New Zealand coach Steve Hansen claims rival boss Rassie Erasmus was wrong to question standards of Test refereeing ahead of South Africa's Rugby World Cup opener.

The All Blacks face the Springboks in the first match of their title defence, yet the build-up to a mammoth clash between the world champions and Rugby Championship winners has been overshadowed by Erasmus' criticism of the officiating.

The South Africa boss claimed it is a "well-known fact" that New Zealand have in the past received preferential treatment from referees.

Hansen feels Erasmus has blatantly attempted to put pressure on Jerome Garces, Saturday's man in the middle, and suggested both teams would benefit from letting the referee get on with his job.

"It's pretty obvious what they're trying to do and, while I've got a lot of respect for South Africa and particularly Rassie, I think he's a great coach, I don't agree with what he's doing," Hansen told reporters.

"He's trying to put pressure on referees externally and they're under enough pressure already. They don't need us coaches doing what he's doing.

"It doesn't matter who your ref is. As a coach or a team, you can always find things after the game that they didn't do and you can get emotional about that and think that they're picking on you and not on the opposition. We've done it ourselves.

"At the end of the day, they try to do the best they can do. Yes, they don't always get it right all the time and we've suffered from that just like other teams have.

"It's a big game, we just need to let the ref get on with it and prepare for it himself."

He added of the officials' ability to cope with the pressure: "They're not stupid people, so you'd hope [they can deal with it]."

Garces has run the rule over five previous Tests between New Zealand and South Africa - each of them All Blacks wins - sending off Springboks centre Damian de Allende in 2017.

However, the French referee also dismissed Scott Barrett for the All Blacks against Australia last month.

Barrett said ahead of meeting Garces again: "There's obviously a fine line and I've learned from that and am keen to move on.

"The laws are there for a reason, to protect players and player welfare, and I've been working hard and keen to address that. We've had the briefing and we're well aware how they'll be reffing high shots and foul play."

Michael Cheika insists he is not feeling any great pressure heading into the Rugby World Cup as Australia prepare for their opener against Fiji.

The Wallabies reached the 2015 final before losing to New Zealand, but results have not been as impressive as Cheika might have hoped in the intervening four years.

However, hopes were renewed when Australia defeated the All Blacks 47-26 in the Rugby Championship in Perth last month.

New Zealand won a return fixture the following week to retain the Bledisloe Cup, yet it is clear Cheika and the Wallabies have drawn encouragement from their impressive initial victory.

Cheika has named 14 of the players that started that match in his XV to tackle Fiji on Saturday, with only experienced star David Pocock introduced in place of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

And the Australia head coach, who would surely see his job come under threat with poor performances in Japan, is feeling relaxed.

"You should know me well enough now - there is not much pressure," Cheika told reporters in Sapporo. "I love what I do.

"I am prepared to take responsibility and accountability and always have been for everything I do.

"I'm not being judged by anyone as markers [of performance] except myself and you know that I am coming here to win with our team."

Fiji have not beaten Australia since 1954 but have shifted former NRL star Semi Radradra to the left wing in a bid to unsettle the Wallabies.

Vereniki Goneva, the country's record try-scorer, only makes the bench as a result.

Coach John McKee said: "It's been pleasing to see every player put their hand up to earn their spot.

"Every person knows the job they have to do and I'm sure they'll be looking forward with excitement and anticipation to the challenge on Saturday.

"The team have worked hard to this point and, as we wrap up preparations, the captain's run will also be important for our focus on this opening match."


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Australia - Christian Lealiifano

It is remarkable that Lealiifano is in the Australia squad at all, let alone in the XV. He returned to the team in July for the first time since being diagnosed with blood cancer leukaemia and quickly impressed in the Rugby Championship. Lealiifano is moving to Japan permanently after the World Cup, having left the Brumbies, and will be keen to stand out.

Fiji - Semi Radradra

It would make for an incredible story were Radradra able to cause Australia some damage on Saturday. A former Parramatta Eels wing, he played once for the Kangaroos - Australia's national rugby league side - before switching codes. Radradra has largely played at outside centre in union but has the attributes to worry the Wallabies.
 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Australia are unbeaten in their past 17 games against Fiji (W16, D1), their last defeat in this fixture coming in June 1954 by a margin of just two points.

