A fired-up Michael Cheika insists Reece Hodge's three-game suspension will not "derail" Australia as they prepare for a blockbuster Rugby World Cup clash against Wales.

Winger Hodge was retrospectively punished for a high tackle on Peceli Yato in the Wallabies' opening 39-21 win over Fiji in Pool D after the on-field officials took no action.

At his hearing, Hodge said he had not been trained on the new tackling framework and the Australian media reacted with fury to the ban.

Head coach Cheika did not hold back in his criticism before Sunday's encounter in Tokyo.

"I wanted to say something at the start about some chat around the framework not being spoken to the players," he said.

"It came out in the judgement, the judge put a bit in there. I want to make a couple of points: the framework is for referees, not the players, to decide whether there are red or yellow cards in a game.

"The guy's [Hodge] already nervous enough as it is. When people are asking you questions and you have done nothing wrong you are nervous and may not have answers to all the questions on the tip of your tongue.

"People are making a point about us so we thought we would make one back - a bit of tennis.

"We are not going to let it derail us. We will suck it up and get focused on what is important - the match on Sunday."

Experienced duo Bernard Foley and Will Genia have been drafted in as two of four changes for Australia against a Wales side they have beaten in 13 of their previous 14 Tests.

However, it was Warren Gatland's men celebrating victory the last time the teams met in November 2018 and the New Zealander is well aware of the psychological boost that can give Wales.

"Losing games in the last minute in half a dozen contests can be quite demoralising but we really focused on last autumn's campaign and it was really important to us with two big games against Australia and South Africa," said Gatland, whose side beat Georgia 43-14 in their opening match.

"Australia was definitely one we went in trying to right the wrongs and coming away with a win it was a typical old-fashioned Test match."

Captain Alun Wyn Jones is set to make a record-breaking 130th appearance for an unchanged Wales side in a game where victory could potentially provide a more favourable quarter-final tie.

But Gatland is focused purely on the here and now.

"We have not really looked too far ahead. If you do get out of the group all quarter-finals are going to be pretty tough," he added.

"It is about taking one game at a time and trying to build and create momentum."


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Australia – Bernard Foley

Cheika's decision to drop Kurtley Beale from the starting XV certainly raised a few eyebrows and means they lose the full-back's attacking skill from deep. The onus will be on Foley to dictate the Wallabies' tempo from fly-half and, with 70 Tests and 619 points to his name, he has the experience to do so.

Wales – Gareth Davies

The scrum-half was influential against Georgia, creating the first and third tries and playing a key role in the second. To unlock the Aussie defence, Wales will need their number nine at his brilliant best.


KEY OPTA FACTS

- Wales have not won consecutive Tests against the Wallabies since a three-match span from 1969 to 1975. 

- This will be the seventh meeting between Australia and Wales at the World Cup, making it the joint-most played fixture in tournament history, along with New Zealand versus France. 

- Wales won their first World Cup encounter with Australia in 1987 (22-21) however the Wallabies have secured victory in each the five meetings since then at the tournament. 

- Wales have won seven of their last eight pool stage games at the World Cup (L1), their only defeat in that span coming against Australia (15-6) in 2015. 

- George North has scored five tries in 13 Tests against Australia (including for the British and Irish Lions); only two European players have scored as many against the Wallabies (Shane Williams – 6, Serge Blanco – 5).

Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones will make a record-breaking appearance for his country against Australia at the Rugby World Cup in Tokyo.

Sunday's blockbuster Pool D showdown will be Jones' 130th international cap after Wales named an unchanged starting XV to face the Wallabies.

Jones – who earned his first cap in 2006 – equalled the record for most Test appearances for Wales in Monday's 43-14 bonus-point rout of Georgia as the 34-year-old joined Gethin Jenkins on 129 games.

Wales are unchanged for the clash with the Wallabies – Jones to feature in the same pack that eased past Georgia in their tournament opener.

The only change in Wales' match-day squad is on the bench, with Owen Watkin slipping into the 23 jersey in place of veteran full-back Leigh Halfpenny.

 

Wales: Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones, Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi.
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith, Dillon Lewis, Aaron Shingler, Ross Moriarty, Tomos Williams, Rhys Patchell, Owen Watkin.

Experienced Australia pair Bernard Foley and Will Genia have been named in the starting line-up for the Wallabies' Rugby World Cup showdown with Wales.

Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika has made a raft of changes to the side set to face Wales in Sunday's Pool D blockbuster following Reece Hodge's three-game suspension.

Four new starters have come into the XV, with number 10 Foley, half-back Genia, veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dane Haylett-Petty promoted following Australia's opening 39-21 victory against Fiji.

The quartet's inclusion for the Wales meeting comes at the expense of Nic White, Christian Lealiifano and Kurtley Beale in changes to the backline, while the forward back remains unchanged.

Lealiifano has not been included in the match-day squad, with full-back Beale surprisingly dropped to the bench for the Tokyo fixture in a shock selection shake-up.

Australia – runners-up in 2015 – will be looking to make it two wins from two games at the World Cup as James O'Connor prepares to make his 50th Test appearance for the Wallabies.

 

Australia: Dane Haylett-Petty, Adam Ashley-Cooper, James O'Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Bernard Foley, Will Genia; 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, Nic White, Matt To'omua, Kurtley Beale.

Wales can start dreaming of reaching their first Rugby World Cup final if they beat Australia on Sunday, according to Sam Warburton.

Two-time semi-finalists Wales started their 2019 campaign with a comprehensive 43-14 triumph over Georgia in Pool D but a stiffer test lies in wait in Tokyo on Sunday when they face Australia.

Warren Gatland's side ended a 13-match winless run against the Wallabies last year with a 9-6 success and Warburton sees the latest encounter as critical to Wales' hopes of going further than they ever have before in the tournament, with the winners of Pool D likely avoiding reigning champions New Zealand or England until the final.

"It's the most open World Cup we've ever had," Warburton, who won 74 caps for Wales, told Omnisport.

"They [Australia] are clear front-runners. Australia will be really competitive and if Wales can win against Australia and get out of the group first, I think it will give them the confidence and a slightly easier route - they're probably going to dodge England and New Zealand to the final.

"I think [for] Wales then it will be a really good springboard to get to a World Cup final.

"If they lose then they are going to have to do it the tough way and beat England and beat New Zealand and probably someone like South Africa in the final.

"That Australia game is massive, both teams realise how big that's going to be. If Wales can win that then I expect them to do good things."

Australia had a rotten 2018, with that defeat against Wales one of nine Tests they lost in the year.

They have fared better in 2019, though, and Warburton took notice of their impressive 47-26 victory over New Zealand in August.

"They've got the ability to beat New Zealand without David Pocock," the former British and Irish Lions captain added.

"If you can add David Pocock - and I know they've played them since and lost pretty badly - but it shows that that's in there. Like, it's there somewhere, they've still got it.

"So with Pocock fully fit added to that team, it wouldn't surprise me if they made last four."

 

Open Side by Sam Warburton (HarperCollins) is out now.

Cory Hill has been ruled out of the rest of the Rugby World Cup after he failed to overcome a stress fracture of his fibula, Wales have announced.

Wales had just two fit locks available for their opening Pool D win over Georgia on Monday, as Warren Gatland gave Hill every chance to recover from an injury which has kept him out since February.

However, Gatland told reporters following the 43-14 victory in Toyota City that it was a possibility Hill would return to the UK, and that has now been confirmed.

A statement from the Welsh Rugby Union said Hill had been "unable to recover significantly" from his injury.

The 27-year-old has been replaced in Wales' squad by Bradley Davies.

Ospreys forward Davies, who has 65 caps and appeared at two previous World Cups, is due to arrive in Japan in Wednesday ahead of the meeting with fellow heavyweights Australia.

Gatland also has an injury concern over centre Hadleigh Parkes, who sustained a "bone fracture" in his hand in the clash with Georgia.

In better news for Wales, fly-half Dan Biggar insisted he was fine despite wearing strapping on his left arm throughout the match.

Wales can take plenty of confidence from their dominant victory over Georgia heading into a clash with fellow Rugby World Cup heavyweights Australia, according to coach Warren Gatland.

Six Nations winners Wales put in a superb first-half display in Toyota City in their opening Pool D encounter, securing a 29-0 lead and a bonus point before the interval.

Gareth Davies was in supreme form at scrum-half, with Jonathan Davies, Justin Tipuric, Josh Adams and Liam Williams scoring four of Wales' six tries in the first half.

Gatland's side eased off after the interval, though George North expertly teed up one try before scoring another to complete a 43-14 rout.

