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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."

Wales backs coach Rob Howley has been sent home from the Rugby World Cup over an alleged breach of betting regulations.

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) confirmed Howley has returned to Wales six days before the team's opening World Cup match against Georgia in order to "assist with an investigation in relation to a potential breach of World Rugby regulation 6, specifically betting on rugby union".

A WRU statement said: "The decision was taken to act immediately in light of recent information passed to the WRU.

"No further details can be provided at this stage as this would prejudice the investigation. If required an independent panel will be appointed to hear the case.

"Rob has co-operated fully with our initial discussions and we would ask that the media appreciate this is a difficult and personal matter for Rob and that his privacy is respected before an outcome is reached.

"Warren Gatland has consulted with senior players and Stephen Jones will be arriving in Japan imminently to link up with the squad as attack coach."

Howley has been a key member of Gatland's backroom staff and oversaw their 2013 Six Nations success while the New Zealander was on a British and Irish Lions sabbatical.

The former Wasps scrum-half was part of Gatland's coaching team when the Lions triumphed in Australia in 2013 and drew a series against the All Blacks four years later.

The 48-year-old will leave his role with Wales when Gatland departs after the World Cup and had been touted as a potential replacement for Conor O'Shea as Italy boss.

Manu Tuilagi can help England do some "serious damage" at the Rugby World Cup, according to former England international Andy Goode.

Leicester Tigers star Tuilagi was involved in the 2011 finals as a 20-year-old but missed the tournament in England four years ago after being convicted of assaulting two female police officers and a taxi driver.

Having put disciplinary and injury problems behind him, the Samoa-born centre has re-established himself as a key component of Eddie Jones' side and was named man of the match for a blistering performance in the 57-15 demolition of Ireland at Twickenham last month.

Goode's second spell with Leicester ended shortly before Tuilagi made his debut but, having experienced going up against the 28-year-old, he is expecting big things in Japan.

"I can't wait to see him play in the World Cup and I've been on the other side of it, when he's been charging at me, and it's not what you want to see, believe me," Goode told Omnisport.

"He almost single-handedly beat the All Blacks in 2012 [in a 38-21 win], producing one of the best performances you will see in an England shirt.

"Obviously, he's had some awful luck with injuries, but he looks very fit and his workload has been managed, so I'm expecting big things of him.

"I am so excited to see this England side with the ball-carrying ability of Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi. They can do some serious damage.

"England are riding on the crest of a wave at the moment, I've been very impressed with them heading into the tournament, they look very fit with a real hunger to go there and make a massive impact.

"It's the most open World Cup there has ever been. New Zealand are rightly favourites, but there are several sides capable of winning it. The All Blacks will obviously be tough to beat, but they are not as big a favourites as what they have been in recent years."

England failed to get out of Pool A when hosting the tournament four years ago, and Goode hopes the players have learned how to manage matches better following that disappointment.

"The players who were involved four years ago can use that failure to their advantage and I have no doubt they will," he said. "The likes of Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs, they have much more experience under their belt and will have learned a hell of lot from the way England let that slip away.

"England's game management in the match against Wales, when they let go of a lead and could have drawn it but showed a lack of clear thinking to miss out on a draw, I'd be surprised if you see a repeat of that."

Mako Vunipola and Jack Nowell are not expected to be fit until after England's opening two matches against Tonga and the United States, but Goode thinks their return could prove a timely boost.

"The injection of a Jack Nowell and Mako can be huge, they will be hungry and ready to fire after missing the start of the tournament," he added.

"You then just have to hope there are no other serious injury setbacks, which is where that bit of luck you need comes into it. Every side needs an element of luck to win a World Cup."

 

Key matches for the Rugby World Cup, including home nation and knockout stage games, will be aired at more than 500 Greene King pubs nationwide.

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

Ireland remain "reasonably positive" over Robbie Henshaw's hamstring injury, though the centre is still expected to miss his nation's Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland.

