they matched the Scots for 65 minutes at Murrayfield, and wins in the 2015 World Cup against Tonga and Namibia represented an impressive showing. The strength of the Georgian scrum alone should make them competitive, but it could be a similar tale to 2015 with third in the group perhaps the best they can hope for.
Drawn against England, Wales and Australia four years ago, minnows Uruguay can consider themselves unfortunate to again find themselves pitched against three of the world’s top-10 sides. Although by no means the competition’s weakest team – evidenced by an impressive play-off victory over fellow qualifiers Canada – Uruguay’s World Cup pedigree remains unproven. Last time out they lost all 4 matches, conceding 226 points. Any improvement on those statistics would represent progress for a country boasting fewer than 3.5 million inhabitants. Watch out for veteran Diego Magno at lock, the country’s all-time leading cap holder (90), as well as exciting scrum-half Santiago Arata.
Wales arrive in Japan with genuine ambitions to win the Webb Ellis Cup fuelled by a grand slam triumph in this year’s Six Nations and a brief spell at the top of the world rankings in August. Captained by Alun Wyn Jones and spearheaded by a free-flowing backline starring Williams, Davies and North, the Welsh are looking to better their 2011 semi-final appearance. Topping the group will be key to their success and would likely mean avoiding pre-tournament favourites New Zealand before the final. Having beaten South Africa, England, Ireland and group rivals Australia in the past year during a 14-match winning streak, three pre-tournament defeats in the pre-tournament will not worry Warren Gatland ahead of Monday’s opener against Georgia.
Surprise package: Fiji
Whipping boys: Uruguay