Though Gatland acknowledged Wales still had areas to improve on, he has no doubt the victory has put his team in a good place for Sunday's meeting with the Wallabies.

"I think we can take a lot of confidence from that, they're a tough side," Gatland, whose side now top Pool D, said in a news conference.

"We've had some really tight games with them over the year. We tend to get better as tournaments go on.

"We're pleased with the start and there is a lot of room for us to improve for next week. I don't think we tried to hide any moves in the second half.

"We spoke about being smart. In the second half, the ball got slippery. Georgia allowed us a lot of opportunities to get into their half and take chances.

"We have a few things up our sleeve next week. It's tough with a six-day turnaround. We've got to make sure we recover well and then start really planning."

Wales only had two locks - Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball - available for Monday's match, with Cory Hill still recovering from a stress fracture in his leg.

However, Gatland confirmed Hill's tournament could well be over.

"Possibly," Gatland said when asked if Hill would be returning to the UK. "In terms of fitness, he will go back to the UK if he is not right. We will assess him tomorrow and just see what progress he has made and how his injury is.

"If it is not good news then he will go back. If they think they can get him to recover then he will stay out. We are just going to assess it overnight.

"You just have to draw a line in the sand. You have to look forward. The players have been outstanding this week, the way the senior players have stepped up."

Slovakia, Hungary and Romania have been hit with UEFA sanctions, including stadium closures, after being charged with racist behaviour by the governing body.

The trio of nations landed in hot water after the recent rounds of Euro 2020 qualifying matches, with incidents of racism among the charges levelled at all three.

Slovakia and Hungary, who met on September 9 in Budapest, must each play their next UEFA competition match behind closed doors, as ordered by the UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body.

Both were accused of racist behaviour among their fans, with Hungary supporters also found to have thrown objects and set off fireworks, while an additional charge was brought relating to the conduct of the team.

Slovakia fans were also deemed to have engaged in racist chanting, with the same offence committed by Romania's followers as their team took on Spain and Malta earlier this month.

Additionally, Romania supporters invaded the field of play, set off fireworks and threw objects, according to UEFA.

The Romanian Football Federation was ordered to ensure the next UEFA competition match was played behind closed doors, with a second game subject to a one-year probationary suspension.

Financial penalties were also dished out, with fines of €83,000 for the Romanian Football Federation, €67,125 for the Hungarian Football Federation, and €20,000 for the Slovakian Football Association.

Slovakia's next home game is against Wales on October 10, while Hungary host Azerbaijan three days later, and Romania welcome Norway two days on from that. 

Wales made a flying start to their Rugby World Cup campaign as Gareth Davies starred in a dominant 43-14 win over Georgia in Pool D.

The Six Nations winners made a statement of intent in the first half at the City of Toyota Stadium - Gareth Davies pulling the strings as a bonus point was secured with a 29-0 lead heading into the interval.

Jonathan Davies got things started early on, with Justin Tipuric, Josh Adams and Liam Williams getting in on the act as four of Wales' six tries came before the break, while Dan Biggar kept things ticking over with the boot.

With Georgia pulling one back, Wales failed to recapture their first-half form after the restart, though George North teed up one try and scored another to add further gloss to a fine win which sends Warren Gatland's side top of Pool D.

Gareth Davies' pinpoint pass split Georgia's defence open inside three minutes, with Jonathan Davies racing through under the sticks, though Biggar slammed what should have been a simple conversion against the post.

Biggar made no such mistake with a penalty four minutes later and Wales soon doubled their tally of tries - Tipuric's quick feet doing for Georgia this time.

Gareth Davies continued to toy with Georgia, and his wonderful quick take-and-pass set Adams free in the 19th minute, with Liam Williams then wrapping up the bonus point on the stroke of half-time.

Wales' fourth try had come slightly against the run of play, and Georgia had their reward for a strong start to the second half when Shalva Mamukashvili bundled over.

Jaba Bregvadze came on as a substitute shortly after, only to be sent straight back to the sideline after he was penalised for collapsing a maul.

Georgia survived their numerical disadvantage without conceding, but they were undone once more as substitute Tomos Williams latched onto North's excellent grubber.

Levan Chilachava - on his 50th cap - grabbed another Georgia try, but North had the final say when he drove over after Tomos Williams returned the favour with a fantastic offload.

 

Gareth Davies runs the show

The scrum-half featured in all five of Wales' Six Nations fixtures and also scored in three of the pool fixtures at the 2015 World Cup.

