Wales hooker Ken Owens hopes it's third time lucky at 2019 Rugby World Cup

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Ken Owens is looking to finally make an impact at his third World Cup.

Ken Owens hopes to make a World Cup impact at last as Wales seek to show just why they are one of the tournament favourites in Japan this autumn.

Owens, Wales’ most capped hooker with 64 appearances, has incredibly never started a World Cup match, with his game-time in rugby’s biggest competition restricted to roles from the bench.

The 2017 British & Irish Lion was Wales’ third-choice hooker at the 2011 World Cup when he made his international debut, and four years later the Scarlets star provided back-up to Scott Baldwin.

“Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity to go to this World Cup and get a start,” said 32-year-old Owens.

“Going into 2011 I’d come off a serious injury and because a couple of other boys had injuries too I made the squad – and I was chuffed to get my first cap at that World Cup.

“In 2015 it was pretty much the same. I’d had about eight or nine months out with my neck again.

Wales lifted a third Grand Slam under Gatland.

Wales lifted a third Grand Slam under Gatland.

“Scott had a great tournament and my role was to bring an impact off the bench, which I enjoyed. You make your own luck and player’s roles change in different squads.

“Hopefully I can stay fit and prove myself to the squad. It would be huge to make a third World Cup.”

Wales headed to Switzerland this week for a fortnight of punishing high-altitude training in the Swiss Alps.

The idea of the training camp is that the players’ bodies become more accustomed to recovering when there is less oxygen available, making their bodies more efficient at using it when it is more present in Japan.

“It’s not pleasant, but we know why we’re doing it and what the purpose of it is, especially if you’ve been through it before,” Owens said.

“You can see the results it gives you and the places you can get to in those big matches.

“The first thing you can turn to is your fitness, you can back yourself to dig in and go the distance when it’s tough.

“It’s worked over the last two World Cup cycles and going into the third it’s massively important.”

Wales head towards Japan as the form team in international rugby and only behind New Zealand in the world rankings.

They secured the Six Nations Grand Slam with a 14th successive win in March, and Warren Gatland’s side have not tasted defeat since losing to Ireland in February 2018.

Australia – whom they beat in November to end a 13-game losing streak against the Wallabies – will provide their biggest group test at the World Cup, with the pool also including Fiji, Georgia and Uruguay.

“To get that result against Australia was a monkey off the back and does give us confidence,” Owens said.

“You saw when we beat South Africa and got that one win, we’ve had pretty good results against them since then.

“But the challenge will be there in every game. Fiji have won in France and, you see this at every World Cup, that when the South Sea Island sides get an extended period of time together they’re very dangerous.

“You can’t write off Georgia either. They’ve got some strength and weapons, and Uruguay are not just going to turn up and roll over to give us the points.

“We can’t just say ‘all we need to do is beat Australia’ because we might end up losing the other games.”

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Rugby World Cup 2019 Profile: France - Les Bleus hoping to rediscover their flair in Japan

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With the Rugby World Cup just 11 weeks away, we take a closer look at each of the competing nations. After profiling eight lower-ranked teams and Japan in recent weeks, we continues our series this week with France.

It’s more than 10 years since Les Bleus lit up Six Nations weekends with their quick hands and smoking footwork, that flamboyant French flare a far cry from the laissez-faire attitude of the present day.

And, while the TOP14 club sides continue to attract some of the world’s elite stars, the international team remains in a state of disarray.

They remain one of sports biggest enigmas, especially with the immense talent they have in their squad.

As a result of this, it’s difficult to know what to expect when Jacques Brunel’s team step out against Argentina in their opening World Cup match on September 21.

In a group that contains England, Tonga, United States and the Pumas, they have an outside chance of making a quarter-final if they decide to compete for the full 80 minutes. In saying that, however, an improving Argentina side should prove too strong and England are likely to stick 30 points on them.

France’s form is too inconsistent to make bold predictions, and since the 2015 World Cup, they have recorded just 11 wins and one draw in 37 matches. The 2018 season was one of their worst in history with two victories from 11 fixtures, including a disastrous home defeat to Fiji.

In 2019, they registered wins against Italy (25-14) and Scotland (27-10) – although the Scots made them look competent in Paris, lacking composure and detail in attack and defence.

France’s kick defence was comical for large spells of the Six Nations campaign, and their general discipline was a disgrace, conceding a bucket load of penalties over the five games.

Discipline is key in professional rugby and Les Bleus need to tighten up in this area if they are to have any chance of positive showing at rugby’s global showpiece.

To underline their inconsistencies, they led Six Nations champions Wales for 70 minutes before a moment of madness from lock Sebastien Vahaamahina allowed Wales to race in for a late try and go on to secure the win.

This is one of the many examples of their failures in recent times. They can secure possession and make some yards, but just aren’t streetwise in their tactics and nearly go off and do their own thing.

If they stayed organised, the score-line against opposition could look more attractive and they might making more games a genuine contest.

It’s a shame the general structure in French rugby is shocking considering how well the sport is run in Ireland, England, France, Wales and Scotland.

The French Rugby Federation are doing no favours and need to change their ways fast, especially with a talented crop of U-20 players coming through who have just secured back-to-back Junior World Cup titles (2018 and 2019).

Basic skills are below par and the fitness is poor and this is something that cannot just be improved on overnight, given the lack of quality time Brunel and his coaching staff have with the squad at the end of a gruelling domestic season.

If there are any positives to draw from the spring campaign it was the emergence of rising stars like Antoine Dupont, Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos and Romain Ntamack; four players who could potentially be the backbone of a star-studded team in future years.

All four are included in Brunel’s 31-man squad for rugby’s global showpiece, but surprisingly, it does not feature seasoned campaigners Morgan Parra or Mathieu Bastareaud, who was vice-captain of his squad during the Six Nations.

Brunel also included three uncapped players in his squad in winger Alivereti Raka, hooker Peato Mauvaka and prop Emerick Setiano, but there was no space for star winger Teddy Thomas or prop Uini Atonio.

Some notable omissions. But Brunel needs to inspire a team lacking confidence and motivation, especially with a World Cup just weeks away.

It is unlikely we will see the return of any French magic at this edition of the tournament, but with some stunning U-20 players coming through, the talent is certainly there for the Federation to nurture in future years.

Nickname(s): Les Bleus

Head coach: Jacques Brunel

Captain: Guilhem Guirado

Most caps: Fabien Pelous (118)

Top scorer: Frederic Michalak (436)

Top try scorer: Serge Blanco (38)

Home stadium: Stade de France, Paris

Key player: Antoine Dupont. The Toulouse scrum-half was one of the few shining lights in another disappointing Six Nations campaign for France. The 22-year-old has the running, passing and kicking game for Les Bleus to build a game around for the next decade. He is destined to a star at this year’s World Cup.

Best result: Runners-up (1987, 1999 and 2011)

Fixtures: Argentina (September 21), United States (October 2), Tonga (October 6), England (October 12)

DID YOU KNOW?

France have appeared in the semi-finals at every tournament except for 1991 and 2015 where they were knocked out in the quarter-final stage.

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Leone Nakarawa leads our Rugby World Cup minnows' dangermen to watch out for

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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?

Let us know on our Twitter and Facebook pages.

RUSSIA

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.

SAMOA

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.

NAMIBIA

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.

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.

TONGA

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.

UNITED STATES

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.

FIJI

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.

URUGUAY

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.

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