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."

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen claims rival boss Rassie Erasmus was wrong to question standards of Test refereeing ahead of South Africa's Rugby World Cup opener.

The All Blacks face the Springboks in the first match of their title defence, yet the build-up to a mammoth clash between the world champions and Rugby Championship winners has been overshadowed by Erasmus' criticism of the officiating.

The South Africa boss claimed it is a "well-known fact" that New Zealand have in the past received preferential treatment from referees.

Hansen feels Erasmus has blatantly attempted to put pressure on Jerome Garces, Saturday's man in the middle, and suggested both teams would benefit from letting the referee get on with his job.

"It's pretty obvious what they're trying to do and, while I've got a lot of respect for South Africa and particularly Rassie, I think he's a great coach, I don't agree with what he's doing," Hansen told reporters.

"He's trying to put pressure on referees externally and they're under enough pressure already. They don't need us coaches doing what he's doing.

"It doesn't matter who your ref is. As a coach or a team, you can always find things after the game that they didn't do and you can get emotional about that and think that they're picking on you and not on the opposition. We've done it ourselves.

"At the end of the day, they try to do the best they can do. Yes, they don't always get it right all the time and we've suffered from that just like other teams have.

"It's a big game, we just need to let the ref get on with it and prepare for it himself."

He added of the officials' ability to cope with the pressure: "They're not stupid people, so you'd hope [they can deal with it]."

Garces has run the rule over five previous Tests between New Zealand and South Africa - each of them All Blacks wins - sending off Springboks centre Damian de Allende in 2017.

However, the French referee also dismissed Scott Barrett for the All Blacks against Australia last month.

Barrett said ahead of meeting Garces again: "There's obviously a fine line and I've learned from that and am keen to move on.

"The laws are there for a reason, to protect players and player welfare, and I've been working hard and keen to address that. We've had the briefing and we're well aware how they'll be reffing high shots and foul play."

Michael Cheika insists he is not feeling any great pressure heading into the Rugby World Cup as Australia prepare for their opener against Fiji.

The Wallabies reached the 2015 final before losing to New Zealand, but results have not been as impressive as Cheika might have hoped in the intervening four years.

However, hopes were renewed when Australia defeated the All Blacks 47-26 in the Rugby Championship in Perth last month.

New Zealand won a return fixture the following week to retain the Bledisloe Cup, yet it is clear Cheika and the Wallabies have drawn encouragement from their impressive initial victory.

Cheika has named 14 of the players that started that match in his XV to tackle Fiji on Saturday, with only experienced star David Pocock introduced in place of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

And the Australia head coach, who would surely see his job come under threat with poor performances in Japan, is feeling relaxed.

"You should know me well enough now - there is not much pressure," Cheika told reporters in Sapporo. "I love what I do.

"I am prepared to take responsibility and accountability and always have been for everything I do.

"I'm not being judged by anyone as markers [of performance] except myself and you know that I am coming here to win with our team."

Fiji have not beaten Australia since 1954 but have shifted former NRL star Semi Radradra to the left wing in a bid to unsettle the Wallabies.

Vereniki Goneva, the country's record try-scorer, only makes the bench as a result.

Coach John McKee said: "It's been pleasing to see every player put their hand up to earn their spot.

"Every person knows the job they have to do and I'm sure they'll be looking forward with excitement and anticipation to the challenge on Saturday.

"The team have worked hard to this point and, as we wrap up preparations, the captain's run will also be important for our focus on this opening match."


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Australia - Christian Lealiifano

It is remarkable that Lealiifano is in the Australia squad at all, let alone in the XV. He returned to the team in July for the first time since being diagnosed with blood cancer leukaemia and quickly impressed in the Rugby Championship. Lealiifano is moving to Japan permanently after the World Cup, having left the Brumbies, and will be keen to stand out.

Fiji - Semi Radradra

It would make for an incredible story were Radradra able to cause Australia some damage on Saturday. A former Parramatta Eels wing, he played once for the Kangaroos - Australia's national rugby league side - before switching codes. Radradra has largely played at outside centre in union but has the attributes to worry the Wallabies.
 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Australia are unbeaten in their past 17 games against Fiji (W16, D1), their last defeat in this fixture coming in June 1954 by a margin of just two points.

