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. 

Melbourne Storm and South Sydney Rabbitohs will each have a second opportunity to reach the NRL's preliminary finals in this week's semi-finals.

The Storm finished the regular season top of the ladder but were upset at home by Canberra Raiders in last week's qualifying finals.

The Rabbitohs likewise came up short as they were beaten by rivals Sydney Roosters, who advanced to the final four.

Melbourne must overcome Parramatta Eels, who enjoyed an outstanding 58-0 win over Brisbane Broncos in the elimination finals.

Manly Sea Eagles, having come past Cronulla Sharks, are next for the Rabbitohs.

We take a look at the key Opta facts behind the two huge fixtures in the NRL Finals this week.


Friday

South Sydney Rabbitohs v Manly Sea Eagles

- The past six NRL matches between the Rabbitohs and the Sea Eagles at ANZ Stadium have seen each team pick up three wins, although the most recent three were all won by South Sydney.

- Manly have conceded 31 penalties in the NRL this season for being offside inside the opposition 10-metre zone, the joint-most of any team (also Newcastle Knights).

- The Rabbitohs' Damien Cook has gained more metres (1,862) scooting out of dummy-half than any other player this term, 320 more than the next best (Cameron Smith – 1,542).


Saturday

Melbourne Storm v Parramatta Eels

- The Storm have won seven of their past nine NRL matches against the Eels (L2), including the most recent three in succession. They have not won more consecutive matches against Parramatta since a four-match span across 2006 and 2007.

- The Eels have made the most offloads (343) of any team in the NRL this year, 125 more than Melbourne (218).

- Storm great Cameron Smith has kicked the most goals (102) of any player in NRL 2019. This has been the first NRL season of his 18-year career in which he has kicked 100 or more goals.

Chelsea and Liverpool never take each other lightly and on Sunday both sides will attempt to put Champions League defeats behind them.

Liverpool's winning start to the season came to an abrupt half in a 2-0 defeat at Napoli, while Chelsea suffered their first home reverse of the season when Valencia won 1-0 at Stamford Bridge.

It is little over a month since Tammy Abraham's penalty miss handed Liverpool a 5-4 penalty shoot-out victory after a 2-2 draw in the UEFA Super Cup in Istanbul, and Frank Lampard will be desperate for revenge now he has settled into his role as head coach.

Lampard is a central figure in the rivalry between Liverpool and Chelsea, having faced the Reds in three Champions League semi-finals and helped the Blues to 15 victories and four draws in the 31 Premier League matches he played against the Anfield club.

But this Liverpool team could eclipse the achievements of any faced by Lampard in his playing career, and the Opta data shows just what Chelsea can expect from Jurgen Klopp's title hopefuls.

 

STAMFORD BRIDGE A HAPPY HUNTING GROUND FOR KLOPP

If Liverpool claim all three points on Sunday, Jurgen Klopp will become the first Liverpool manager to have secured three Premier League victories at Stamford Bridge.

The omens appear to be in his favour, with none of Chelsea's last six managers having won their first league game against Liverpool, Carlo Ancelotti being the last Blues boss to triumph in his first encounter against them in 2009.

Indeed, Chelsea have won just one of their last nine league games against the European champions (D5 L3) and that came in May 2018 when Olivier Giroud scored in a 1-0 home victory.

They entertain a Liverpool side in the midst of the club's longest unbeaten run in the Premier League era (22 games), with Klopp's men having lost once in their last 44 top-flight outings.

But Chelsea at the Bridge are not a side to write off and they will not be daunted by the visit of Klopp's table-topping side: the Blues have beaten the team who topped the Premier League at the start of the day 18 times – three more than any other side.

HEAD TO HEAD: ROBERTO FIRMINO V TAMMY ABRAHAM

Abraham has buried the memory of his night to forget in Istanbul by scoring seven goals in his last three Premier League appearances - including a hat-trick against Wolves last time out - and on Sunday he is gunning for a record held by former Liverpool favourite Luis Suarez.

The only player to score at least twice in four consecutive Premier League appearances was Suarez, who achieved the feat in December 2013, and all eyes will be on Abraham as he aims to extend his streak.

In contrast, Roberto Firmino heads to the capital having scored just two league goals this season, despite playing 400 minutes compared to Abraham's 331.

Firmino has attempted more shots (19) than Abraham (15), and had more touches in the opposition box (36 v 21), but Liverpool have relied on Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane (4 goals each) for firepower.

In terms of creativity, however, Firmino is having a fine season, contributing three assists and creating five big chances, whereas Abraham has yet to register an assist and has carved just one big chance this term.

FORM GUIDE

Liverpool head to West London with a 100 per cent record in the Premier League this season, having brushed Norwich City, Southampton, Arsenal, Burnley and Newcastle United aside with very little fuss.

Chelsea have not had it so easy, suffering a 4-0 drubbing against Manchester United in their season opener before labouring to draws at home against Leicester City and Sheffield United.