- This will be the third meeting between Australia and Fiji at the Rugby World Cup. The Wallabies secured victories against Fiji in both the 2007 and 2015 editions.

- The Wallabies lost their most recent Rugby World Cup fixture – the 2015 final – and will therefore be aiming to avoid back-to-back defeats at the Rugby World Cup for the first time since the 1987 tournament where they were beaten in succession by France and Wales.

- Fiji have won five of their most recent six international fixtures, including their past three on the bounce; the last time they won more in succession was a four-game stretch from June to July in 2017.

- Pocock has won 29 turnovers at the Rugby World Cup, more than any other player in the history of the competition.

Fly-half Nicolas Sanchez will bring his experience of French rugby to the Argentina team for their Rugby World Cup opener.

Sanchez has played in the Top 14 since 2011 and will hope his knowledge of the France side can aid the Pumas in a crucial early World Cup clash.

The 30-year-old is one of three players in the Argentina XV set to feature at a third finals, along with Agustin Creevy and Juan Figallo.

Creevy will earn his 86th cap, moving level with Juan Manuel Leguizamon.

However, Leguizamon, one cap short of Felipe Contepomi's Pumas record of 87, is left out of Mario Ledesma's matchday squad.

Argentina XV to play France: Emiliano Boffelli, Matias Moroni, Matias Orlando, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Ramiro Moyano, Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli; Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Agustin Creevy, Juan Figallo, Guido Petti, Tomas Lavanini, Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer, Javier Ortega Desio.

Replacements: Julian Montoya, Mayco Vivas, Santiago Medrano, Matias Alemanno, Tomas Lezana, Felipe Ezcurra, Benjamin Urdapilleta, Santiago Carreras.

Romain Ntamack will make history when he starts at fly-half for France in their Rugby World Cup opener against Argentina.

Ntamack, 20, only made his Test debut in February but has been handed the responsibility of starting at number 10 in the Pool C clash on Saturday.

Romain's father, Emile, played at the 1995 and 1999 Rugby World Cups and they will become the first father-son combination to represent France at the tournament.

France head coach Jacques Brunel has also opted to start 22-year-old Gregory Alldritt at number eight.

The clash in Chofu shapes as crucial for both teams in a pool that also includes one of the tournament favourites, England.

Captain Guilhem Guirado and Louis Picamoles are playing at their third Rugby World Cups, although the latter is starting on the bench.

France are without Paul Gabrillagues, who is serving a suspension.

France: Maxime Medard, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Virimi Vakatawa, Yoann Huget, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado, Rabah Slimani, Arthur Iturria, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Wenceslas Lauret, Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt.
Replacements: Camille Chat, Cyril Baille, Demba Bamba, Bernard Le Roux, Louis Picamoles, Maxime Machenaud, Camille Lopez, Thomas Ramos.

David Pocock has been named at flanker for the Wallabies' Rugby World Cup opener against Fiji on Saturday.

Australia have opted for almost the same team that crushed the All Blacks 47-26 in the Rugby Championship last month.

Pocock's inclusion in place of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto is the only change to the starting side that faced New Zealand in Perth on August 10.

Rory Arnold is fit to take his place after a hand injury, while Nic White and Christian Lealiifano return in the halves for the Pool D encounter in Sapporo.

"Our goal is to win. I'm sure every team comes to every World Cup believing they can win, and that's what makes it such a great tournament," Wallabies coach Michael Cheika said.

"We want to do two things; to do our best to win the tournament but also to show young people in Australia who are watching, how beautiful the game of rugby can be and inspire them to play rugby back home in the future."

It is the second straight Rugby World Cup at which Australia and Fiji will meet in the pool stage, with the Wallabies winning 28-13 in Cardiff in 2015.

Australia: Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, James O'Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Lealiifano, Nic White; Scott Sio, Tolu Latu, Allan Alaalatoa, Izack Rodda, Rory Arnold, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Isi Naisarani.
Replacements: Jordan Uelese, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Adam Coleman, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Will Genia, Matt To'omua, Dane Haylett-Petty.

