England have earned the right to be considered among the favourites for the Rugby World Cup, according to Lawrence Dallaglio.

Eddie Jones' side, along with top-ranked Ireland, Six Nations Grand Slam champions Wales and Rugby Championship winners South Africa, have been tipped as the most likely sides to challenge holders New Zealand in Japan.

England crashed out of their home World Cup at the first hurdle in 2015 but will aim to make amends this time around.

They start their campaign against Tonga on Sunday, before facing the United States, Argentina and France, with Jones' men having lost just twice – both times against Wales – in 2019.

Dallaglio lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 and sees no reason why England cannot go on to claim rugby's top prize once more.

"They've set the bar high," the former England captain told Omnisport, speaking on behalf of Land Rover, Official Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2019.

"There's always expectation with England in any sport, particularly rugby. We've got a history in rugby of doing well and I think they've earned that right quite frankly.

"I think the progression under Jones has been there right the way from 2015 when he declared he didn't feel we had enough world-class players.

"But I think on that journey over the last four years, you look at the team now and it's packed full of top-class international rugby players who have won Grand Slams, they've won the title a few times and domestic and European honours. So I think we can rightly go into this World Cup in Japan cautiously optimistic.

"They know they are capable of beating any of the sides in the world as they showed in Dublin in the Six Nations, as they showed in the first half against New Zealand and as they've shown in games more recently against Ireland.

"We're contenders, we're challengers and New Zealand are the team to beat. But we've got a chance."

Pressed on what else England need to do to prove their credentials, Dallaglio conceded a World Cup triumph may be required.

"How do you measure success in a side? It's what you win, tangibly," he added.

"This England team have a won a couple of Slams, they've equalled the world record for international victories under Jones, so I think the one thing they need to do is win a World Cup.

"To do that away from home would be some achievement. I'm really excited about their prospects, I'm looking forward to it. It's wide open."

Eddie Jones stressed the importance of England getting their tactics spot on against a "ferocious" Tonga outfit in their Rugby World Cup opener on Sunday.

After a group-stage exit at the last World Cup, England go into their tournament bow in Sapporo expected to be among the top challengers to holders New Zealand this time around.

The 2003 champions won three of their four warm-up matches after coming second in the Six Nations and will contest a competitive Pool C that contains Argentina, France and United States as well as their initial opponents.

"The focus this week has been about getting right for Tonga," head coach Jones said ahead of the match.

"We have had a good seven days in Japan where we have acclimatised really well. Now it is about putting in a game plan against Tonga and it is important to be tactically right. We know they are going to be ferocious and full of pride and passion. 

"They are a side if they get a bit of momentum they can be very dangerous and are well-coached by Toutai Kefu. We will need to be at our best.

"There is a good feeling about the place - I don't think there is anyone who isn't excited about getting out there."

George Ford will start at fly-half for England, with Owen Farrell captain at inside centre. Joe Marler is at loose-head prop with Mako Vunipola out.

Billy Vunipola, though, will line up against Tonga 20 years after his father and uncle represented the Pacific islanders against England in a World Cup contest.

This will be the third meeting between the teams, with the previous two – both at World Cups – having been won by England in convincing fashion with a combined score of 137-30.

England are looking for a seventh straight win in a Rugby World Cup opener and have not lost one since a defeat to New Zealand back in 1991.

The omens do not look great for Tonga, who have won only three of their last 10 World Cup encounters and come into the event with just one win from their last seven Test outings.

Distinguished former Australia international Kefu leads a squad that retains only four of the 23 players who lined up in their last World Cup match against New Zealand in 2015.

One of that quartet is Kurt Morath, the country's all-time leading points scorer with 340 and one of seven English-based players in the team. 

Key front-rower and the heaviest player in World Cup history, Ben Tameifuna, returns to the XV after being rested from a chastening 92-7 loss to the All Blacks two weeks ago.
 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

England – Ben Youngs 

Ben Youngs, 30, will earn his 90th cap and become the first scrum-half to play in three World Cups for England.

His experience will be vital with England naming a XV that is their second-youngest ever at a World cup, including flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill. Youngs scored a try in his last Test outing against Italy this month.

Tonga - Nasi Manu

Nasi Manu has been named among Tonga's replacements and if he takes to the field it will be an emotional moment. The number eight did not play for club Benetton or his country in 2018 and could play his first Test since recovering from cancer, having undergone months of chemotherapy.

"I had tears just then," he said after Tonga's welcome ceremony. "I don't think anybody knows just how much I have been through to get here. Not only the surgery and chemotherapy, but also the physical battle to get myself in good enough shape." 