Henshaw suffered the problem during a training session on Saturday, putting his participation in the tournament in jeopardy.

However, while unlikely to be fit to face Six Nations rivals Scotland in the Pool A fixture on Sunday in Yokohama, there is still hope the Leinster player can feature for Joe Schmidt's side.

"Robbie's looking very, very unlikely for this weekend obviously," Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek told the media.

"But we've just got back from training and still sorting things out, but I think it's reasonably positive in terms of what we saw.

"Some of these guys, day by day, week by week, they can improve dramatically as opposed to the average human. So we'll just take it like that at the moment.

"It's looking positive, so from here on in we'll just see how it goes in the next few days and then maybe reassess in the not too distant future."

Ireland tweeted confirmation that Henshaw will not be returning home early despite the setback.

Meanwhile, Joey Carbery trained fully on Monday and Keith Earls is likely to be back working with the rest of the squad later this week.

After facing the Scots, Ireland have fixtures against hosts Japan, Russia and Samoa in the group stage.

Over the next six weeks, dreams will be realised, heroes will emerge and hearts will be broken at the Rugby World Cup.

The greatest prize in the sport is up for grabs in Japan, where New Zealand are aiming to be crowned champions for the third successive tournament.

There are sure to be thrills, spills and stories that will stand the test of time.

Below, we take a look at some of the most memorable moments in the history of the Rugby World Cup.


Wilkinson kicks England to glory in Sydney

England entered the 2003 Rugby World Cup as favourites and regarded as the best team in the world. Clive Woodward's side lived up to the billing to set up a final against an Australia outfit led by now England coach Eddie Jones. A tense encounter between the old rivals was level at 14-14 by full-time and a penalty each from Jonny Wilkinson and Elton Flatley meant the teams were still tied with the clock winding down. But in a dramatic finale, Martin Johnson drew the contact, Matt Dawson bided his time with the pass and England legend Wilkinson, on his weaker right foot, nailed the drop goal to kick his country to World Cup glory – becoming the first northern hemisphere side in history to lift the trophy.

Western Samoa upset Wales in Cardiff

It just was not in the script. Wales, one of the proudest rugby nations in the world, were hosting the unheralded Western Samoa in Cardiff. A routine win, surely? Think again. In one of the worst days in Wales' rugby history, the Cardiff Arms Park crowd were stunned by a 16-13 defeat in the 1991 World Cup in which Mathew Vaea starred with the boot. Wales failed to make it out of the group stages and it marked the first time a seeded nation had lost to a non-seeded nation. 

Warburton sees red as Wales fall agonisingly short

It was 10 years later that Wales would suffer more disappointment, albeit in more valiant and heart-breaking fashion in a 9-8 loss to France in an Auckland semi-final. That Wales came so close is to their credit given they were reduced to 14 men in the 19th minute when talismanic captain Sam Warburton was controversially sent off for a big tackle on Vincent Clerc. A yellow card would have been a fairer decision in such a huge game but luck did not favour Wales, who saw Stephen Jones hit the post with the conversion from Mike Phillips' try with 23 minutes remaining. Leigh Halfpenny also saw a long-range attempt fall short as Wales' World Cup dream came to a halt.

Lomu bulldozes Catt in England slaughtering 

It was a performance of a lifetime. Having already starred with three tries prior to the 1995 semi-final, Jonah Lomu truly announced himself on the world stage with a four-score haul in the All Blacks' 45-29 hammering of England in Cape Town. It was a barnstorming, awe-inspiring showing from the giant flyer, who unceremoniously trampled over future World Cup winner Mike Catt in one of the tournament's most famous tries.

Pienaar-led Springboks unite South Africa 

Lomu and New Zealand fell short in the 1995 final, though. The sight of South Africa president Nelson Mandela donning a Springboks jersey and handing over the Webb Ellis Cup to inspirational captain Francois Pienaar is one of the most iconic images in sport. South Africa tamed Lomu and the All Blacks to triumph 15-12 in Johannesburg.