The All Blacks have named an experienced line-up for their Rugby World Cup blockbuster against South Africa on Saturday.

Beauden Barrett, a star at fly-half, will start at full-back for the two-time defending champions when they open their campaign against the Springboks in Yokohama in Pool B.

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen talked up his team, including what he believes is a strong ability to have impact off the bench.

"Any combination of players in our squad could have justified their selection, but in the end we believe the 23 we have selected is the right group for this opposition," he said on Thursday.

"In today's rugby environment, you need to have the mindset that it's not just about who starts, it's also about what the players coming off the bench can provide. As an example, we have a great one-two punch with Dane [Coles] and Codie [Taylor] at hooker and Aaron [Smith] and TJ [Perenara] at half-back."

While 12 players are set for their Rugby World Cup debuts, the All Blacks' team includes a total of 1,061 Tests in experience.

Hansen has been happy with his team's preparation ahead of a tough opening game against the Springboks.

"Since transferring from our camp in Kashiwa to Tokyo we have moved into Test match mode this week and our focus has been building throughout the week," he said.

"We've had a very good week's training in the heat and rain here in Tokyo, the facilities have been excellent and our Japanese hosts have been outstanding."

Hansen added: "The challenge of playing one of our oldest and most respected foes in the opening Test of RWC2019 has us excited and energised by what lies ahead. Each time we play South Africa, it's a tight battle and a real arm wrestle.

"To perform at our very best, we'll have to play with real clarity, intent, energy and clear heads. Both teams will have their moments and it'll be our job to ensure we limit theirs and take full opportunity of ours."

New Zealand: Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Nepo Laulala, Samuel Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Kieran Read.
Replacements: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Shannon Frizell, TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith.

The All Blacks have named an experienced line-up for their Rugby World Cup blockbuster against South Africa on Saturday.

Beauden Barrett, a star at fly-half, will start at full-back for the two-time defending champions when they open their campaign against the Springboks in Yokohama in Pool B.

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen talked up his team, including what he believes is a strong ability to have impact off the bench.

"Any combination of players in our squad could have justified their selection, but in the end we believe the 23 we have selected is the right group for this opposition," he said on Thursday.

"In today's rugby environment, you need to have the mindset that it's not just about who starts, it's also about what the players coming off the bench can provide. As an example, we have a great one-two punch with Dane [Coles] and Codie [Taylor] at hooker and Aaron [Smith] and TJ [Perenara] at half-back."

While 12 players are set for their Rugby World Cup debuts, the All Blacks' team includes a total of 1,061 Tests in experience.

Hansen has been happy with his team's preparation ahead of a tough opening game against the Springboks.

"Since transferring from our camp in Kashiwa to Tokyo we have moved into Test match mode this week and our focus has been building throughout the week," he said.

"We've had a very good week's training in the heat and rain here in Tokyo, the facilities have been excellent and our Japanese hosts have been outstanding."

Hansen added: "The challenge of playing one of our oldest and most respected foes in the opening Test of RWC2019 has us excited and energised by what lies ahead. Each time we play South Africa, it's a tight battle and a real arm wrestle.

"To perform at our very best, we'll have to play with real clarity, intent, energy and clear heads. Both teams will have their moments and it'll be our job to ensure we limit theirs and take full opportunity of ours."

New Zealand: Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Nepo Laulala, Samuel Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Kieran Read.
Replacements: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Shannon Frizell, TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith.

Ambitious Japan coach Jamie Joseph is eyeing history as the hosts prepare to kick-off the Rugby World Cup against Russia in Tokyo on Friday.

The Brave Blossoms caused an almighty stir at the tournament four years ago by defeating giants South Africa 34-32 in one of the biggest shocks in the sport's history.

Agonisingly for the team, led by now England coach Eddie Jones, that effort in Brighton was not quite enough as they became the first team to be eliminated from the pool stage having won three matches.

It was Japan's best performance at a World Cup to date, but Joseph wants his side to dream big.

"Our team wants to make the top eight – it hasn't been done obviously for a Japanese team," said the former New Zealand flanker.

"The last World Cup, Japan did very, very well but still didn't make the top eight so that's been the target all along."