KEY OPTA FACTS

- England have won only two of their last five games at Rugby World Cups, including a 60-3 triumph over Uruguay in their most recent fixture.

- England have surpassed 40 points scored in a game on three occasions thus far in 2019; the last time they did so more times in a calendar year was in 2003 (7), including two instances in their triumphant 2003 campaign.

- No player has scored more Test tries thus far in 2019 than England flyer Jonny May, whose six tries are level with German Kessler Lordon (Uruguay) and Joe Taufete'e (USA).

- Siale Piutau's next appearance will be his 40th in Test rugby for Tonga, becoming just the fourth Tongan to reach the mark.

- Kurt Morath (73) has scored more points at the Rugby World Cup than any other player for Tonga, including a 28-point haul during the group stage of the 2015 tournament.

Joe Schmidt believes the enthusiasm and confidence of Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale will be "contagious" for Ireland in their opening Rugby World Cup clash with Scotland.

The trio will start in the backs in Yokohama on Sunday, with Ireland having decided against risking experienced duo Keith Earls and Rob Kearney, who have been out with respective calf and thigh injuries.

Kearney's club-mate Robbie Henshaw will also miss out, though the three players are in contention to return against hosts Japan in Ireland's second Pool A match.

Schmidt, who will leave his post in charge of the world's number one side after the tournament, has no doubt Larmour, Conway and Stockdale will repay his faith, however.

"Their enthusiasm is something that's contagious, their ability to get themselves into the game," Schmidt said.

"Andrew has proven that he's got real aerial ability and that will be really useful for us. I still have the vision in my mind clearly of Jordan beating Israel Folau to a ball in the in the third Test in Sydney on our Australian tour so he is very good there as well.

"Jacob, of course, is a big man in the backfield. So, they're all feeding off each other. They're all young men who are very, very keen to impress. The best continuity, we felt, was to have the guys who have trained through the time that we've been here."

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, meanwhile, is buoyed by the experience his side will be able to call on for what is just the second World Cup meeting between the teams.

"I have seen the way they have trained and acted over the last few days," he said. "We have had two of our best ever training sessions, so as a coach, you get excited.

"I also see the experience we have in our squad and that counts for a lot in big games. This will be the first time that this team have all been fit and available. We are missing two or three players but to get a squad that has this experience for such a big game is a real bonus.

"Experience is important. Experience with form - recent form - and really good physical shape makes it even more valuable, and that is what we have with this group this weekend."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ireland – Jacob Stockdale

Having been entrusted to start, World Cup debutant Stockdale will be eager to make his mark.

The 23-year-old gained the most metres – 395 in total – of any player in the 2019 Six Nations, while also beating 23 defenders, more than any other player in the competition.

Scotland – Greig Laidlaw

If Scotland are to claim a positive result, their kicking game will likely be key, making scrum-half Laidlaw their main man for this one.

Laidlaw is on 695 points in total in Tests, with only Chris Paterson ahead of him in the Scottish record books.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Ireland have won six of their last seven games against Scotland, including their last two on the bounce.

- Scotland have opened each of their last four men's Rugby World Cup campaigns with a win, including a 45-10 triumph over this year's hosts Japan in the 2015 edition.

- The only previous World Cup encounter between Ireland and Scotland ended in a 24-15 win for the latter side in October 1991.

- Ireland have won the opening match of their last five men's Rugby World Cup tournaments, having lost their opening game at two of the three editions before this run.

Japan coach Jamie Joseph acknowledged the pressure of hosting the Rugby World Cup led to a nervous performance from his side against Russia.

Tournament hosts Japan won 30-10 in the opening match on Friday, though trailed for much of the first half following Kirill Golosnitskiy's early try.

Kotaro Matsushima stole the show with a hat-trick, however, edging Japan in front prior to the interval having previously reduced the deficit, before rounding off the victory in the second half.

But Brave Blossoms coach Joseph conceded Japan found it hard to cope with the pressure in Tokyo.

"The game showed that the boys were nervous, as we spoke about before the game, there's so much expectation on the guys," said Joseph, who replaced current England coach Eddie Jones as Japan's boss.

"I thought we prepared well for it but it's not until you get out there amongst it and then you realise just how much pressure there is on the guys.

"I'm proud of the way they came through it in the end. We made a lot of unforced errors, our kicking game was pretty poor tonight so we’ll have to fix that up quickly.

"But you’ve got to take your hat off to the Russian guys because they really took it to us and put us under a lot of pressure.