But Lampard's men played some of their best football under his management in their 5-2 demolition of Wolves last weekend and a first home league win of the season against Liverpool would be a huge statement from a young Blues team.

Mason Mount sustained an injury against Valencia and is a doubt, but even without his dynamism in attack Chelsea will be confident of finding the net.

Liverpool have kept just one clean sheet in the Premier League this season, in their 3-0 win at Burnley, although they have only conceded four goals – joint lowest in the division alongside Manchester United and Leicester City.

HISTORY SAYS…

Liverpool have visited Stamford Bridge 27 times in the Premier League and only managed one victory in their first 16 of those trips.

But the Reds' last 11 games at Chelsea have been far more fruitful, delivering five victories, three draws and three defeats.

History says there will be goals in this one: Liverpool have scored in all but one of their last 10 league games against Chelsea, while the Blues have failed to score in only one of their last 20 clashes with Liverpool in all competitions.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was scheduled to have surgery on Wednesday after suffering a torn ligament in his right thumb against the Los Angeles Rams last week.

The injury – to his throwing thumb – is a blow to a Super Bowl-hungry team and the veteran's absence could go a long way toward shaping the NFC playoff picture. He is expected back within eight weeks after the Saints opted not to place him on injured reserve.

Before the thumb issue, Brees had missed just one game to injury in his 19-year NFL career. Now, he will miss the next six, at least: against the Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals before the 40-year-old and the team hope he returns against the Atlanta Falcons, after the Saints' Week 9 bye.

Brees' backup — either Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill or a mix of the two after head coach Sean Payton refused to commit early this week — will be faced with a stout first challenge visiting Seattle and things will not get easier when the Saints return home to host the star-powered Cowboys.

New Orleans should survive the next two weeks against Tampa Bay and Jacksonville before maybe even leaving Chicago with a win if Mitchell Trubisky is limited. The Cardinals could also be beaten as they continue to get comfortable with first-year duo Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury.

But even when Brees does return, there is no guarantee the 12-time Pro Bowler will return to his record-breaking form which made a case for MVP last season before he was outshined by Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes. And, while he is building his strength back after his procedure, teams around the league will be getting stronger, as well.

The Saints are not the only NFC South team struggling, as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is also dealing with an injury and Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston is still establishing himself. So, the Falcons will certainly look to take advantage with the hope of creating another space ahead of New Orleans that the Saints will not be able to catch them down the road when Brees is back.

Compared to the Brees-less Saints, it could be argued that other NFC contenders like Los Angeles and Dallas have lighter schedules during that period. The Green Bay Packers, on the other hand, have some tough opponents and no bye until Week 11.

Rams: Browns, Buccaneers, Seahawks, 49ers, Falcons, Bengals, Bye
Cowboys: Dolphins, Saints, Packers, Jets, Eagles, Bye, Giants
Packers: Broncos, Eagles, Cowboys, Lions, Raiders, Chiefs, Chargers

The Rams have the most to gain from the Saints' loss, while the Cowboys have a shot at a top-two seed. Then there are the San Francisco 49ers, who could potentially secure an NFC wild-card spot under Jimmy Garoppolo if Brees cannot quite bounce back.

The Saints could struggle with Bridgewater at quarterback given he was reliable yet unimpressive Sunday as he substituted for Brees, finishing 17 of 30 for 165 yards with no touchdowns. Then again, it was just his seventh time seeing action in a game in the last three seasons, so there are still some kinks to work out.

After all, it is hard to forget the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII with Nick Foles filling in for injured starter Carson Wentz.

Shortly after breakfast on September 19, 2015, a fresh summer-into-autumn Saturday in Brighton, the national rugby union team of Japan forsook the comfort of their Victorian seafront hotel for a gentle warm-up on the promenade.

Running through line-out drills on a basketball court was one way of focusing minds on the gargantuan task facing the team later that day, while stealthily introducing a little levity.

The sights, the smells, the sounds of the coast: ideal for untangling any ravelled minds. Staring out to sea, to their right stood Brighton's weather and fire-ravaged West Pier, evocatively skeletal; to their left, the iconic, bustling Palace Pier. Breathe in the sea air, feed all the senses, climb highest to grab a ball or two. The purpose was to be uplifted, in more than one sense. Japan were getting ready to put on their game face.

Handfuls of passers-by observed the group, decked out in red, black and white training garb, and a handful of those handfuls twigged the purpose of this limbering up.

From mid-morning beachside curiosities to global headline-makers by tea time, this is the story of the greatest upset in the history of the Rugby World Cup.

