New Zealand were far from perfect in their Rugby World Cup opener, but a six-minute spell of breathtaking brilliance showed why the two-time defending champions remain the team to beat.

While the All Blacks are understandably many people's favourites to prevail in Japan, it is fair to say their status as rugby's dominant nation has come under more questioning than usual in recent months.

South Africa won this year's Rugby Championship, in which Steve Hansen's men suffered a stunning 47-26 defeat to Australia - albeit one they avenged the following week with a 36-0 thumping of the Wallabies to retain the Bledisloe Cup.

The All Blacks have also been displaced by Ireland at the top of World Rugby's rankings and the likes of Wales and England have been tipped to mount strong challenges for glory over the coming weeks.

For 20 minutes on Saturday, any doubts over New Zealand's strength were heightened as South Africa started superbly in a blockbuster Pool B opener in Yokohama that could well serve as a dress rehearsal for the final at the same venue on November 2.

Throughout the first quarter, the Springboks dominated territorially, their ferocious line-speed causing no end of problems.

However, one misplaced pass from Faf de Klerk - with South Africa leading 3-0 - triggered a sudden shift in momentum as the All Blacks demonstrated a ruthless streak no other team can match.

The Boks initially got off lightly when De Klerk's wild pass from a ruck was pounced upon by Richie Mo'unga, who kicked ahead before being halted just short of the line. Makazole Mapimpi was penalised for not releasing the number 10, but the wing avoided a yellow card and the All Blacks merely picked up three points to level the score when a try had appeared highly likely.

New Zealand had found their mojo, though, and in a matter of minutes they took complete control with two stunning tries in quick succession.

Hansen's decision to start Beauden Barrett - widely viewed as the world's finest fly-half - at full-back in order to accommodate Mo'unga has prompted much debate, but the presence of two playmakers was certainly influential as the All Blacks hit top gear.

Mo'unga's cross-field kick to Sevu Reece started the move that led to the first try. Reece promptly skinned the out-of-position Mapimpi before working the ball through Aaron Smith to a galloping Ardie Savea. From the next phase, Barrett surged through a gap from second receiver and laid on a simple finish for George Bridge.

Barrett was also heavily involved in the passage of play that led up to the All Blacks' second score, which was finished by namesake Scott Barrett after Anton Lienert-Brown had dazzlingly weaved past five defenders.

Having been 3-0 down and on the rack, New Zealand were suddenly 14 points to the good and their opponents understandably appeared somewhat stunned for the remainder of the half.

To their credit, the Springboks did battle back gamely after the interval, but they had been left with too much to do.

It has been 12 years since the All Blacks last lost a World Cup fixture. Their magical six-minute blitz on Saturday suggests it will take something special to deny them another title.

Kieran Read was pleased with the clinical edge New Zealand showed as they saw off South Africa 23-13 in their opening game at the Rugby World Cup.

The Springboks started the highly anticipated Pool B clash in Yokohama - which will also host the final - positively but only scored three points through Handre Pollard during their period of dominance.

When Richie Mo'unga set upon a loose pass from Faf de Klerk and was illegally challenged by Makazole Mapimpi, the fly-half restored parity and kick-started a six-minute spell in which the reigning champions racked up 17 points.

George Bridge scored his eighth try in six Tests before a handling error from Pollard preceded Scott Barrett running in the All Blacks' second.

Pieter-Steph du Toit made the most of some slack New Zealand defending after the restart and Pollard was successful with a drop-goal from distance, but Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett kept the Springboks at arm's length from the tee.

"It was a heck of Test match. It was the full 80 minutes that we had to work," said All Blacks skipper Read.

"You're fortunate [that] sometimes it just happens in those couple of moments and we managed to take them. That's probably the difference in the game.

"We had to defend a little bit early on and when you don't have the ball you can't do too much, so when we did get opportunities we wanted to try to speed the game up."

Springboks skipper Siya Kolisi was frustrated his team did not punish New Zealand further when they had the chance, having reduced their arrears to four points in the second half.

"I think we took too long to get into the game," said Kolisi, despite his side appearing to be firmly on top during the first quarter.

"I think we stuck to our guns and our plan worked in the second half. We wanted to score first and it happened, but we couldn't capitalise on our opportunities."

Beauden Barrett, who started at full-back, played on with a bloody nose after being hit in the face by Duane Vermeulen's boot when trying to tackle the forward.