He proved too much for Georgia to handle on Monday, creating two of Wales' first three tries either side of playing a crucial role in the second.

Georgia no test for Gatland's men

Wales were sensational in the Six Nations, storming to victory in all five fixtures, yet they won only one of their four warm-up matches.

While they swiftly clicked into gear in this win, Gatland will be well aware there are much sterner challenges to come for his side, with the upcoming clash with Australia crucial in determining who will finish first in the pool.

What's next?

Wales' second Pool D encounter sees them go head-to-head with fellow heavyweights Australia on Sunday, which is also when Georgia face Uruguay.

Wales coach Warren Gatland hopes Alun Wyn Jones can earn more plaudits with a fine performance in his record-equalling 129th Test appearance against Georgia.

The Six Nations Grand Slam champions will be the last of the big hitters to kick-off their Rugby World Cup campaign when they take to the field in Toyota on Monday.

As expected, Gatland has named Jones in his line-up and that means the veteran lock will tie Gethin Jenkins' Wales appearance record.

Jones will be key to Wales' hopes of following up their Six Nations success with worldwide domination in Japan and Gatland is keen to see his star man deliver once again in a red shirt.

If he comes through that challege unscathed, the 34-year-old would then be able to claim the record outright in a huge Pool D clash against Australia.

"He has been absolutely outstanding in his services to Welsh rugby," Gatland said of Jones. "He's got better with age - he is like a good wine.

"Hopefully, he comes out of Monday night's game fit and available and, if selected, as he always says, against Australia, he will get that chance to break that Welsh record.

"He doesn't like me talking about these things, but he deserves all the accolades.

"He has been just such a great servant to Welsh rugby and the pleasing thing for me in the last couple of years is that recognition hasn't been just from Wales, it has been worldwide, too.

"People have realised what a contribution he has given to world rugby in terms of his performances and leadership.

"That's pleasing to see, that someone from Wales is recognised as one of the best players in the world in his position."

While Wales have their captain fit and available, opponents Georgia are missing skipper Merab Sharikadze, who is still recovering from injury.

Gatland is not taking them lightly, though, adding: "With Georgia, we know how strong they are up front and their scrum is a weapon. We've got to be competent at scrum time.

"The boys had a good training session this morning. We're really excited - we can't wait for Monday night."


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Wales - Dan Biggar

Gareth Anscombe's pre-tournament knee injury created a space at fly-half and, with Rhys Patchell among the replacements recovering from his own ailment, Biggar is the man who starts the campaign at number 10. He has started just two games for his country in 2019 but has experience on the world stage, having kicked 23 points to see off England four years ago.

Georgia - Tedo Abzhandadze

Abzhandadze, the opposite fly-half, was a star of Georgia's Under-20 team and, still just 20, has earned the starting job at the World Cup, playing what will be only his 10th Test against Wales. His early senior performances have not been entirely convincing and he will need to step up in a big way against the Welsh.


KEY OPTA FACTS

- The only previous meeting between these sides took place in November 2017 when Wales earned a hard-fought 13-6 win.
- Wales come into this fixture having lost their past two Rugby World Cup games. They have never lost three or more in succession at the tournament.
- Among Tier 1 sides, only Argentina have lost as many Rugby World Games to non-Tier 1 opposition as Wales (both three). The Welsh were beaten by Samoa in 1991 and 1999, as well as by Fiji in 2007.
- Georgia have lost 10 out of 10 Rugby World Cup games against Tier 1 opposition, with those defeats coming by an average margin of 33 points.
- Georgia won the 2019 Rugby Europe Championship, the eighth time in the past nine seasons they have triumphed at the second-tier tournament.

Alun Wyn Jones will make history after the captain was named to start Wales' Rugby World Cup opener against Georgia on Monday.

Jones will equal the record for most Test appearances for Wales when he plays his 129th game for his nation in Toyota.

The 34-year-old joins Gethin Jenkins on that tally as Wales prepare for their opener in Pool D.

Wales have named a strong side, with 10 of their starting team holding previous experience at the Rugby World Cup.

Fly-half Rhys Patchell, who was under an injury cloud, has been named among the replacements.

Wales are expected to progress from Pool D, with matches against Australia, Fiji and Uruguay to follow their clash against Georgia.