To make the last eight, Japan will have to fight their way out of a daunting Pool A, which also includes the top-ranked nation Ireland, Scotland and Samoa.

"We've got some very tough teams that we play, starting with Russia on the weekend," added Joseph.

"To achieve that goal, we've got to earn the right to be there so this week, the focus is on Russia and it's important that we put in a good performance and win that match and then we can move on to the next challenge."

History suggests Japan will make a flying start in front of home support at the Tokyo Stadium, having won five of their six matches against Russia.

Their brave, intense style shocked the Springboks and they caused problems for England in a 20-point defeat in 2018.

Underdogs Russia, ranked 10 places below their opponents, are playing at the World Cup for just the second time and only secured their place after Spain and Romania were docked points for fielding ineligible players.

In their first foray into the World Cup, Russia lost all four games at the 2011 tournament by an average margin of 35 points.

Head coach Lyn Jones recognises the limitations of Russia's squad but urged his team to play without fear.

"It is both scary and exciting and I've just explained to the players there's nothing we can do to help them prepare for this first game," he told The Guardian. 

"It's just about the experience and playing with no fear whatsoever. Just get out there and express yourself. If you play really hard and chase really hard it's amazing what you can achieve."

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Japan – Kazuki Himeno

Japan have strength in the back row with captain Michael Leitch, Pieter Labuschagne and Amanaki Mafi among the dynamic options. Himeno can be influential for the host nation with his ball-carrying skills and ability to get over the gain line.

Russia – Vasily Artemyev

A member of Russia's first World Cup squad and, at 32, this could well be Artemyev's last opportunity to grace the grandest rugby stage. He has 29 tries in 86 matches for Russia and boasts Premiership experience having represented Northampton Saints between 2011 and 2013.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Japan have won five of their previous six Test matches against Russia, including each of their last four on the bounce; their most recent clash saw Japan win despite trailing by 12 points at half-time, only once before have they recorded a bigger second-half comeback (16 points behind versus Canada in 2014).

- Japan and Russia will face each other at the Rugby World Cup for the first time; the Cherry Blossoms have won three of their four clashes with the Bears in Japan however, including a 75-3 triumph in their most recent such fixture in 2010.

- The opening game of the Rugby World Cup has been won by a host nation in six of the previous eight tournaments, with the only exceptions being England's defeat to New Zealand in 1991 and France's opening round loss to Argentina in 2007. 

- Japan won three of their four games at the Rugby World Cup in 2015, this after winning just once in 24 attempts during their previous seven World Cup campaigns (D2, L21).

- Japan have slotted 90 per cent of their kicks at goal in 2019, the best rate of any of the 20 sides at the Rugby World Cup in Test rugby this year, in contrast Russia have kicked 70 per cent (ninth best).

Captain Stuart McInally can be a catalyst for Scotland at the Rugby World Cup, according to former captain Gavin Hastings.

Scotland begin their campaign on Sunday against Ireland in a match between the two teams expected to progress from Group A.

McInally was named captain by Gregor Townsend as he attempts to guide Scotland to a last-eight tie in which they will likely face either defending world champions New Zealand or South Africa.

Scotland were narrowly beaten by Australia in the quarter-finals four years ago and Hastings, who led Scotland to the same stage in 1995, highlighted the current skipper as being crucial to their prospects in Japan.

"He is a good choice as captain, he's an outstanding hooker and he brings so many different qualities to that Scotland team," Hastings told Omnisport of McInally. 

"He has an explosive element to his game, he is a leader with ball in hand, if he can pop up in other areas of the pitch, he ultimately is a catalyst for a lot of good Scotland can do. He actually delivers slightly more around the field of play because he's a former flanker.

"He's in amongst it, against the Tadhg Furlongs, the Cian Healys, the Rory Bests. The fact is he needs to lead from the front."

Hastings believes victory over Ireland is especially important for Scotland, as it could help them avoid a winner-take-all clash with hosts Japan in the final group game.

"From a Scotland perspective they have got to target everything on that Ireland game, otherwise they put themselves under huge pressure," Hastings added.