Barrett said: "It's a bit sore. It's never good getting a boot to the nose, especially from a big lad like Duane. You expect to take a few bumps when you play the Springboks, so it was worth it.

"We got to throw the ball around a bit – sometimes too much, it was a bit greasy out there, but there was some expansive rugby. If we can keep doing that all tournament that's what we're here for."

New Zealand were unforgiving as they punished South Africa errors to get their Rugby World Cup title defence under way with a thrilling 23-13 victory in the blockbuster Pool B clash in Yokohama.

Rugby Championship winners South Africa had been tipped as the leading contenders to dethrone New Zealand in Japan and they piled the pressure on the All Blacks in the early stages.

However, they only had three points from Handre Pollard to show for their efforts before sloppiness set in during a six-minute blitz that included tries from George Bridge and Scott Barrett.

Pieter-Steph du Toit crossed and Pollard scored a fine drop-goal as the Springboks regained a foothold in the second half, but the All Blacks were able to retain their record of having never lost a group stage match.

Pollard split the posts in the second minute after Bridge was pinged for not releasing the ball, and the Springboks maintained their commanding start.

He then hit the upright from the tee after Faf de Klerk intelligently won another penalty, but the scrum-half's stray pass was pounced on by Richie Mo'unga and Makazole Mapimpi's illegal attempt to win it back led to the fly-half restoring parity.

The champions had clicked into gear and Mo'unga's cross-field kick enabled Sevu Reece to charge down the right, setting a move in motion that ended with Beauden Barrett darting through a gap and offloading for Bridge to score his eighth try in six Tests.

New Zealand punished another mistake when Pollard dropped a high ball and Anton Lienert-Brown skipped in off the right before sending Scott Barrett under the posts, while Mo'unga missed a chance to make it 20-3 at the break from the left touchline.

Du Toit took advantage of a defensive lapse from the All Blacks to run straight in from a ruck in the 48th minute and Pollard reduced the arrears to four points with a stunning drop-goal from 40 yards out.

Mo'unga slotted through another penalty and the boot of Beauden Barrett helped keep the Springboks at bay as New Zealand extended their winning run in World Cups to 15 matches.

 

De Klerk opens the door

South Africa were in complete control until De Klerk's sloppy pass was set upon by Mo'unga, and it proved to be the turning point. New Zealand added 17 points in the next five minutes to underline their status as favourites for the trophy, with Rassie Erasmus likely to have concerns over the fitness of Trevor Nyakane and Cheslin Kolbe after late injuries.

Barrett at full-back pays off

Hansen's decision to play Mo'unga at fly-half and Beauden Barrett at 15 paid dividends, with both playing important roles as playmakers as the All Blacks tore South Africa apart in the first half. The latter was then granted the chance to play the last 10 minutes in his favoured position.

What's next?

The Springboks return to action against neighbours Namibia in Toyota next Saturday, while the All Blacks must wait until October 2 to take on Canada in Oita.

South Africa have one of the great names in sport on their side as they prepare to begin their Rugby World Cup campaign against New Zealand.

The Springboks will take on the defending champions on Saturday and they can count on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for support.

NFL great Brady is an American, and the United States are in the competition, albeit in a different pool, but he is backing South Africa.

The 42-year-old sent a video clip to the Springboks, who posted it on their Twitter page, in which he said: "Springboks, good luck to you in Japan. Kick some butt. Go Bok!"

As South Africa's caption noted: "Can't go wrong with the GOAT in your corner."

South Africa captain Siya Kolisi warned his side that defeat to New Zealand in their Rugby World Cup opener will turn every other pool match into a final.

The Proteas were famously stunned in their first game of the 2015 tournament, going down 34-32 to this year's hosts Japan in one of the greatest shocks of all time.

Rassie Erasmus' men face the reigning world champions on Saturday in Yokohama and Kolisi knows how important it is for the Springboks to make a strong start, having been humiliated in England four years ago.

"We are a very different team now – different coaching staff. We don't want to start like that and we have an opposition who also wants to start well," said Kolisi, whose side will also face Italy, Namibia and Canada in Pool B.

"There is a huge history behind us and we have learned from the past, so we have shown as much respect as we can to New Zealand, and have worked hard on our stuff.

"It makes it really tough if you lose your first game, because then basically every game is like a final."

Loose forward Kolisi cited the breakdown as a key battleground against the All Blacks, who triumphed when the two met in Pretoria last year, with flankers Sam Cane and Ardie Savea the men to watch.