- This will be the third meeting between Australia and Fiji at the Rugby World Cup. The Wallabies secured victories against Fiji in both the 2007 and 2015 editions.

- The Wallabies lost their most recent Rugby World Cup fixture – the 2015 final – and will therefore be aiming to avoid back-to-back defeats at the Rugby World Cup for the first time since the 1987 tournament where they were beaten in succession by France and Wales.

- Fiji have won five of their most recent six international fixtures, including their past three on the bounce; the last time they won more in succession was a four-game stretch from June to July in 2017.

- Pocock has won 29 turnovers at the Rugby World Cup, more than any other player in the history of the competition.

Fly-half Nicolas Sanchez will bring his experience of French rugby to the Argentina team for their Rugby World Cup opener.

Sanchez has played in the Top 14 since 2011 and will hope his knowledge of the France side can aid the Pumas in a crucial early World Cup clash.

The 30-year-old is one of three players in the Argentina XV set to feature at a third finals, along with Agustin Creevy and Juan Figallo.

Creevy will earn his 86th cap, moving level with Juan Manuel Leguizamon.

However, Leguizamon, one cap short of Felipe Contepomi's Pumas record of 87, is left out of Mario Ledesma's matchday squad.

Argentina XV to play France: Emiliano Boffelli, Matias Moroni, Matias Orlando, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Ramiro Moyano, Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli; Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Agustin Creevy, Juan Figallo, Guido Petti, Tomas Lavanini, Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer, Javier Ortega Desio.

Replacements: Julian Montoya, Mayco Vivas, Santiago Medrano, Matias Alemanno, Tomas Lezana, Felipe Ezcurra, Benjamin Urdapilleta, Santiago Carreras.

Romain Ntamack will make history when he starts at fly-half for France in their Rugby World Cup opener against Argentina.

Ntamack, 20, only made his Test debut in February but has been handed the responsibility of starting at number 10 in the Pool C clash on Saturday.

Romain's father, Emile, played at the 1995 and 1999 Rugby World Cups and they will become the first father-son combination to represent France at the tournament.

France head coach Jacques Brunel has also opted to start 22-year-old Gregory Alldritt at number eight.

The clash in Chofu shapes as crucial for both teams in a pool that also includes one of the tournament favourites, England.

Captain Guilhem Guirado and Louis Picamoles are playing at their third Rugby World Cups, although the latter is starting on the bench.

France are without Paul Gabrillagues, who is serving a suspension.

France: Maxime Medard, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Virimi Vakatawa, Yoann Huget, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado, Rabah Slimani, Arthur Iturria, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Wenceslas Lauret, Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt.
Replacements: Camille Chat, Cyril Baille, Demba Bamba, Bernard Le Roux, Louis Picamoles, Maxime Machenaud, Camille Lopez, Thomas Ramos.

David Pocock has been named at flanker for the Wallabies' Rugby World Cup opener against Fiji on Saturday.

Australia have opted for almost the same team that crushed the All Blacks 47-26 in the Rugby Championship last month.

Pocock's inclusion in place of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto is the only change to the starting side that faced New Zealand in Perth on August 10.

Rory Arnold is fit to take his place after a hand injury, while Nic White and Christian Lealiifano return in the halves for the Pool D encounter in Sapporo.

"Our goal is to win. I'm sure every team comes to every World Cup believing they can win, and that's what makes it such a great tournament," Wallabies coach Michael Cheika said.

"We want to do two things; to do our best to win the tournament but also to show young people in Australia who are watching, how beautiful the game of rugby can be and inspire them to play rugby back home in the future."

It is the second straight Rugby World Cup at which Australia and Fiji will meet in the pool stage, with the Wallabies winning 28-13 in Cardiff in 2015.

Australia: Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, James O'Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Lealiifano, Nic White; Scott Sio, Tolu Latu, Allan Alaalatoa, Izack Rodda, Rory Arnold, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Isi Naisarani.
Replacements: Jordan Uelese, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Adam Coleman, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Will Genia, Matt To'omua, Dane Haylett-Petty.

