With the Rugby World Cup just 87 days, we bring you a team-by-team guide of the minnow nations participating in the sport’s global showpiece, along with their coaches, captains, star captains and their best attempts in the competition so far.
What do you think will win in Japan?
Coach: Lyn Jones
Captain: Vasily Artemyev
Star man: Vasily Artemyev. The former Irish schools flyer returned to his homeland in 2009 and has gone on to make 84 appearances. Fast and intelligence, the 31-year-old will be aiming to add to his 30 international tries in Japan.
Best finish: Pool stage (2011)
Fixtures: Japan (September 20), Samoa (September 24), Ireland (October 3), Scotland (October 9).
They may not be the fittest and most colourful side to watch in world rugby, but they’re certainly physical and hungry to win their own ball. A productive 2019 saw the Russians play seven matches, a lot of rugby, but match practice should be helpful to their World Cup campaign.
Coach: Steve Jackson
Captain: Chris Vui
Star man: Chris Vui. The versatile loose forward became the youngest skipper in World Rugby in 2017 at 24. He enjoyed a stellar campaign with Bristol in the Gallagher Premiership, recording 176 carries and 190 tackles to help the Bears cope with the physicality of England’s top flight. Will be crucial to Samoa in Japan.
Best finish: Quarter-finals (1991-95)
Fixtures: Russia (September 24), Scotland (September 30), Ireland (October 12)
With Ireland, Scotland and Japan making up Pool A, Samoa face a tough task at this World Cup. They have shown no signs of improvement in recent years either, with their only wins in 2018 coming against Germany and Japan. Leading into Japan, they take on Tonga, USA and Fiji, warm-up fixtures that should make them more competitive.
Coach: Phil Davies
Captain: Renaldo Bothma
Star man: Renaldo Bothma. The flanker is currently plying his trade in the Gallagher Premiership with Harlequins. A powerful ball carrier and a menace in the tackle, the 29-year-old will be key to Namibia’s hopes of a first-ever World Cup victory.
Best finish: Pool stage (1999-2015)
Fixtures: Italy (September 22), South Africa (September 28), New Zealand (October 6), Canada (October 13)
They may be the lowest-ranked side in the competition, at No22, but this is their sixth-straight World Cup, an impressive feat considering how difficult the qualifying process is for lower-ranked sides. As they continue to improve, those days of heavy defeats are hopefully long behind. Will be targeting victory against Canada.
Coach: Phil Mack
Captain: Kingsley Jones
Star man: Tyler Ardron. The 27-year-old lock-cum-backrower plays his rugby in New Zealand with the Chiefs. A dynamic loose forward, he will be hoping to add his greater experience in a budding side in Japan.
Best finish: Quarter-finals (1991)
Fixtures: Italy (September 26), New Zealand (October 2), South Africa (October 8), Namibia (October 13)
Canada are one of only two sides in the competition – alongside Namibia – ranked outside of the world’s top 20. They may be falling behind their improving neighbours USA, but they will by no means be a pushover against middle tier opposition. Should be focusing on beating Namibia.
Coach: Toutai Kefu
Captain: Siale Piutau
Star man: Siale Piutau. The 33-year-old is one of the Premierships most dangerous centres, using his pace, power and accurate passing ability to put Bristol on the front foot on any given weekend. His experience of 34 caps will make him a central figure when Tonga face powerhouses like England and Argentina in the group stage.
Best finish: Pool stage (1987, 1995-2015)
Fixtures: England (September 22), Argentina (September 28), France (October 6), United States (13)
The Sea Eagles have improved a lot over the years since being considered the whipping boys of the competition. Although they have yet to play in 2019, they had a mixed 2018 campaign, winning two of their five matches, including victories over Fiji and Samoa. Will need to pull something extra special out of the fire to cause an upset in Pool C.
Coach: Gary Gold
Captain: Blaine Scully
Star man: Blaine Scully. With pace and a deft passing ability, Scully can play anywhere across the back three. And if he’s not racing through to touch down for a try, he is trying to put his team-mates in formidable attacking positions. After four successful years at Cardiff Blues, the 31-year-old will return to his native America after the World Cup.
Best finish: Pool stage (1987-91, 1999-2015)
Fixtures: England (September 26), France (October 2), Argentina (October 9), Tonga (October 13)
The Unites States are one of the world’s fast improving international rugby teams, with a new competitive league and a successful national sevens team, who are currently second in the World Series behind Fiji. With the World Cup on the horizon, the hope is the success of the sevens side will have a positive effect on the 15-man game.