Brave Blossoms cause monumental Springboks shock

It was an altogether different feeling for South Africa a decade later as the Springboks were victims of one the greatest upsets in the history of all sports against Japan. The two-time world champions boasted 851-caps worth of experience in their starting XV, but the Brave Blossoms lived up to their name with a performance brimming with pace and invention. Karne Hesketh was the man who wrote his name into history with the late try that secured an unbelievable 34-32 victory in Brighton.

The Rugby World Cup is the greatest stage in the sport and offers an incredible chance for players to make a name for themselves.

Hosts Japan and Russia will get the action underway on Friday and 24 hours later spectators will have also been treated to Australia v Fiji, France v Argentina and New Zealand v South Africa.

It promises to be a hugely entertaining tournament and we have taken a look at the young talents set to light up the competition.

 

Sevu Reece (22, New Zealand)

He only made his Crusaders debut as an injury replacement against the Chiefs in March, but Reece has already established himself as one of the most exciting wings in the world.

Reece's incredible pace and clinical finishing saw him top the Super Rugby try-scoring charts with 15 as the Crusaders won the title for the third straight year and he has touched down twice in his three appearances for the All Blacks.

Tom Curry (21, England)

Eddie Jones has long been an admirer of flanker Curry, making him the youngest player to start for England in 90 years during the tour to Argentina in 2017.

That came at the end of his breakthrough season at Sale Sharks and the back-rower has gone from strength to strength, starting all of England's Six Nations matches this year.

Romain Ntamack (20, France)

Ntamack can play at inside centre of fly-half and comes from good stock: his father Emile won 46 caps for France and was part of the side that won the Five Nations Grand Slam in 1997 and reached the World Cup final two years later.

But Romain has proved himself a promising player in his own right, winning the Six Nations and World Cup at Under-20 level in 2018 and helping Toulouse end a seven-year wait for Top 14 success last season.

Herschel Jantjies (23, South Africa)

Stormers scrum-half Jantjies wasted no time in making his mark for the Springboks, scoring a debut double against Australia in July.

Jantjies then touched down in the 80th minute to help earn a 16-16 draw against the All Blacks in his second cap - a result that proved crucial to South Africa winning the Rugby Championship for the first time in 10 years.

Rhys Carre (21, Wales)

The 6ft 3in, 20-stone prop was included in Warren Gatland's squad for Japan having only made his international debut against Ireland on August 31.

Towering front-rower Carre was in April snapped up by Premiership champions Saracens and will likely have a big impact in the breakdown, set-piece and when carrying the ball.

Toulon escaped with a 32-29 home victory over Racing 92 in the Top 14 on Sunday despite a tough second half in which they saw two players sent to the sin bin.

The hosts looked to be coasting when they led 29-10 with just under half an hour remaining, but three Racing tries and a second Toulon yellow card set up a nervy finale.

Julien Heriteau, Juan Imhoff and Daniel Ikpefan traded early tries, while Anthony Belleau kicked three penalties before the break to put Toulon in control.

Belleau continued to excel at the start of the second period, while a collapsed scrum meant both Toulon's Marcel van der Merwe and Racing's Vasil Kakovin were sent to the bin.

Racing dealt with the yellow better than the home side and Louis Dupichot crossed, before Toulon were reduced to 14 men again when Stephane Onambele Mbarga was punished.

Yoan Tanga Mangene went over twice in quick succession but Racing fell just short of a late turnaround.

Raphael Lagarde starred as Agen eased past Montpellier 29-10, scoring a crucial second try and kicking four penalties.

Valentin Saurs and Yvan Reilhac each went through in the first half for Montpellier, but Lagarde's penalties meant Agen led at the interval, and he then touched down seven minutes after the restart.

Agen had been down to 14 men at that stage due to Jamie Taulagi's yellow, but there was no way back and Benito Masilevu capped the scoring late on.