Wales: Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones, Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi.
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith, Dillon Lewis, Aaron Shingler, Ross Moriarty, Tomos Williams, Rhys Patchell, Leigh Halfpenny.

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. 

Wales' Rugby World Cup squad have pulled together after the shock of backs coach Rob Howley being sent home from Japan over an alleged breach of betting regulations.

On Tuesday, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) confirmed Howley had 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".

Head coach Warren Gatland was forced to absorb a potentially damaging blow to his squad on his 56th birthday – something he made light of a Wednesday news conference where he praised the players' togetherness and discussed former Wales fly-half Stephen Jones coming in as Howley's replacement.

"I've had better birthdays, for sure," Gatland told a news conference at Wales' Kitakyushu base.

"We were shocked with it but, as I said, the union are dealing with this and my focus now has to be on the next five days, in terms of preparing the squad for their first game against Georgia.

"I spoke to Stephen Jones the other night about his availability to come in. He was willing to help and do that. The exciting thing about that is he's been in this environment in the past.

"He'll bring his own personality to the squad and have the opportunity to give his own ideas and input.

"For us [we have to] make it as seamless as we possibly can. You have to deal with adversity at times. I must say that the players in the past 24 hours have really stepped up.

"They've been incredibly responsible and resilient and sometimes that brings teams closer together. We've got to draw a line in the sand and really focus on preparing the team for the next five days.

"We got a shock the other day and it took a bit of time for this to sink in."

Dan Biggar could feel the effects of Howley's departure more than most, as he heads into the tournament as Wales' first choice at number 10.

"They [the players] were disappointed," Biggar said. "Especially for people like myself and Jon [centre Jonathan Davies], who have only ever had Rob as coach in the set-up and he has given us every single cap we've had.

"It's a huge disappointment, really, and shock, I suppose, but we are also adults and realise if things like this happen then we have just got to get on with it.

"That's what has been great about this squad over the last year or two. Whatever has come our way – we had a couple of distractions in the last Six Nations and we went on to win our final two games and the Grand Slam – we are strong."

Davies has plenty of experience working alongside Jones for Scarlets and believes he will have a positive impact upon the group.

"As well what he carried over to the coaching side, [what stood out] with Steve was the energy he always had as a player," Davies said. "On the training field he always had that bounce about him.

"He always demands high standards and tactically he wants the boys to play what's in front of them and make sure we make the right decisions.

"There will be a lot of excitement and Steve will give it his best shot, I can guarantee that."

After facing Georgia on September 23, Wales take on Australia, Fiji and Uruguay in Pool D.

Chris Coleman has defended Gareth Bale's reserved nature and revealed the oft-criticised Real Madrid winger can speak perfect Spanish.

Wales star Bale almost left LaLiga for China during a turbulent close season in which Zinedine Zidane attempted to force him out of the Santiago Bernabeu.

The pair's relationship reportedly became fractured as Madrid fans showed increasing coldness towards the four-time Champions League winner, their treatment of him described as a "disgrace" by the player's agent.

Criticism of Bale has tended to centre on his speculated inability to learn Spanish as part of a wider reluctance to integrate into the country's culture.

Coleman, who managed the former Tottenham talisman for over five years at international level, believes such accusations are at least in part unfounded.

"I saw John Toshack saying Gareth hasn't given enough of himself to the public in Madrid," the former Wales boss told The Athletic.

"Well he's never done that. It's not his character. When he comes home he plays golf, stays with his family, in his little circle.

"I just thought it was unfair when people were picking him apart. He should do this, do that. No, be yourself. If he's not happy in his head he won't be right on the pitch.

"I've been with Gareth in Madrid, in a restaurant, and he's speaking perfect Spanish, ordering food, greeting people.

"He was very polite, but it's his own space. He has done all his talking on the pitch. He is the most decorated foreign import from the UK."

Bale was Coleman's key man when Wales exceeded expectations by reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2016.

Coleman stepped down the following November to take up an ill-fated opportunity at Sunderland, with Ryan Giggs named as his replacement.

Performances have not been entirely convincing but the former Fulham manager expects his successor to prove a shrewd appointment.

"I think he'll be good at it," Coleman said. "He is different to me and will do it his own way. Ryan's quiet, but he's super strong mentally."

He added: "Ryan's ego is not big enough where he thinks he's got all the answers, because none of us have. This is his first job, we mustn't forget that. He's going to get better and better."

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.

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.

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