Coach: John McKee
Captain: Akapusi Qera
Star man: Leone Nakarawa. The Racing 92 supremo was named European Player of the Year last season after a sizzling campaign where the Parisiens reached the Champions Cup final. Strong, skilled and deceptively quick, the 31-year-old embodies everything which is great about Fijian rugby.
Best finish: Quarter-finals (1987, 2007)
Fixtures: Australia (September 21), Uruguay (September 25), Georgia (October 3), Wales (October 9)
The best of the Pacific Island sides to challenge at the World Cup, although it is unlikely they will qualify from a group that includes Wales and Australia. Still, their attractive brand of rugby and sheer athleticism will capture the imagination of the travelling fans. And with star players like Vereniki Goneva, Bill Mata and Nakarawa at their disposal, the Fijians will definitely be one of the teams to watch.
Coach: Esteban Meneses
Captain: Juan Manuel Gaminara
Star man: Juan Manuel Gaminara. The diminutive 30-year-old flanker is the player Los Teros will be looking to for inspiration when they step out under the bright lights at Kamaishi in three months time.
Best finish: Pool stage (1999-2003, 2015)
Fixtures: Fiji (September 25), Georgia (September 29), Australia (October 5), Wales (October 13)
Uruguay are another team that continue to improve, winning 10 out of their last 13 matches. In 2019, they were beaten against Namibia – their only loss of the year so far. The South American side’s inclusion in Japan will only help the development of the national team going forward and inspire other lesser ranked nations to flourish.
Optimism, belief and confidence are not feelings you immediately presume course through the veins of northern hemisphere teams approaching a World Cup, but Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll is adamant the Men in Green head into this year’s spectacle expecting victory.
And in truth, why would they not head to Japan with spirits sky-high?
There is certainly a swagger in their stride after counting two wins over international rugby’s juggernauts New Zealand in the last two years among their results – in addition to three Six Nations titles in the last five years, one of which yielded the Grand Slam.
They are in the midst of a record 12-game winning run at home – the 11th of which was that 16-9 triumph against the world champion All Blacks during the autumn internationals at the tail end of 2018.
A little over a year ago, it was England – amid a charge under new coach Eddie Jones – being primed as the best-equipped northern hemisphere side to topple the dominance of the mighty All Blacks.
In March 2017 the Red Rose were blossoming under their new boss – their 2015 World Cup debacle all but forgotten as they equalled the run of 18 straight victories by a tier one nation (set by New Zealand, of course).
But Ireland stormed from being the third best team in the world in January 2018 to second by November, just a point in the rankings behind the All Blacks.
Despite their tremendous form, the Irish do not have form on the game’s grandest stage.
They have never even played a semi-final previously – eliminated at the quarter-finals in seven of the eight editions of the tournament. Yet O’Driscoll says a last-four spot will not be enough judging on current form.
“I don’t think this team thinks about getting to a World Cup semi-final like no other team has ever achieved. That’s not the focus anymore, it’s about going and winning it. Actually win the World Cup,” said the legendary Ireland centre – his nation’s most capped player (133) and highest tryscorer (46).
“They’ll have to do it the hard way. The pool looks like it isn’t the most difficult with Scotland the hardest game. But then in the quarter-final you’ve got New Zealand or South Africa, a multitude of semi-finalists, Wales or Australia.
“Wales have been a bogey team and enjoy playing against Ireland, they’ll feel they can score points, so it’s far from a done deal.
“Then, possibly New Zealand in the final. There’s so many ifs, buts and maybes, but Ireland, what they are controlling is their own performance and making themselves very difficult to beat.”
Apart from their scintillating form, and the enormous self-belief that will no doubt generate heading into the tournament – the World Cup kicks-off in Tokyo on September 20 – the awesome depth chart outgoing coach Joe Schmidt has cultivated has transformed Ireland into a menacing force.
After the 2015 World Cup – the Irish were humbled by a 43-20 defeat to Argentina in the quarters – Schmidt made it his mission to develop Ireland’s depth, looking to be ‘three-deep’ in every position.
Their starting XI, on paper and on the pitch, is lethal and key figures like half-backs Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will have huge roles to play if Ireland are to claim the Webb Ellis Trophy in the Land of the Rising Sun.
But the fact that a troublesome 12 months for lynchpin Murray with injuries is almost negated by the strength at scrum-half behind him – Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath are far more than just bright back-ups – leaves them looking formidable, even though O’Driscoll remains cautious, espeically with the Six Nations on the horizon.
“They’ve been a coming team for a while now, and it’s their consistency that Irish teams in the past probably struggled with,” said the 39-year-old, who went on four tours with the British & Irish Lions between 2001 and 2013.
“On your bad day it’s 7 out of 10 and on your good day it’s a 9.5 out of 10. They’ve realised recently they don’t always have to be fully on their game to deliver and score points.