"I know how good they are, I have played against them for a while. Me and Sam Cane played in the U20s, so I have seen him for quite a while. We chat and learn a few things from each other, but you can’t wait for the ref to help you at the breakdown," he said.

"Ardie has the most steals in Super Rugby, so we are going to have to sort it out ourselves and get in there quickly.

"That is where they were strong in the game in Pretoria last year – that's where they won the game."

The last meeting between the two sides was the 16-16 Rugby Championship draw in July. 

New Zealand will need to hit the ground running in their bid to win a third successive Rugby World Cup, as they begin their campaign in Pool B against South Africa on Saturday.

While hosts Japan and Russia kick off the 2019 edition of the tournament on Friday, it is tough not to look past that opening fixture and focus instead on the mouthwatering battle between two rugby heavyweights in Yokohama.

Champions in 2011 and 2015, the All Blacks are on a 14-match World Cup winning streak and are favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2.

However, the Springboks held their opponents to a 16-16 draw in Wellington earlier this year on their way to winning the Rugby Championship for the first time since 2009, albeit it was a shortened season in a World Cup year.

Still, South Africa are seen by many as the main challengers to the reigning champions, even if All Blacks captain Kieran Read is confident his side know exactly what they will be up against.

"There is nothing special about the way they play. They do what they do well," he told the media. "They are physical‚ they're kicking well and they take the points when they're on offer using their strengths like their maul.

"They also have the ability to play off counter-attack and turn over ball from their backs. We know what is coming our way and that's great.

"We are in a good place to put a plan out that we think is going to match it."

A defeat would by no means be a hammer blow to either team's hopes - South Africa lost their first game four years ago to Japan but still made the semi-finals, where they lost 20-18 to New Zealand - but finishing second in the group may, if things run according to form, lead to a tricky quarter-final tie with Ireland.

The Boks will honour Chester Williams this weekend, wearing a jersey with the 1995 World Cup winner's image embedded into the numbers on the back. Williams died a fortnight ago, at the age of 49.

"Chester didn't like being the centre of attention," said South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus. "He never bragged about his role or expected anything for it, but he would have enjoyed being part of a Springbok-All Black Test match once more, I think."

Having called for a more balance approach to officiating at the World Cup, Erasmus has selected the same XV that were on duty for the 41-7 win over Japan in South Africa's final warm-up fixture, meaning Duane Vermeulen will appear in his 50th Test.

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen, meanwhile, named Richie Mo'unga at fly-half on Thursday with Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown in the centres, meaning Sonny Bill Williams is on a powerful bench.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

New Zealand - Beauden Barrett

So often the first-choice number 10, the brilliant Barrett will line up at full-back against South Africa. His selection there gives New Zealand an extra playmaking option in a back division that includes inexperienced wing duo George Bridge and Sevu Reece.

South Africa - Handre Pollard

Read and the rest of the All Blacks may know what to expect from their rivals, but they still need to find a way to nullify South Africa's threat. To that extent, fly-half Pollard's kicking game - both in open play and also off the tee - will be pivotal if the Boks are to prosper.


KEY OPTA FACTS

- The All Blacks have won 16 of their last 20 games against the Springboks. Each of the last four meetings have been decided by a margin of no greater than two points.

- New Zealand's run of 14 successive World Cup wins is the longest such streak by any nation in the tournament's history.

- South Africa have lost three of their last eight World Cup fixtures, as many as they had lost in their 28 World Cup outings previously.

- New Zealand have scored at least one try in each of their last 26 World Cup outings. The last opponents to prevent them crossing the line? South Africa, back in 1999.

- Barrett beat the most defenders (16) of any player in the 2019 Rugby Championship. His 47 carries for 202 metres gained gave him the second highest totals in those categories.

- South Africa's Pieter-Steph du Toit made the most tackles (36) of any player in the Rugby Championship, as well as the most clean breaks (5) by any forward in the campaign.

It may not prove to be the case in the long run, but New Zealand feel a little vulnerable going into the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Having failed to win this year's shortened version of the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks are no longer the top-ranked side prior to the tournament in Japan.

Admittedly, they have not suffered a World Cup defeat since 2007, when they were stunned by France in a quarter-final in Cardiff. Their pedigree, plus their strength in depth, means Steve Hansen's side deserve to be considered the favourites.

Still, there is a glimmer of hope for the rest of the rugby heavyweights. The question is: who is best placed to dethrone the champions? 