High hopes for Springboks

South Africa arrived at Heathrow on flights SA234 and SA236 on September 12, decked out in green and gold blazers, targeting a record-equalling third World Cup triumph. Their form had been shaky, with close losses to Australia and New Zealand followed by a head-scratching defeat to Argentina that saw them finish bottom of the Rugby Championship. Critics at home had their say, but the prevailing wisdom was that the Springboks would get it right when it mattered most. Only hosts England and the All Blacks were ahead of Heyneke Meyer's troops in the betting. Arriving by bus at their base in Eastbourne, they were received as heroes by locals and travelling Boks fans. A problem with seagull faeces at their training facility had been resolved, apparently, thanks to a groundsman and a hired-help hawk. All was well.

Eddie's swan song?

Japan were crudely characterised as rugby no-hopers in some quarters, but they had been in England for almost a fortnight by the time the Boks touched down, and reputedly together for around 120 days in camp before then. Eddie Jones, their former Australia coach, was not taking the job lightly. After all, he intended it to be his final hurrah to the international game. In the months leading up to the big day in Brighton, Japan had beaten Georgia, Canada and Uruguay, yet they had lost to Tonga, Fiji and the United States. They also struck a blow against South Africa six years earlier, when the International Rugby Board chose them above the 1995 and 2007 World Cup winners to stage the 2019 tournament. Japan were quietly confident of causing a shock or two during their stay in England, not that anybody outside their camp expected it to come on day two of the tournament.

The scene

The Falmer Stadium had hosted Brighton and Hove Albion football matches for four years, and the pristine new-build was controversially selected ahead of traditional rugby grounds such as Leicester's Welford Road to stage World Cup games. If there was a certain unfamiliarity, South Africa and Japan were in the same boat and the Springboks kicked off as 1/500 favourites to win the match. Moments before referee Jerome Garces' first whistle, those same line-out routines practised on the seafront were being repeated by the Brave Blossoms. Japanese fans had arrived from across the globe, but so too thousands in green and gold. Among their huge number was Ron Rutland, a former banker who had cycled from Cape Town, across Africa and Europe, to back the Boks.

What happened next will forever take some explaining. The Cape Times' correspondent Mike Greenaway, in his match preview, had invited Meyer's men to deliver an "emphatic opening statement", reasoning that "a good 50-point hiding will best announce that the Boks mean business". One UK news organisation, anticipating a routine South Africa win, despatched a reporter who had never covered a rugby game before.

The match

How the contest to-and-froed, South Africa four tries to two ahead but only tied at 29-29 with 10 minutes to play after dishing up a slew of penalties. Ayumu Goromaru feasted on their shambolic charity, his 24-point haul including a try, and even when Handre Pollard booted a penalty in the 73rd minute to nudge the Springboks in front, there remained a sense that history was in the offing.

Japan, pushing for the line and a man to the good after Coenie Oosthuizen's sin-binning, drove for glory with a minute left but could not ground the ball, the television match official making the call for an unsighted Garces. Chance gone? Not quite yet, not for these men with local sea air still lining their lungs. Japan almost scored in the right corner when captain Michael Leitch was blocked off just short. Those few dozen promenade gawkers had been replaced by 30,000 rapt rugby fans at close quarters, millions watching from home.

Then: Japan's finest rugby moment. Yu Tamura collected the ball from the ruck, and suddenly it was game on, a race to the opposite corner. Three perfect passes was all it called for, a relay with the rugby ball as its baton. It switched first from the hands of Tamura to Harumichi Tatekawa, and as the crowd roared Tatekawa fed Amanaki Mafi. One more successful pass and Japan would be home. Mafi offloaded and it was all down to Karne Hesketh, a New Zealander by birth, who had only come off the bench in the 79th minute. The former Otago wing gathered cleanly and charged for the line, defying JP Pietersen's desperate last-ditch tackle to dot down by the left flag pole.

The scoreboard showed Japan led 34-32, with time up.

Cue bedlam. Cue tears. Cue disbelief.

'Rugby at its finest'

"It's quite unbelievable," said Jones. "We always thought we could compete well today but to actually beat South Africa is a fantastic achievement for the team. If you're a young kid at home in Japan watching rugby now you'd want to play rugby at the next World Cup, so it's a fantastic thing for Japanese rugby."

Rutland, who would have been forgiven for being the most disappointed man on two wheels, tweeted it had been "a privilege to have witnessed such history on the pitch, and such amazing scenes between Bok and Japanese fans off it; rugby at its finest".

Joost van der Westhuizen and Chester Williams, both World Cup winners with the Boks, were among the disbelieving South Africans in Brighton. Four years later, neither man is still with us as another World Cup dawns, Van der Westhuizen succumbing to motor neurone disease in 2017 and Williams dying just two weeks ago.

Party time

Back at the Hilton Brighton Metropole on Japan's big night, a red carpet was rolled out to welcome back the heroes of the hour. Team liaison officer Jackie Takahashi later said "lots and lots of drinks" were consumed that evening at the hotel bar. One local reported 200 pints of beer being ordered by the team in a fell swoop. It was a night for such stories, and it hardly mattered whether any were embellished. The next morning, any hangovers were washed away by a squad dip in the sea.

No way Bok?