"If they lose, they have then got to go out and beat Russia, Samoa and Japan to qualify for the quarter-finals.

"You beat Ireland and you put yourself in a very strong position to qualify. We all know how tricky Japan can be, if Japan were going for a quarter-final place with that last game of the pool stages against Scotland then that is going to be a hugely tricky assignment. 

"Ultimately, everything hinges on that opening game in terms of Scotland's success in this tournament. They must deliver against Ireland and if not they've got to be clinical against Russia, Samoa and Japan.

"Ireland will be very aware of the fact they need to improve upon their recent performances, but then again so do Scotland. Unless Scotland deliver 100 per cent performance, then they're not going to win that game.

"If it doesn't click for Scotland, life will be tough. What faces both Ireland and Scotland if they get out of the group is either the winner or loser of Group B, which happens to be South Africa or New Zealand. Once you get in knockout rugby anything can happen.

"Scotland know the last time they were in a quarter-final they were very, very unlucky not to beat Australia and if they get that chance and they put themselves in that position for a quarter-final, it doesn't matter if it's New Zealand or South Africa, they will give it their best shot."

It is little surprise to see powerhouses New Zealand start the Rugby World Cup as pre-tournament favourites.

The two-time defending champions remain the most fearsome side in world rugby and only the brave would bet against the All Blacks winning an unprecedented third straight trophy.

But the gulf between New Zealand and the chasing pack has been closed significantly, with Ireland starting the tournament as the number one ranked side.

With that in mind, three Omnisport writers give their thoughts on who will triumph in Japan, who may upset the odds and the player to watch throughout the tournament.


PETER HANSON

Winners: New Zealand

The All Blacks may not have the same air of invincibility they once held but it will still take an off day from Steve Hansen's men and a top performance from the other contenders to deny New Zealand a third straight title. Rare blips, such as the defeat to Australia and draw with South Africa in the Rugby Championship, will only galvanise this scarily talented squad, which has so much depth the likes of Owen Franks and Ngani Laumape did not even make the plane. England, Ireland, Wales and South Africa will all feel they can spring an upset, but I just don't see anyone dethroning the All Blacks.

Dark horses: Australia

It seems pretty absurd that a proud rugby nation such as Australia should be considered as outsiders, but that is the position Michael Cheika's side find themselves in. Inconsistent form over the past few years has seen the Wallabies lose some of their fear factor. You should always beware the wounded animal, though, and Australia really know how to turn it on at the World Cup. Twice champions of the world and twice runners-up, including four years ago when again they flew somewhat under the radar to make the final, discount the Aussies at your peril.

Player to watch: Sevu Reece

Exciting, electric, powerhouse New Zealand wingers go hand-in-hand with the World Cup and Sevu Reece is the next off the seemingly never-ending production line. He only made his Super Rugby debut for Crusaders in March, but finished the season as top try scorer with 15. At 22 years old, Reece still has plenty of time on his hands but he can already make a name for himself on the world stage.


PETE THOMPSON

Winners: South Africa

New Zealand will take some stopping in their bid to do what has never done before, but South Africa look well equipped to match the All Blacks' record of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup three times.

The Springboks have experienced a renaissance under Rassie Erasmus, with a formidable pack mixed with flair, and after winning the Rugby Championship in August they can become champions of the world in Yokohama on November 2.

Dark horses: Japan

Japan stunned South Africa in 2015 and home advantage can inspire them to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.

Captain and number eight Michael Leitch will drive on Jamie Joseph's exciting side, who can be a joy to watch with their skill, speed and agility.

Player to watch: Faf de Klerk

Faf de Klerk is not a giant in stature, but the South Africa scrum-half can light up the tournament.

The playmaker has played a huge part in the Springboks' resurgence, pulling the strings and setting the tempo and he can get South Africa ticking on the biggest stage of all.


TOM WEBBER

Winners: South Africa

The Springboks have come a long way under Erasmus and are unbeaten in 2019. They claimed an impressive draw against the All Blacks in New Zealand in July and went on to seal the Rugby Championship, undoubtedly making them the form team heading to Japan.