Former Wales international Gareth Thomas has revealed that he is HIV positive and felt suicidal as he kept his diagnosis a secret for years.

Thomas said he contemplated driving off a cliff as he did not want it to be known he was suffering from the virus.

The 45-year-old, who played 100 times for his country, also revealed that blackmailers threatened to reveal his diagnosis before he made the announcement.

"I've been living with this secret for years," he told the Sunday Mirror.

"I've felt shame and keeping such a big secret has taken its toll.

"I had a fear people would judge me and treat me like a leper because of a lack of knowledge. I was in a dark place, feeling suicidal. I thought about driving off a cliff.

"To me, wanting to die was just a natural thought and felt like the easier way out, but you have to confront things.

"And having a strong support system and the personal strength and experience of overcoming those emotions got me through it.

"Many people live in fear and shame of having HIV, but I refuse to be one of them now. We need to break the stigma once and for all. I'm speaking out because I want to help others and make a difference."

Thomas added in a video posted on his Twitter account: "I want to share my secret with you. Why? Because it's mine to tell you. Not the evils that made my life hell, threatening to tell you before I do. 

"And because I believe in you and I trust you. I'm living with HIV. Now you have that information, that makes me extremely vulnerable but it does not make me weak.

"Now even though I've been forced to tell you this, I choose to fight, to educate and to break the stigma around this subject."

Steve Hansen insisted the All Blacks were embracing the pressure of trying to win a third straight Rugby World Cup.

New Zealand made history by becoming the first nation to win the tournament back-to-back when they clinched the title in England in 2015.

Aiming for a hat-trick in Japan, Hansen said it was something the All Blacks – who begin their campaign against South Africa on Saturday – were excited about.

"It's extremely exciting. Trying to do things that no one else has ever done before is a hallmark of what New Zealand people are about," he told a news conference.

"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. You know, life wasn't like it is today so they've become pioneers and I think that's really important in anything.

"In life, particularly in sport, you've got to strive to be leaders rather than followers and we get an opportunity that no one else at the tournament gets.

"We can either shy away from that or get really excited by it and we're excited by it."

The All Blacks will go into the tournament as favourites and are in Pool B alongside South Africa, Italy, Namibia and Canada.

Captain Kieran Read accepted there was pressure on his team, but he said they were welcoming it.

"Obviously there's pressure but I guess it's how you look at that pressure," he said.

"You know, whether that's something to overcome you or you walk towards that and you actually enjoy that so we wouldn't be sitting here as a part of this tournament if we didn't relish these opportunities to play at that highest level.

"And the World Cup is the highest level. It's what you want to do when you pick up this game and play for your country so look, we walk towards that expectation and we really relish it so that's what we're hoping to do this tournament."

Lyon and Bordeaux Begles continued their blistering unbeaten starts to the Top 14 season as defending champions Toulouse stumbled again.

Both Lyon and Bordeaux went into Saturday's fixtures on the back of three straight wins and duly extended their streaks to four in some style.

Full-back Toby Arnold scored three of Lyon's nine tries in a 59-3 thumping of Brive while Bordeaux put Stade Francais to the sword 52-3.

Toulouse, meanwhile, finished with 14 men in their 28-13 loss at La Rochelle, which made it three defeats from four to start their title defence.

They trailed only 9-6 at the break but Wiaan Liebenberg and Arthur Retiere went over for La Rochelle before Werner Kok's red card on his Toulouse full debut for striking Jules Favre with his forearm effectively put the match beyond doubt.

Last season's runners-up Clermont Auvergne were boosted by the presence of Morgan Parra for the first time since May but suffered their second consecutive defeat, losing 37-28 at home to Pau, for whom Colin Slade tallied 20 points.

Promoted Bayonne saw off Castres 27-17 thanks predominantly to the boot of Brandon Fajardo, who kicked four penalties and a conversion for the Basque side.

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