South Africa were at the lowest of low ebbs yet somehow they pulled themselves together to top Pool B before beating Wales 23-19 in the quarter-finals and losing only 20-18 to New Zealand in the semi-finals. Neither match lives so vividly in the memory as their horror show in Brighton, though. Japan lost their second pool match to Scotland but then saw off Samoa and the USA, cruelly missing out on a quarter-final place by two bonus points.

Pain plus time equals comedy?

This age-old theory does not yet apply to the Springboks, who continue to feel the wounds inflicted on England's south coast.

Bryan Habana, who played on the wing in that losing side, told Omnisport on the eve of the 2019 World Cup: "That day back in 2015 in Brighton, obviously from a South African perspective it was probably one of the darkest days in our history.

"Taking nothing away from Japan, but I think the manner in which we let ourselves down, our team-mates down, the jersey down and the country down was pretty disappointing. And mentally a massive challenge to get over."

He added: "Japan were incredibly well orchestrated through Eddie Jones and sort of got one over us by the mere fact that they were the better side on the day. They used their opportunities better and we were just poor in different facets of the game, which was not ideal, and not a memory I like to open up quite often about."

Japan's against-all-odds triumph may still be a hard-watch for South Africans but it inevitably became a film, with 'The Brighton Miracle' released this month: just don't expect to see it playing in too many Johannesburg or Cape Town movie theatres.

Shift in expectation

Japan were widely unfancied four years ago, but there has been an inevitable raising of the bar in expectation levels as they prepare to host this year's World Cup, even if the inspirational Jones is leading England these days. The Brave Blossoms won the recent Pacific Nations Cup after beating Fiji, Tonga and the USA, but a 41-7 seeing-to by South Africa - of all teams - on September 6 was a reminder they remain a second-tier outfit in global terms.

Reaching the quarter-finals this time is an obvious target, but head coach Jamie Joseph will probably need his team to beat Scotland or Ireland to do so.

Goromaru, who retired after his heroics in England, told World Rugby in September: "After the last Rugby World Cup the number of people interested in rugby in Japan increased dramatically. Before I left for the Rugby World Cup, no one had paid attention to rugby. Hosting Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan for me, not as a player but as a fan of Japanese rugby ... it will be amazing."

He will always have Brighton, and the famous afternoon that gave Japan a taste for success on the global stage. The current crop long to experience such euphoria, this time in front of a home crowd.

Eight of the 23 players from the Brave Blossoms squad that took down the Boks, including captain Leitch, were due to be involved against Russia in Japan's tournament-opening game this time.

"Everyone understands how important this event is going to be, but none more than our staff and the players themselves," said coach Joseph. "We want to make everyone proud and we will be doing our best to make sure that happens."

Charles Leclerc is aiming for a third straight Formula One victory at the Singapore Grand Prix after leading Ferrari to glory in Belgium and Italy.

Lewis Hamilton will want to reassert his dominance at the top of the drivers' standings and the slow corners of the Marina Bay Street Circuit could play back into Mercedes hands after Leclerc made hay in the high-octane surroundings of Spa and Monza.

Pole position in Singapore can be both crucial and hard to come by, as our key raceweek numbers from Opta illustrate.

So, will the season revert to type or can Leclerc and Ferrari seal the team's hottest run of form for more than a decade?


23 – Marina Bay has more corners than any other circuit on the F1 calendar.

0 – No driver has been able to claim back-to-back poles in the 11 editions of the race. This could be a bad omen for Hamilton, who sat at the front of the grid in 2018.

8 – Eight of the 11 Singapore Grands Prix have been won by the driver on pole (73 per cent).

2008 – You have to go back 11 years for the last time Ferrari won three races in a row.

3 – Mercedes are a Grand Prix away from equalling their longest run without a victory in the hybrid era. Post-2014, they have only gone winless three times in row over the opening races of last season.

22 – The combined points haul returned by Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg finishing fourth and fifth respectively at Monza gave Renault the most from a single race in their history.

19 – Ayrton Senna holds the record for Grand Prix wins having led from start to finish. Hamilton is currently on 18.

27 – Team-mate Leclerc might have been making the headlines recently but Sebastian Vettel has won more races in Asia than any other F1 driver. Hamilton is on 24.

7 – Leclerc has bested Vettel in each of the past seven Saturday qualifying sessions and collected four poles this season. Only Niki Lauda (nine in 1974) and Juan Manuel Fangio (six in 1956) have taken more poles in their maiden Ferrari campaigns.

One of the more interesting subplots of any Premier League season is the race for the Golden Boot.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were joint recipients of the title last season after all finishing on 22 goals.

That figure could be comfortably exceeded this time around, with a number of familiar names – such as Aubameyang, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling – starting the campaign in prolific form.

They are joined at the top of the scoring charts by two players who excelled in the Championship last season: Tammy Abraham and Teemu Pukki.

Using Opta data, we take a closer look at the records of those five in the opening five games of the season and compare their stats from the same period in the 2018-19 campaign.  