"Tactically we didn't change a lot. We managed to take the sting out of the Russian offence, they looked a little bit tired and we just managed to execute a bit better and took our chances."

Japan captain Michael Leitch echoed Joseph's sentiments, though believes the Brave Blossoms are now well prepared to face the world's number one side Ireland next up in Pool A.

"Straight away they put us under some extreme pressure with their gameplan and physicality, they really tested us," Leitch said.

"There were big nerves, 100 per cent. First game out of the way and we can start looking forward to Ireland.

"I'm happy, we showed great resilience to not go into our shell and keep playing. I think we're in the right spot to take on Ireland."

Kotaro Matsushima scored a superb hat-trick as hosts Japan overcame a brief first-half scare to beat Russia 30-10 in the Rugby World Cup opener.

The home side made a sloppy start and consequently trailed to 20th-ranked Russia and Kirill Golosnitskiy's converted try for much of the opening period in Tokyo.

But Matsushima, having already reduced the arrears, edged Japan in front just before the half-time whistle and set up a far more straightforward second period.

Pieter Labuschagne went alone for a powerful third try and then Matsushima secured a potentially precious bonus point, becoming the first Japanese player to score a World Cup treble.

A long way from the procession that would follow, the nervy Brave Blossoms had been punished inside five minutes as William Tupou completely misjudged Vasily Artemyev's high kick and allowed Golosnitskiy to steal in for the opening try.

But the hosts kept their cool and responded in fine fashion, with Timothy Lafaele and Yutaka Nagare combining stylishly to open up space for Matsushima to dart through on the right.

It looked as though Russia might get to the break with a narrow lead still intact when Matsushima saw a second try struck off, having lost control of the ball as he lunged for the line under a tackle from Artemyev.

However, the Japan finisher made no mistake on the stroke of half-time, being found wide open to sprint in for a vital score.

Yu Tamura dispatched a simple penalty shortly after the restart to stretch Japan's advantage, before a brutal Labuschagne try followed as he ripped the ball from Andrey Ostrikov and streaked clear.

A gutsy Russia display was rewarded with three points from the boot of Yury Kushnarev, but Tamura hit back with a penalty of his own and Matsushima slalomed through to wrap up victory after Artemyev gifted away a tired kick.

 

FIFTH-MINUTE FRIGHT FOR HOSTS

Japan kicked off their 2015 campaign with one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history when they downed South Africa, but it was they who had to fend off an upset this time. The pressure of playing as hosts appeared to get to them as they were penned in early on and, having escaped when one kick was charged down, Tupou's fumble let Russia through.

MATSUSHIMA THE MAN FOR JAPAN

Russia had opportunities on the counter-attack later in the first half, yet they lacked a man as clinical as Matsushima. The Sunwolves star repeatedly got himself into space on the right wing and his pace took him away from recovering opponents for a pair of crucial scores before the interval, adding gloss with a late third.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Having successfully negotiated this potential banana skin, Japan have a week off before returning to their traditional role as underdogs for a highly anticipated clash with Ireland. Russia face Samoa next.

Sergio Parisse will earn a share of Rugby World Cup history on Sunday but insists his focus is on victory for Italy against Namibia.

The Azzurri begin their campaign in Higashiosaka this weekend and, as expected, captain Parisse has been selected by Conor O'Shea to lead the side.

This appearance will make the Italy skipper just the third player to feature at five World Cups, joining compatriot Mauro Bergamasco and Samoa's Brian Lima.

Parisse is also due to collect his 141st cap, meaning he moves level with Brian O'Driscoll as the second most-capped player of all time behind Richie McCaw.

But Parisse is determined to deliver team success rather than worrying about his individual achievements.

"I cannot wait to play on Sunday," he said. "The preparation has been long and intense and we have built up well. We have prepared for this game against Namibia in the best way possible.

"It will be important to find our feet quickly. Playing my fifth World Cup for Italy is a point of pride but, at the moment, I'm not thinking about it. The team is the priority."

Coach O'Shea must also remain focused on the task at hand despite continued confusion over whether he will remain in his role beyond the tournament.

It had been suggested Franco Smith would replace O'Shea, although that was denied, and reports linked Rob Howley with the job before the Wales backs coach was sent home from Japan over an alleged breach of betting regulations.

Discussing the clash with Namibia, O'Shea said: "We have been preparing for this moment for a long time, going through several stages. Now we will finally take to the field.

"We have worked to a good level and now we want to demonstrate our value on the field. Our only goal now is to start the World Cup in the best way and get a good result against Namibia."