 

1. SOUTH AFRICA

Could the Springboks be peaking at just the right time? They won the Rugby Championship for the fourth time this year and, after a shocking start against Japan, came as close as any nation to ending New Zealand's march towards a second straight World Cup in 2015. An early crack at the All Blacks in their Pool B opener will give them the chance to land a potentially telling blow. Also, the Boks ruled the world in 1995 and 2007. Now, 12 years on from their previous success, will the trend be repeated? They deserve to be viewed as the main contenders to the defending champions.

2. ENGLAND

It cannot possibly go any worse than four years ago, right? Eddie Jones – who was in charge of the Japan team that upset the Boks in Brighton in 2015 – is at the helm and the schedule has aided their campaign, as they have Tonga and the United States in their opening two fixtures in Pool C, giving them a chance to iron out any issues before they round out the stage by facing Argentina and France. The talismanic Owen Farrell is the key – and not just because of his outstanding kicking off the tee.

3. WALES

Warren Gatland could finish his spell in charge by doing a Six Nations Grand Slam and World Cup double. The Kiwi reached the semi-finals in 2011 and then the quarters four years ago. The reason they are not rated higher, however, is the list of absentees. Flanker Taulupe Faletau and fly-half Gareth Anscombe are missing due to injuries, scrum-half Rhys Webb is unavailable due to selection rules and attack coach Rob Howley has returned home over an alleged betting breach.

4. IRELAND

Like several of his counterparts, Joe Schmidt's tenure comes to an end with the World Cup. His final Six Nations did not go quite to plan, but Ireland top the world rankings, defeated New Zealand less than a year ago (in a game where the mighty All Blacks failed to score a try) and have plenty of experience in their squad. Much will depend on the form and fitness of fly-half Johnny Sexton - can he help the team recapture the form they displayed in 2018? While Pool A looks to be plain sailing, they face the prospect of New Zealand or South Africa in the last eight.

5. AUSTRALIA

The beaten finalists from four years ago will be relying on experience to go one better than 2015. Michael Cheika has often seemed on the brink as their head coach, but he raised hopes by beating New Zealand 47-26 in Perth in August. Still, they lost the rematch 36-0 on the road and are minus their leading strike weapon in Israel Folau, who is locked in a legal dispute with the Australia Rugby Union following his sacking for comments on social media. Without him, they will be more workmanlike than eye-catching in attack. 

6. SCOTLAND

Scotland are in a pool that, apart from Ireland, looks softer than some of the alternative options. They will not take hosts Japan for granted in their final round-robin fixture and, if they do progress, will have to cause an upset against either New Zealand or South Africa in the next round. Gregor Townsend has plenty of World Cup experience from his playing days, but this is his first in charge of the national team - expect the Scots to be in some highly entertaining contests but the last four looks a long shot.

7. ARGENTINA

Los Pumas languish outside the top 10 in the rankings but have made the semi-finals at two of the last three World Cups. The reason they are listed so low here, though, is their group. Only two can progress and having been drawn alongside England and France, Argentina face a challenge to make the quarters. Mario Ledesma's squad is dominated by players from Jaguares, who reached the Super Rugby final for the first time this year, but will lean on the Stade Francais' Nicolas Sanchez to provide control.

8. FRANCE

There was a time when France were the team you wanted to avoid in the knockout stages (just ask New Zealand 12 years ago, while they only won the 2011 final 8-7 against Les Bleus). Yet this current bunch are not living up to previous versions, with a distinct lack of flair put down to a domestic game now dominated by big-name overseas recruits occupying key positions. Sure, France have turned it on for the big occasion in the past, but the 2019 squad should concentrate first on making it out of their pool.

AND THE REST...

Japan have improved since 2015. Italy? Not so much. The hosts can justifiably think a quarter-final slot is within reach, but the Azzurri look doomed in Pool B alongside the All Blacks and the Boks. Currently placed inside the world's top 10, Fiji will likely have to beat one of Australia or Wales just to make it out of their group. The other nations will hope for damage limitation against the big boys and aim to take points off each other in their remaining fixtures. 

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."

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.

South Africa have named an unchanged side for their mouthwatering Rugby World Cup opener against New Zealand in Yokohama on Saturday.

Coach Rassie Erasmus will stick with the same XV and eight replacements that saw off hosts Japan 41-7 in a warm-up game two weeks ago.