 

SERGIO AGUERO (MANCHESTER CITY) - SEVEN GOALS

Aguero has started the season in blistering form and sits atop the scoring charts with Abraham on seven goals.

It is a marked improvement on his tally of three at the same stage last season; a period in which he played an additional 32 minutes.

It is little surprise that Aguero is finding the net regularly, given his superb record since joining City in 2011, but it is his ruthless efficiency this season that has caught the eye. The Argentina international's seven goals have come from just eight shots on target.

Aguero has been far from selfish so far this term, however, carving out seven chances for his team-mates; one of which has been dispatched.

TAMMY ABRAHAM (CHELSEA) - SEVEN GOALS

Chelsea's transfer ban might well have forced Frank Lampard to use Abraham more than he had planned, but the 21-year-old has well and truly taken his chance.

His electric beginning to the campaign is in contrast to a comparatively sluggish start to life on loan with Aston Villa in the Championship last season where he scored just twice in the club's opening five games.

He has played 80 minutes fewer in the top flight so far this season but has scored seven goals from just eight shots on target.

His hat-trick against Wolves at the weekend made him the third player in Premier League history to score two or more goals in three consecutive appearances aged 21 or younger.

TEEMU PUKKI (NORWICH CITY) - SIX GOALS

The Finland international has been one of the surprise packages of the season, plundering six goals for the newly promoted Canaries.

He scored a whopping 29 goals to help his side win promotion last season but started slowly, scoring just two goals in his first five appearances.

There has been no such slumber at the start of this campaign, however.

He took just three shots in his opening five games last season, but Daniel Farke's aggressive approach to life in the top flight has clearly benefited Pukki, who has already attempted 12 shots.

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG (ARSENAL) - FIVE GOALS

It is hardly a surprise that the Gunners striker is among the deadliest strikers so far this season.

Since his Premier League debut in February 2018, only Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (53) has been directly involved in more goals in the competition (37 goals and nine assists).

The bad news for defences across the country is that he might be getting even more prolific.

He scored just once in his opening five games last season, but his brace against Watford on Sunday means he already has five to his name this campaign. Given that start, it will not be a surprise to see him comfortably surpass last season's tally of 22 goals.

RAHEEM STERLING (MANCHESTER CITY) - FIVE GOALS

Sterling set his stall out this season with a hat-trick in City's resounding opening day victory over West Ham.

It marked the continuation of a stunning few seasons for the former Liverpool man, who is now firmly considered to be one of the Premier League's deadliest finishers.

With 49 touches in the opposition box already this season – 18 more than his nearest rival in the top five – it is hardly surprising that he has five goals to his name; two more than he had in the same period last term.

He has also been a consummate team player, laying on eight chances for his team-mates.

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.

Erling Haaland made a stunning start to his Champions League career on Tuesday, becoming the eighth player to net a hat-trick on their debut in Europe's elite competition.

The 19-year-old netted all three of his goals in the first half as Salzburg crushed Genk 6-2, with Haaland the third youngest player to score a treble in the Champions League.

His first goal arrived in just the second minute, as he found the bottom-right corner in confident fashion from just inside the area, Haaland then doubled the tally just past the half-hour mark when finishing off a counter.

He completed the hat-trick – remarkably his fourth of the season across all competitions – just before the interval, tucking in from close range.

As impressive as his debut Champions League hat-trick was, he was not the first to accomplish the feat. Below, we look at those who came before.

Yacine Brahimi (Porto) v BATE – September 2014

Tricky winger Brahimi made an explosive entrance to Champions League football five years ago. He punished a goalkeeper error to open his account from a tight angle, before then adding a glorious solo effort and a pinpoint free-kick.

Grafite (Wolfsburg) v CSKA Moscow – September 2009

Brazilian striker Grafite pencilled himself into the history books in 2009 with a treble against CSKA Moscow. The powerful forward finished off a counter for his first, then converting a penalty. He rounded things off late on in the 3-1 win by converting a Marcel Schaefer cross.

Vincenzo Iaquinta (Udinese) v Panathinaikos – September 2005

Udinese made an emphatic start to their first Champions League campaign in 2005, dispatching Panathinaikos 3-0. Iaquinta was vital to that, opening the scoring with a header after wasting a couple of earlier chances. He made it 2-0 in the second half when racing on to Antonio Di Natale's pass and finishing, wrapping up the win with a fierce drive.

Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) v Fenerbahce – September 2004

After joining United for a reported £24million on the back of an impressive Euro 2004, Rooney truly announced himself with a marvellous treble against Fenerbahce on his Old Trafford debut. The striker got his first 17 minutes in, emphatically converting after a Ruud van Nistelrooy pass. A fine long-range effort into the bottom-left corner followed and he then blasted home a free-kick.