Tjiuee Uanivi will captain Namibia, while Eugene Jantjies becomes their first player to appear at four World Cups.


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Italy - Edoardo Padovani

The Azzurri finished the 2019 Six Nations bottom of the pile after seeing their run of consecutive defeats in the competition stretch to 22 matches. However, Padovani at least proved a bright spark, scoring tries against Scotland, Wales and Ireland as Italy threatened the occasional scare.

Namibia - Tjiuee Uanivi

Former Namibia captain Renaldo Bothma confirmed his international retirement ahead of the squad announcement, with Johan Deysel taking on the role. But the new skipper's absence from the opener sees the responsibility on the shoulders of deputy Uanivi increase further.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Italy won the sides' previous meeting 49-24 in 2001, but Namibia had come out on top in their prior two meetings in 1991.

- Not since 1991 against the United States have Italy began a World Cup campaign with a victory, losing their past six openers.

- This will be Namibia's 20th World Cup match and they are still looking for their first win at the tournament.

- Italy's only away Test win in their past 16 such matches came in Japan against the World Cup hosts in June last year.

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."

Gregor Townsend has named Duncan Taylor and Sam Johnson together at centre for Scotland's Rugby World Cup clash with Ireland.

The two sides meet in Yokohama on Sunday, with Ireland heading into the tournament as the top-ranked nation in the world.

Scotland coach Townsend has opted for a centre pairing who have played together only once, while Exeter Chiefs full-back Stuart Hogg features in the back three alongside Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour.

Townsend is anticipating a tough test for his side's opening match, but is excited by the challenge.

"In Ireland we face a quality opposition who, over the past number of years, have earned the right to be the number one ranked side in the world," he said.

"We know them well and are well aware of the strengths they possess throughout their squad. We expect them to play very well, as they did in their most recent games against Wales, so only our best performance will do in order to win.

"The prospect of facing them in the opening round of a Rugby World Cup is a fantastic challenge for our players and supporters around the world."

British and Irish Lions duo Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell return at scrum-half and stand-off respectively, with 10 changes made from the side that defeated Georgia earlier this month.

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. 

Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour will start Ireland's Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday.

Joe Schmidt has given the pair the nod for the Pool A clash, opting not to risk experienced duo Keith Earls and Rob Kearney as they continue to regain fitness following respective calf and thigh problems.

Earlier in the week, defence coach Andy Farrell said wing Earls and full-back Kearney could make the Scotland match but a more cautious approach has prevailed.

Kearney's Leinster team-mate Robbie Henshaw is also an absentee but all three players are in contention for a return against hosts Japan on September 28.

Garry Ringrose is preferred ahead of Chris Farrell to partner Bundee Aki at centre in Henshaw's absence.

Jack Carty of Connacht will deputise for fly-half Johnny Sexton among the replacements as Joey Carbery only resumed training this week following an ankle injury.

Jack Conan is also on the bench, with CJ Stander selected at number eight.

Ireland team to face Scotland: Jordan Larmour; Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Niall Scannell, David Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath, Jack Carty, Chris Farrell.

Owen Farrell will start at inside centre and captain England as George Ford takes the place at fly-half for their Rugby World Cup opener against Tonga.

Farrell and Ford have battled for the number 10 spot for England, but Eddie Jones has opted to start both playmakers in Sapporo on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Ben Youngs is set to make his 90th appearance for his nation in the Pool C clash.

England head coach Jones warned his team they would need to be at their best against Tonga.

"The focus this week has been about getting right for Tonga. We have had a good seven days in Japan where we have acclimatised really well, our sleep patterns are good and the physical conditioning of the players is outstanding. We have been able to add a bit more on our team togetherness and cohesion too," he said on Friday.

"Now it is about putting in a game plan against Tonga and it is important to be tactically right. We know they are going to be ferocious and full of pride and passion.

"They are a side if they get a bit of momentum they can be very dangerous and are well-coached by Toutai Kefu. They have a great World Cup record and we will need to be at our best on Sunday.

"I don't think there is anyone who isn't excited about getting out there on Sunday and there is a good feeling around the place.

"We are delighted to be up here in Sapporo and to play at the stadium will be a unique experience for us and something the team is looking forward to."

England: Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Dan Cole, George Kruis, Lewis Ludlam, Willi Heinz, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph.

Damian Penaud rallied his France team-mates to prove their critics wrong ahead of an intriguing Rugby World Cup opener against Argentina.