Dark horses: Argentina

The Pumas have not won a Test match since beating Australia 23-19 in September 2018, but the Jaguares making it all the way to the Super Rugby final this year shows this is a group of players with serious talent. The success of their campaign will likely hinge on their opening match against France at Tokyo Stadium, with England also in Pool C.

Player to watch: Peceli Yato

Yato has shown himself to be an accomplished flanker with Clermont Auvergne in the Top 14 in recent seasons; in 2018-19 he scored more tries and made more metres than any other forward in the division. However, with Fiji in a group that includes Australia and Wales they will likely need to claim a scalp against one of those sides to have a chance of advancing.

Jesus Navas says years of covering for Dani Alves at Sevilla made it easy for him to become a full-back for Manchester City.

Having spent his earlier career as a winger, Navas was deployed as an emergency right-back in Pep Guardiola's first season in charge at the Etihad Stadium due to injuries.

Navas returned to Sevilla after the 2016-17 season and has mostly been used in defence for club and country since, including in all four LaLiga appearances this season and the 2-1 Euro 2020 qualifying win over Romania on September 5.

The 33-year-old says it was a natural progression for him to become a defender, partly because of his experience of covering for the marauding Dani Alves during the Brazilian's time at Sevilla between 2002 and 2008.

"There were players injured [at City] and he [Guardiola] asked me if I could play there," Navas said, courtesy of LaLiga. "I told him that I could do it without a problem because when I played with Dani Alves he used to attack a lot, so I normally covered him in the defence.

"I did not have any problem doing it. Everything went well."

Navas won six trophies in his first spell with Sevilla before helping City to one Premier League and two EFL Cup triumphs.

However, his crowning achievement came when his burst forward from his own half led to Andres Iniesta's winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final.

"Thinking about that play, for me to have won a World Cup is the biggest thing ever as a player," he said. "You dream of that from when you're a child. It was a dream that became true. It was incredible. The greatest moment for me.
 
"My next dream would be to win another title with Sevilla and with our fans. That would be something big."

Navas twice won the UEFA Cup with Sevilla before it was rebranded as the Europa League and he now wants to lift the trophy for a third time this season.

He also predicts a Spanish team can triumph in the Champions League - as well as former club City.
 
"Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona or another team that's always on top can win the Champions League," he said. "The Spanish teams always fight for this title.
 
"[The Europa League] is very special for us. We have won it on various occasions and feel very comfortable playing it. We know that it is difficult and a long tournament, so we have to go game by game. The truth is that this competition has given us a lot of happiness."

 

The world's best are converging on Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, where New Zealand will hope to again defend their title.

But with only 31 players able to be selected by each team, a number of notable names have not made the cut this year.

We take a look at five who might count themselves unfortunate not to be involved in the sport's biggest event.


Devin Toner (Ireland)

Ireland have not quite hit the same heights this year as in 2018 when they won the Six Nations Grand Slam and defeated the All Blacks, yet they have no shortage of options. The inclusion of Jean Kleyn, recently eligible due to the residency rule, has seen Devin Toner miss out.

Remarkably, that law and Joe Schmidt's decision resulted in criticism from World Rugby vice-president Agustin Pichot, who posted on Twitter: "I will be asking WR [World Rugby] for answers. I feel sorry for [Toner]."

Schmidt responded: "I think [Pichot] has a number of big opinions, but they're not ones that are relevant for us. Considering he is involved in World Rugby, he could have a look at what the rules were and not have so many things to say because for us it is tough enough to do our job and tough enough for me to have a conversation as I did with Dev."


Ben Te'o (England)

With some key men fit again and available, experienced centre Ben Te'o paid the price.

Head coach Eddie Jones was understandably questioned on the decision and explained: "I'm not going to go into reasons why he wasn't selected. We've had conversations; he understands it. Whether he agrees with it is another matter. We've had that discussion with him and he's just not in our top 31 players at the moment."

Te'o will instead be plying his trade with Toulon during the tournament, having been called in as cover for their World Cup stars.


Owen Franks (New Zealand)

Not many teams have the luxury of leaving out a 31-year-old with 108 Tests to his name. But not many teams have the depth of New Zealand, unfortunately for Owen Franks.