Yakubu (Maccabi Haifa) v Olympiakos – September 2002

Only 19 at the time, Yakubu ran Olympiakos ragged in 2002. Having missed a 5-2 defeat to Man United through suspension, Yakubu made up for lost time on matchday two, opening the scoring with a penalty. He doubled the lead against the run of play with a smart finish after holding off a defender and later added the third after getting in behind the visitors' defence.

Tino Asprilla (Newcastle United) v Barcelona– September 1997

A vibrant, colourful character, Colombian forward Asprilla produced a performance to match against Barcelona in a 3-2 win. He opened his account with a penalty, before twice nodding in towering headers from right-wing crosses, securing a famous result for the Magpies.

Marco van Basten (AC Milan) v Goteborg – November 1992

Synonymous with the spectacular, Van Basten's first goal in the revamped Champions League – having been the European Cup before the 1992-93 season – was a lovely one, finding the top-left corner despite being off-balance. A penalty followed and then came an outrageous overhead kick from the edge of the box. The Dutchman got a fourth by rounding the goalkeeper, sealing an easy win.

It is not a great week for some of the NFL's best and most durable quarterbacks.

In Week 3, the league looks set to be without Drew Brees (thumb), Ben Roethlisberger (elbow), Cam Newton (foot) and Eli Manning (benched). Here are their current prognoses:

- The New Orelans Saints' Brees will have surgery on a torn ligament on his right (throwing) thumb and is potentially out for six weeks.

- Roethlisberger is out for the season for the Pittsburgh Steelers and is set for surgery on his right (throwing) elbow.

- Newton aggravated the mid-foot sprain he suffered in the preseason and there is no timetable for his return for the Carolina Panthers.

- Manning was benched in favour of rookie Daniel Jones after the New York Giants' 0-2 start.

And this comes just one week after Nick Foles (shoulder) was sidelined for about 10 weeks and Sam Darnold (mono) was ruled out for an undetermined period. Not to mention the fact Andrew Luck retired before Week 1.

But this truly is the week that people will remember as one sure-fire Hall of Famer (Brees) and two probable Hall of Famers (Roethlisberger and Manning) were lost to injury or flagging performance.

So just what are we losing in these players? We take a look at some of their career numbers:

- Brees, Roethlisberger, Newton and Manning have combined to throw 1,429 touchdown passes.

- They have won a combined 484 games.

- They have been selected to 25 Pro Bowls.

- The four have been in seven Super Bowls and won five.

- They have made two first-team All-Pro teams.

- One has been an MVP (Newton) and two were Super Bowl MVPs (Brees and Manning).

- Since becoming full-time starters they have missed a combined 39 games out of 842, roughly one out of every 21 played.

- If their injuries and benchings are accurate, they will miss 35 games this season alone and possibly more.

The NFL certainly took a blow this week, but their careers are not over. Roethlisberger, Brees and Newton have football left in them, while Manning could easily stay on as a backup for the Giants and a mentor for Jones.

It finally happened: Eli Manning has been benched by the New York Giants.

It has been on the horizon for several years. It almost happened in 2017 when then-coach Ben McAdoo dropped Manning in favour of Geno Smith, but McAdoo was fired soon after and the veteran reprised his role.

Now it is rookie Daniel Jones' turn, and the writing had been on the wall.

Jones was drafted to be the Giants' quarterback of the future, he was great in the preseason and Manning was sub-standard as New York started 0-2.

But no matter what you think of Manning, he goes down as one of only 12 quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls. That is where the conversation about his career must begin.

Two Super Bowls

Manning did not just win two Super Bowls, he was a two-time Super Bowl MVP, and in those games he made iconic throws and posted good numbers. He went 49-for-74 passing for 551 yards with three touchdowns and one interception and beat Tom Brady twice.

But while those are incredible accomplishments to hang his hat on, his run to those Super Bowls cannot be forgotten either. The Giants had to win four games in both postseasons and Manning threw 15 touchdown passes to just two interceptions while going 8-0.

It is unlikely the Giants would have won either of those championships without him. That truly defines his career.

A .500 record

However, a less impressive factor that cannot be overlooked is his winning percentage as a starter in the regular-season. Manning has made 232 starts in his career and has a 116-116 record.

Championships are the true measure of a quarterback, but a team does not expect a .500 record when it pays $252million to a player over their career.

Top 10 in two all-time passing rankings

Manning has made only four Pro Bowls in his 15-year career and has never won a regular-season MVP award, but his stats are impressive.

Manning has seven 4,000-yard passing seasons, three years with 30 touchdown passes and is seventh all-time in passing yards and eighth in passing touchdowns. Add that to two Super Bowls and that is certainly a Hall of Fame resume.

However, a look at the entire picture muddies his legacy. Manning also had three 20-interception seasons and is currently 14th all-time with 241 career picks.

Manning is undoubtedly a talented and successful quarterback but with a career full of average performances and a 38-59 record over his past seven seasons, it is unsurprising the Giants are looking to move on.