Saturday's Pool C showdown in Tokyo is a re-run of the first game of the 2007 World Cup, where the Pumas stunned their hosts with a 17-12 victory.

A repeat would likely be met with a collective shrug rather than a howl of outrage from a French public used to the frustrating inconsistencies of a national side that has only finished above fourth in the Six Nations once since 2011.

"I think that today nobody believes in us and so we'll try to prove everybody wrong," Clermont Auvergne wing Penaud told reporters.

"We're now going to say between us we'll do the job together with a cool head and ignore the rest."

France head coach Jacques Brunel has selected Toulouse duo Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont in the half-back positions.

Gregory Alldritt got the nod at number eight ahead of Louis Picamoles for the first game in what is set to be a fiercely contested pool, given England, Tonga and the United States complete the five.

Ntamack's opposite number at 10 is a familiar face in the form of Stade Francais' Nicolas Sanchez – one of only three players in the Argentina squad to ply his club trade outside of his homeland.

Coach Mario Ledesma chose to lean heavily upon home-based talents, although Saracens' Juan Figallo starts at prop and Castres' Benjamin Urdapilleta is on the bench.

Back-rower Juan Manuel Leguizamon – a veteran of three World Cup campaigns – will have to wait to draw level with Felipe Contepomi's 87-cap record for the Pumas after missing out on Ledesma's 23.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

France – Romain Ntamack

Ntamack only made his full international debut in February and the fly-half will follow in the footsteps of his father Emile, who represented Les Bleus in the 1995 and 1999 World Cups. They will become the first father and son duo to represent France in the tournament.

Argentina – Emiliano Boffelli

Starting at full-back but also a capable performer on the wing, Boffelli's long-range prowess from the tee could certainly come in handy if a tight battle ensues.

Key Opta facts
- France have won their other seven World Cup openers aside from that blemish against Argentina in 2007.
- Argentina won the most lineouts (41), turnovers (24) and made the most offloads (35) of any team in The Rugby Championship 2019.
- Jeronimo De La Fuente of Argentina made the most tackles (34) of any back in the Rugby Championship 2019. His tally was the fourth-most of any player overall.
- France's Yoann Huget averaged the most metres per carry (10.3) of any player to make more than 20 carries in the 2019 Six Nations. Only England’s Jonny May (six) scored more tries than Huget’s four across the campaign.

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. 

Jonny Wilkinson believes England can win the Rugby World Cup but must first focus on negotiating a potentially tricky path to the semi-finals.

England will be expected to advance to the knockout stages from Pool C, where they are alongside France, Argentina, the United States and Tonga.

Australia or Wales will likely then await Eddie Jones' men in the quarter-finals.

Wilkinson, who starred as England won the World Cup in 2003, reckons the current squad are capable of lifting the trophy in Japan, but suggests the difficulty of a last-eight tie cannot be downplayed.

"I think England can definitely go all the way," Wilkinson, speaking on behalf of Land Rover, Official Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2019, told Omnisport.

"I think the issue with the World Cup is, for me, there are three stages: the group stage, the quarter-finals and the end of it. That's how it always broke down for me.

"The group stage is key - you've got to break out of it in good shape - then the quarter final is in that nasty place.

"You know, if you go out at the quarter-finals, it's not good enough. But it's such a big game and you play the big teams.

"The semi-final and final looks after itself. If they get to a semi, they're good enough to ride that wave all the way. I think they'll be so excited about it that they won't let their chance slip."

England did not even get out of their pool on home turf four years ago, finishing behind Australia and Wales, and Wilkinson sees that tournament as an example of how tough the World Cup can be.

"I really do think that the World Cup four years ago was a huge amount of scrutiny going in, because it was a home World Cup and thus lots of expectation," he said.

"It was a tough first game against Fiji, a good team, then a brilliant hour against Wales. Suddenly, things don't go your way, you end up losing momentum and then you're going into a must-win game against Australia, who are in fire.

"So it was never a million miles away and that's unfortunately the ruthlessness of the World Cup."

Wilkinson also highlighted the dangers of France and Argentina this year, with points – rather than performances – the only aim for England in those key group fixtures.

"A lot of teams you put in the favourites category, but these teams float around under the radar and are dangerous," he said. "No-one has done more damage to people's dreams than underdogs France.

"Unfortunately, they're in England's group and so, unfortunately, are Argentina. And France and Argentina have a very particular relationship when it comes to World Cup.

"It will be very interesting to see how that group shapes up, but for England it has to be pretty ruthless. It doesn't matter how you do it, you've just got to make sure you've got the most points."

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