Franks had started each of the past two World Cup finals, playing the full 80 minutes in the 2011 triumph over France, but will not feature in the All Blacks' latest title defence.

Steve Hansen, who also left out Ngani Laumape, said: "[Franks] is one of the great All Blacks, he's played over 100 Tests. But unfortunately we believe the game requires us to have big, mobile ones and threes and, in this case, we think the other guys are more so. It was a tough decision."


Mathieu Bastareaud (France)

France named their initial World Cup squad in June and, while there were changes before the final selection was confirmed, Mathieu Bastareaud was not given the opportunity to force his way back into the side.

Bastareaud was Les Bleus' vice-captain as recently as the Six Nations, but his role in an underwhelming campaign appeared to count against him when coach Jacques Brunel named a youthful group.

Morgan Parra and Teddy Thomas missed out, too, although Brunel insisted Fabien Galthie, who will take over as coach following the tournament, had no role in the decisions.


Rob Evans (Wales)

Loosehead prop Rob Evans was one of the stars of Wales' Six Nations Grand Slam campaign this year but, along with Samson Lee, did not do enough to make Warren Gatland's 31-man squad.

It appears injury issues counted against Scarlets star Evans, who has played 36 Tests, although he is fit again following a shoulder operation at the end of last season.

Gatland explained Wales were preferring more "durable" options, saying: "Rob hasn't trained a lot in the lead up to the warm-up matches. He came in with a shoulder injury, then he's picked up a neck injury and a couple of back issues. Rob hadn't played a lot."

Talk of two-time defending champions New Zealand being vulnerable as they bid to make Rugby World Cup history will be music to the ears of Steve Hansen.

The All Blacks start their quest to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for an unprecedented third time in a row as favourites, and rightly so.

Yet New Zealand are not the all-conquering force that have taken on all comers for so many years and slipped to second in the rankings behind Ireland ahead of the tournament in Japan.

Chinks in the armour were exposed during a Rugby Championship campaign that New Zealand finished in third spot after they were soundly beaten by Australia and drew with South Africa.

The Springboks were crowned champions, making a strong statement just six weeks before the two heavyweights do battle in their Pool B opener in Yokohama.

Ireland have beaten Hansen's side twice in the last three years and South Africa consigned them to defeat in a Wellington classic 12 months ago.

The juggernaut has been halted, but there is no doubt it can fire up driven on by inspirational captain Kieran Read - hungry to end his international career by lifting the famous trophy yet again in November.

Australia were put in their place a week after rocking the 14-man All Blacks in Perth, going down 36-0 at fortress Eden Park just eight days later.

Hansen must be rubbing his hands together reading or hearing about his side being fallible as they prepare to try and make history and give him the perfect send-off.

The All Blacks supremo declared Ireland are favourites to dethrone New Zealand after his side were beaten in Dublin last year, but sounded a warning upon arrival in Tokyo.

"To try and do things that have never been done before is a hallmark of what New Zealand people are about." he said.

"We came away from the home shores and settled in a country at the bottom of the earth. We had to find ways to live in isolation when life wasn't like it is today.

"They became pioneers. That's important in life and particularly in sport; you've got to strive to be leaders rather than followers. We have an opportunity that no one else at the tournament gets; we can shy away from it or get really excited about it. We are really excited by it."

One look at the list of New Zealanders who failed to make the squad shows the challenge their rivals face in trying to end their dominance.

Test centurion Owen Franks was sensationally omitted along with outstanding centre Ngani Laumape, highlighting the embarrassment of riches at Hansen's disposal.

Liam Squire is also absent, but Hansen has such an abundance of quality to call upon that New Zealand remain the team to beat.

The fear factor may not be what it was, but write the All Blacks off at your peril.

Sam Warburton believes New Zealand captain Kieran Read deserves to be a Rugby World Cup-winning skipper and can foresee a successful All Blacks campaign.

Read will retire after the upcoming World Cup, where New Zealand are chasing a third straight title and fourth in total.

The 33-year-old featured in the 2011 and 2015 successes but only replaced Richie McCaw as the All Blacks captain in 2016, meaning he has not yet led the team at a finals.