Lionel Messi has his sights on a record set by Real Madrid great Raul when Barcelona face Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, as the Champions League proper gets started for the 2019-20 season.

Barca's talisman is back in their squad for the trip to Germany after missing the start of the campaign with a calf injury and, while he is unlikely to start, few would bet against him having a decisive impact if he does make an appearance.

Reigning champions Liverpool begin their title defence at Napoli in what will surely prove to be a tricky test, although Sadio Mane will be aiming to equal a record set by Didier Drogba.

There will also be Champions League bows in the dugout for Frank Lampard and Sylvinho.

Below, we examine the key data for Tuesday's encounters...

Salzburg v Genk

0 - Salzburg have not lost any of their last 18 home matches in European competition (W14 D4 – including qualifiers), with their most recent defeat at home coming in October 2016 against Nice in the Europa League.

1 - Genk forward Mbwana Samatta scored nine goals in 12 appearances in European competition last season and he also finished with 23 goals in the Belgian top flight in 2018-19. Should he play in this match, he will be the first Tanzanian player to make an appearance in the Champions League.

 

Napoli v Liverpool

5 - Napoli have won just one of their past six European meetings with English clubs, losing the other five in this run and failing to score in the most recent three. That one victory was against Liverpool last season, though.

15 - Liverpool forward Sadio Mane has scored 14 goals in 24 Champions League appearances. Should he score in his next outing, he will equal Didier Drogba's record of needing just 25 appearances to score his first 15 goals in the competition, a record for any African player.

 

Inter v Slavia Prague

20 - Inter will be making their 20th appearance in the Champions League/European Cup – only Juventus (34) and AC Milan (28) have had more among Italian sides (including 2019-20).

24 - Inter forward Alexis Sanchez has been involved in 24 goals (12 goals, 12 assists) in his 52 Champions League appearances, but none of these involvements came in six games in the competition for Manchester United, the club he left on loan last month.

 

Borussia Dortmund v Barcelona

33 - Lionel Messi has scored against 32 of the 37 different opponents he has faced in the Champions League. Should he score against Dortmund, the Barcelona star will equal the competition's record for different teams scored against, set by Raul (33 clubs).

2 - Borussia Dortmund have won just two of their past eight Champions League home matches (D2 L4), losing their most recent match 1-0 against Tottenham in the last 16 in 2018-19.

 

Lyon v Zenit

1 - Lyon boss Sylvinho will manage in the Champions League for the first time, also becoming the first non-Frenchman to take charge of the club in Europe's elite competition. The Brazilian made 32 Champions League appearances as a player for Barcelona, Celta Vigo and Arsenal, scoring three goals.

58 - Zenit captain Branislav Ivanovic could make his first Champions League appearance since March 2016 (for Chelsea) in this match. He has made 58 appearances in the competition; only Dejan Stankovic (87) and Predrag Djordjevic (62) have made more among Serbian players.

 

Benfica v RB Leipzig

10 - Benfica are Portugal's sole representative in the 2019-20 Champions League, making it the first time in a decade that there is only one Portuguese club in the competition.

3 - Timo Werner scored three goals from just seven shots on target in the Champions League back in 2017-18, more than any other RB Leipzig player. He went on to net seven times in European competition that term, the highest total by an RB Leipzig player in a single season.

 

Ajax v Lille

6 - Ajax won six games in the 2018-19 Champions League, as many as they did in their previous four participations in the competition.

11 - Including qualifiers, Lille have not won any of their past 11 European matches in all competitions (D6 L5) and scored only five goals in these games.

 

Chelsea v Valencia

102 - Frank Lampard will take charge of a Champions League game for the first time in his managerial career. As a Chelsea player, he made 102 appearances in the competition and is one of only 22 players to have played 100 games or more in the tournament with the same club.

2 - Valencia have reached the Champions League in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2012-13 (three in a row), which was also the last time they made it to the knockout stages of the competition, before being beaten by Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16.

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.

So, what did exactly did the 2019 Ashes series tell us? Steve Smith can definitely bat, Jofra Archer is seriously quick and no cause is ever seemingly lost when Ben Stokes is still at the crease.

Delving a little deeper, the five Tests made clear the obvious flaws in both teams, but also demonstrated their strengths. Now, though, they can draw breath, recharge their batteries and start thinking about the future.

Australia, who retained the Ashes courtesy of a 2-2 series draw, return to the Test arena against Pakistan in late November and with spots up for grabs, all eyes will be on the start of the Sheffield Shield season. England, meanwhile, have tours to New Zealand and South Africa to look forward to before the year is out.

Having examined the state of both squads at different stages during the year, we now offer one final assessment while also looking ahead to the future.

 

BATTING

Not even retaining the urn has been enough to silence the questions that were already there before the Ashes about Australia's batting.

Smith's heroics were enough on this occasion, but coach Justin Langer has work to do going forward.

David Warner, who should be Australia's second-best batsman, became Stuart Broad's bunny, making just 95 runs at an average of 9.50 during the series and falling to the England paceman seven times.