“Defensively they’ve been incredible. They’re the best defensive team in world rugby, the best drilled team, there’s an understanding.
“At this moment they’re in great shape but 9-10 months can be a long time depending on what happens. There’s still one or two individuals we can’t afford to lose but on the whole we’re in very good shape.”
The Irish success and defeats of the All Blacks have been masterminded by none other than their messiah-like coach Schmidt – although the former schoolteacher will ring the bell on his Ireland tenure after the World Cup and return to his homeland.
And O’Driscoll feels becoming only the second non-southern hemisphere heavyweight to taste victory on the grandest stage after England 16 years ago would be a fitting end to the Kiwi’s era.
“I think these players who’ve not known any other coach will realise what a phenomenal asset he’s been to Irish rugby,” added ex- Leinster stalwart O’Driscoll, talking to Sport360 as an HSBC ambassador at the Dubai Rugby Sevens last month.
“Jonny’s (Sexton) older but the guys in their late 20s who’ve come through Leinster where he was for three years and won the Heineken Cup, the Sean O’Brien’s of the world, then going into Ireland for five years and winning three Six Nations, a Grand Slam, beating the All Blacks twice, beating every tier one nation in 18 months.
“That’s not ever been done, anything close to it in Irish rugby, so needless to say he’s pretty revered around the country. People are disappointed he’s going but understand. There was a sense he was going so we’re not shocked by the decision.”
Asked if Schmidt’s impeding departure means it’s a case of now or never for Ireland at the World Cup, O’Driscoll added: “We always used to say about New Zealand the best time to beat them is the next time you play them. And the World Cup is the next time we’ll get a chance.”
And while countless Irish fans will lament Schmidt leaving, O’Driscoll believes replacement Andy Farrell – Schmidt’s defence coach for the last two years – has the pedigree required to be a success.
“I was in camp with him for the Lions and was very impressed with him back then,” he said of the former dual code England international, who’s been instrumental in Ireland’s rise.
“I know him, he’s very well spoken, delivers messages brilliantly, has got his defence firing, he’s an ambitious coach so he has all the hallmarks to be a good coach, no doubt.
“I’ve only heard good things from the lads. They were excited being coached by him in 2013 (with the Lions) and when that opportunity arose in 2016 again for him to come into the Irish set-up, they jumped at it.
“He seems to have the template to beat New Zealand in his defensive systems. Four times in the last five-six years and a draw (with the Lions and England), not many have that on their CV.”
When UAE rugby fans turn on their television sets and tune into the Rugby World Cup next year, there may well be a face they recognise staring back at them.
Former dual code New Zealand and England international Henry Paul left his post as Jebel Ali Dragons head coach in January to work once again alongside former Wales flanker Kingsley Jones who is in charge of Canada.
The pair had previously worked together with Russia from 2011-14 and Jones approached his friend earlier this year to help him at the America’s Rugby Championship (ARC).
Suitably impressed with his input, as well as perhaps by Paul leading the Dragons to their first trophy in four years with last season’s West Asia Premiership triumph, the 44-year-old left to become Jones’ assistant full-time in May.
And Canada secured the final place at next year’s World Cup in Japan after beating Hong Kong 27-10 in their repechage tournament on Saturday morning.
Hong Kong needed a bonus-point win and to deny their opponents anything from the game if they were to advance. But Glasgow Warriors winger DTH van der Merwe scored two tries while 38-year-old hooker Ray Barkwill also crossed the line.
Gordon McRorie added three conversions and two penalties to earn the Canucks an appearance at a ninth consecutive World Cup.
They will now go into Pool B for the tournament alongside defending champions New Zealand, two-time winners South Africa, Italy and Namibia.
Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn is predicting a raft of club members might well not be looking at flights and accommodation in Japan in a bid to support their former coach, who will eye the host nation’s epic victory over the Springboks in 2015 as inspiration for the Canucks.
“We’re obviously immensely proud of his achievement,” said Dragons chairman Quinn.
“Next is to try and get a win if possible in a tough group. Pulling a Japan would be awesome.”
The qualification process for lower tier nations, which began in St Vincent and the Grenadines in March 2016, has involved 188 matches across 994 days with 10,355 points scored in total by the 71 teams. All the teams began with a dream of playing in Japan, but only the USA, Uruguay, Russia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Namibia and now Canada were able to secure qualification.
“He’s missed hugely by all of us at the Dragons but we felt we couldn’t hold him back any longer,” said a grateful Quinn.
“He was destined for more. We’re just glad he’s topped a West Asia Premiership success with qualification to the biggest stage. A few of the boys are going to head out and support him next year, while some may even be digging around for Canadian grandparents.”