Warburton was Wales skipper at consecutive World Cups and believes Read fits the role of a successful leader.

"You look at World Cup winners and - I won't say names - some people you come across, it doesn't suit them, no disrespect," Warburton told Omnisport.

"Then there's some people like Kieran Read who comes across the table and he just suits being a World Cup captain. He's got that iconic, legendary status.

"If he doesn't win a World Cup, he'll always be a legend and an icon of the New Zealand game anyway, but he's been such a good player and ambassador for New Zealand rugby, you think he's the type of person who deserves the accolade to be a World Cup-winning captain.

"It wouldn't surprise me to see New Zealand lifting the World Cup with Kieran Read. It would suit him very well. He's been a legendary player.

"He deserves to achieve all the success that he already has achieved and further success still."

As two-time defending champions, New Zealand are the team to beat in Japan but Warburton does not believe any side with serious title ambitions should be looking to avoid the All Blacks.

"It depends what your motivation is. If your motivation is just to have a really good run in the World Cup, then you want to avoid New Zealand," he said.

"If your motivation is that you're going to win the World Cup, then it doesn't matter where you're going to meet them. You've got to beat them anyway.

"Some teams will be thinking, 'If we can get to a quarters or a semis, this would be brilliant, so we want to win our group to avoid New Zealand'.

"There's going to be some teams thinking, 'I don't care how we get there, we're going to beat every team to get to the World Cup final'. It depends how the team's thinking.

"Fans will obviously want to see you play New Zealand in a final because they'll want to see you have a good run.

"But if you're going to doubt yourself in a quarter, then it makes no difference if it's the quarter or the final. You're doubting yourself for the final, you've written the final off.

"For me, it doesn't actually matter when you play these teams. I think if you want to win the World Cup, you want to win it the hard way so you get the respect of the whole world that you've deserved to win it.

"You don't want an easy run to the final. So for me, personally, it wouldn't matter. But I can understand why some teams would rather meet New Zealand later on."


Open Side by Sam Warburton (HarperCollins) is out on 19th September.

Brian O'Driscoll has warned Ireland that Japan are capable of following up their 2015 Rugby World Cup upset of South Africa with a repeat performance on home soil.

Tournament hosts in 2019, Japan provided one of the greatest shocks in World Cup history four years ago with a stunning last-gasp 34-32 defeat of the Springboks in their opening fixture.

The Brave Blossoms are in Ireland's pool this time and former star O'Driscoll is wary of another surprise result when they meet on September 28.

He believes the memory of that South Africa win and the backing of the home support could make Japan a dangerous opponent.

"Of course it is [a potential banana skin]," O'Driscoll, a Land Rover ambassador, told Omnisport. "Speaking to people who know about Japan, they absolutely pose some threats to any team.

"They'll have a new-found confidence at the Rugby World Cup remembering what happened four years ago against South Africa. Sometimes, when you break that seal and beat one of the biggest Tier One nations, the next one might be difficult.

"With the home support, playing like their lives depend on it, it will make them a very difficult opponent. I think they will absolutely be given huge respect.

"Are they capable of causing an upset at the World Cup? Of course they are, because they've done it previously."

Ireland must also contend with conditions that will suit Japan and other Southern Hemisphere sides, but O'Driscoll is confident they have prepared well.

"That's definitely been a focus," he said. "I was looking at the fixture list and certainly the home warm-up games [wins over Italy and Wales] and the timing of them.

"I know, commercially, it makes sense to have games later on, afternoon, early evening, 5.30, 7pm. But the home games have been fixed for two o'clock to try to acclimatise to Japan as much as possible.

"It's those small little details which help you in trying to get your body right for the shock. The only thing they won't be able to plan in advance for [is] the humidity they're going to face.

"But everyone's going to have to deal with that. Obviously certain countries will get it a lot more - South Africa would be well used to huge levels of humidity - but it's going to be the same conditions for every team.

"It's a matter of who's done all the hard work and is able to deal with the pressurised situation in which they find themselves in the pool stage."


Land Rover is official Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2019. With over 20 years of heritage supporting rugby at all levels, Land Rover is celebrating what makes rugby, rugby. #LandRoverRugby

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