Between Warner, Cameron Bancroft and Marcus Harris, Australia's opening stands during the Ashes were an average of 8.50 runs, immediately putting themselves under early pressure.

Marnus Labuschagne was a revelation after getting his chance, scoring 353 runs at an average of 50.42 to cement his place in Australia's top-order. But, going forward, places are up for grabs.

Matthew Wade combined two centuries with eight scores of 34 or less, while Travis Head (who averaged 27.28) and Usman Khawaja (20.33) were both dropped during the series.

Harris and Wade top-scored in the Shield last season, but the likes of Kurtis Patterson, 26, Will Pucovski, 21, and Jake Lehmann, 27, should all be sensing an opportunity.

Given the others have failed to take their chances, albeit in tough conditions, perhaps the time has come to build around Smith and Labuschagne while preparing for the future.

Like their opponents, England have gaps to fill in the top six.

Rory Burns (390 runs at 39) had success at the top of the order, but the gamble on Jason Roy failed to pay off. Joe Denly may have received a stay of execution with his 94 at The Oval, but it is hard to see how a 33-year-old who has spent recent domestic seasons further down the batting list is the long-term answer.

Joe Root had made clear in the past that three is not his favoured role, so it will be interesting to see if Trevor Bayliss' replacement is happy to drop him one position lower.

The team's success in the longest format has often come courtesy of rearguard actions in difficult situations, but the time has come to start batting big.

Stokes (441 runs at 55.12) showed the way with two second-innings hundreds, but Jonny Bairstow has reached 50 only once in his last 14 Test innings and Jos Buttler is in the strange position of being picked as a frontline batsman that comes in at seven.

A busy winter schedule offers an opportunity to blood some fresh faces. Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley are the two openers regularly talked about as possible candidates to have a go alongside Burns. 

Ollie Pope is waiting for another crack at international cricket, while Ben Foakes could return behind the stumps for the struggling Bairstow, who should perhaps consider giving up the gloves to focus completely on his batting. 


BOWLING

Unlike their batting, Australia's bowling is far more settled and with good reason.

Pat Cummins won the Allan Border Medal in February and the paceman showed he can lead his nation for years to come. The 26-year-old played all five Tests – a fine feat for a player with his injury history – and was comfortably the leading wicket-taker in the Ashes with 29.

Cummins took his 29 wickets at an average of 19.62 and economy rate of 2.69.

Such is the depth and talent in Australia's attack, Mitchell Starc played just one Test, selectors perhaps looking elsewhere to capitalise on the English conditions.

Josh Hazlewood has long been expected to be the man in such situations and he grabbed 20 wickets at 21.85 in four Tests.

Peter Siddle and James Pattinson played three and two Tests respectively and while their spots are far from certain, the ability of the attack to deliver as a unit would have pleased Langer.

They were helped by Nathan Lyon, who bowled more overs than anyone else on his way to 20 wickets at 33.40.

Siddle (34) is the oldest of the group, but Cummins, Hazlewood (28), Starc (29) and Pattinson (29) look to have several years ahead of them in an excellent sign for Australia. Even Mitchell Marsh took his chance with the ball in the fifth Test, grabbing seven wickets, although the all-rounder is often criticised for his performances.

The bowling was expected to be Australia's strength during the series and it proved just that, with few signs of it being an area of concern going forward.

Similarly, for England, there are reasons to be cheerful over the attack. Broad benefited from the chance to hone his skills in county cricket prior to the Ashes - and went on to torture Warner and the rest of the left-handers.

While his regular new-ball partner prospered, James Anderson endured a wretched campaign. Forced off after four overs of the opening Test with a calf injury, the Lancastrian failed to reappear in the rest of the series. He remains committed to playing at the highest level again, but England should not need to rush their leading wicket-taker back.

That is mainly because of the emergence of the blistering Archer. He claimed 22 wickets in four Tests, knocked down the seemingly immovable Smith at Lord's and provided an added dimension to an attack otherwise lacking variety.

Sam Curran's patience was finally rewarded with an outing in the fifth Test, where he again demonstrated his knack of making things happen, but Chris Woakes flattered to deceive, both with bat and ball.

Craig Overton's selection at Old Trafford was an unexpected call and maybe brother Jamie, as well as another Somerset bowler in Lewis Gregory, may get a go ahead of him in future.

As for the spin department, Jack Leach became a cult hero among fans and an easy fancy dress costume for a day at the Test.

The captain-coach axis must also work out what they see as the future role for Moeen Ali, a player far too talented to be left languishing outside of the national set-up.


CURRENT OUTLOOK

Smith's form tilted the balance enough in Australia's favour to secure a 2-2 result, but now it will be fascinating to see how both nations develop as they go their separate ways.

For England, the preparations for the tour Down Under in 2021-22 should begin immediately, or else they may be waiting a little longer to get the urn back.

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