It represents the first time the Springboks have stuck with the same side since the 2015 World Cup semi-final, which New Zealand edged 20-18 at Twickenham, while number eight Duane Vermeulen will win his 50th Test cap.

The only alteration from the team that played out a 16-16 Rugby Championship draw against the All Blacks in Wellington in July is fit-again captain Siya Kolisi starting at openside flanker in place of Kwagga Smith.

"We have 31 players in the squad, any of whom I would be happy to select, but this is a line-up that has worked well as a starting combination with real momentum to come from the bench," Erasmus told a news conference.

"They have emerged together over the past 18 months as our game has developed and matured. We've prepared well and we're looking forward to what will be another extremely close match.

"I think the thing that makes it special, if you ask anybody right now who is going to win this Test match, you know, I don't think anybody can bet on any of the two teams.

"I guess if you ask our boys we think we've got a really good chance, I think if you ask Steve [Hansen, New Zealand coach] and their team, they'll think they think they have a really good chance. Hopefully the referee is not too sure."

Indeed, referee Jerome Garces found himself to be the focus of what appeared to be some pre-match mind games on Erasmus' part.

"Even referees buy into that respect [for the All Blacks]," he said. "And because you are playing so well, referees almost find it tough to penalise you in 50-50 decisions."

"I think it was a well-known fact that it was really tough at times when teams were under the pump, some of the 50-50 decisions went their way because they deserved that, being number one for so long."

After taking on the world champions, South Africa will also face Italy, Namibia and Canada in Pool B.

South Africa team to play New Zealand: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen

Replacements: Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, RG Snyman, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn, Jesse Kriel

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.

Rassie Erasmus' tremendous development of the South Africa squad has made Bryan Habana extremely optimistic about their Rugby World Cup hopes.

Former Stormers and Munster boss Erasmus in March 2018 took over from Allister Coetzee, whose dismal spell at the helm included 11 wins in 25 Tests and the Springboks' heaviest loss – a 57-0 drubbing at the hands of New Zealand in the 2017 Rugby Championship.

Coetzee was appointed in 2016 and in his first year suffered eight defeats in 12 Tests.

Although Erasmus lost his first match at the helm, he engineered a series success against England and ended a nine-year wait for an away victory against New Zealand in 2018.

The Springboks head into the World Cup undefeated this year and having won the Rugby Championship for the first time since 2009.

"Given that 2016, 2017 [were] pretty disappointing years, 2018 - Rassie's first year in charge - also only a 50 per cent win ratio, a really poor Super Rugby season for all of the South African sides, so going into this Rugby Championship, [there was] a lot of uncertainty," Habana told Omnisport, speaking on behalf of Land Rover, Official Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2019.

"Fast forward four weeks post the start of that championship and I think the optimism, the positivity and excitement around this Springboks side leading into a World Cup is absolutely incredible, and justifiably so given that they've gone out and won a Rugby Championship for the first time since 2009.

"It's the first time since 98 that they've gone unbeaten in the competition, albeit a shortened competition. They've really come to the fore in a massive way over the last month and a half, and what has been even more brilliant to see is that a year ago you didn't really know who your 31, 23, or even starting 15 were, given that you're not quite sure what the talent was.

"All of a sudden, Rassie's conundrum of having to choose only 31 players going into the this World Cup was a fantastic one to be in, given that development from a squad perspective that he's been able to achieve over the last 18 or so months.

"It all bodes really well in a World Cup that is probably going to be the most unique we've ever, ever seen. Unique by the fact that the top six teams realistically go into this competition with a pretty decent chance of winning it, realistically."

A late draw against the All Blacks was key to the Springboks' Rugby Championship triumph and they begin their campaign in Japan against the two-time defending champions in Yokohama on Saturday.

Habana said: "I don't think it's just the draw that will be fresh in South Africa's mind. I think the win in Wellington in the Rugby Championship last year, the first time a South African side has ever gone to Wellington and scored five tries against a New Zealand outfit, to then win it for the first time since '98 in Wellington was incredibly special.

"I think they'll take a lot of confidence out of that going into what is almost a decider against New Zealand because [over] the last three games everything is all equal - they've both won one, lost one and then drawn one. The points difference is zero at the moment.

"What an epic game to start out a brilliant tournament against the number one side in the world, the current reigning champion of the tournament.

"The South African side will be able to go into that game with an incredible amount of confidence, knowing what they've achieved against New Zealand in the last 12 months."

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.

Page 1 of 36
© 2018 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.