The All Blacks have named an experienced line-up for their Rugby World Cup blockbuster against South Africa on Saturday.

Beauden Barrett, a star at fly-half, will start at full-back for the two-time defending champions when they open their campaign against the Springboks in Yokohama in Pool B.

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen talked up his team, including what he believes is a strong ability to have impact off the bench.

"Any combination of players in our squad could have justified their selection, but in the end we believe the 23 we have selected is the right group for this opposition," he said on Thursday.

"In today's rugby environment, you need to have the mindset that it's not just about who starts, it's also about what the players coming off the bench can provide. As an example, we have a great one-two punch with Dane [Coles] and Codie [Taylor] at hooker and Aaron [Smith] and TJ [Perenara] at half-back."

While 12 players are set for their Rugby World Cup debuts, the All Blacks' team includes a total of 1,061 Tests in experience.

Hansen has been happy with his team's preparation ahead of a tough opening game against the Springboks.

"Since transferring from our camp in Kashiwa to Tokyo we have moved into Test match mode this week and our focus has been building throughout the week," he said.

"We've had a very good week's training in the heat and rain here in Tokyo, the facilities have been excellent and our Japanese hosts have been outstanding."

Hansen added: "The challenge of playing one of our oldest and most respected foes in the opening Test of RWC2019 has us excited and energised by what lies ahead. Each time we play South Africa, it's a tight battle and a real arm wrestle.

"To perform at our very best, we'll have to play with real clarity, intent, energy and clear heads. Both teams will have their moments and it'll be our job to ensure we limit theirs and take full opportunity of ours."

New Zealand: Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Nepo Laulala, Samuel Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Kieran Read.
Replacements: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Shannon Frizell, TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith.

The All Blacks have named an experienced line-up for their Rugby World Cup blockbuster against South Africa on Saturday.

Beauden Barrett, a star at fly-half, will start at full-back for the two-time defending champions when they open their campaign against the Springboks in Yokohama in Pool B.

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen talked up his team, including what he believes is a strong ability to have impact off the bench.

"Any combination of players in our squad could have justified their selection, but in the end we believe the 23 we have selected is the right group for this opposition," he said on Thursday.

"In today's rugby environment, you need to have the mindset that it's not just about who starts, it's also about what the players coming off the bench can provide. As an example, we have a great one-two punch with Dane [Coles] and Codie [Taylor] at hooker and Aaron [Smith] and TJ [Perenara] at half-back."

While 12 players are set for their Rugby World Cup debuts, the All Blacks' team includes a total of 1,061 Tests in experience.

Hansen has been happy with his team's preparation ahead of a tough opening game against the Springboks.

"Since transferring from our camp in Kashiwa to Tokyo we have moved into Test match mode this week and our focus has been building throughout the week," he said.

"We've had a very good week's training in the heat and rain here in Tokyo, the facilities have been excellent and our Japanese hosts have been outstanding."

Hansen added: "The challenge of playing one of our oldest and most respected foes in the opening Test of RWC2019 has us excited and energised by what lies ahead. Each time we play South Africa, it's a tight battle and a real arm wrestle.

"To perform at our very best, we'll have to play with real clarity, intent, energy and clear heads. Both teams will have their moments and it'll be our job to ensure we limit theirs and take full opportunity of ours."

New Zealand: Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Nepo Laulala, Samuel Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Kieran Read.
Replacements: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tuungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Shannon Frizell, TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith.

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."

Captain Stuart McInally can be a catalyst for Scotland at the Rugby World Cup, according to former captain Gavin Hastings.

Scotland begin their campaign on Sunday against Ireland in a match between the two teams expected to progress from Group A.

McInally was named captain by Gregor Townsend as he attempts to guide Scotland to a last-eight tie in which they will likely face either defending world champions New Zealand or South Africa.

Scotland were narrowly beaten by Australia in the quarter-finals four years ago and Hastings, who led Scotland to the same stage in 1995, highlighted the current skipper as being crucial to their prospects in Japan.

"He is a good choice as captain, he's an outstanding hooker and he brings so many different qualities to that Scotland team," Hastings told Omnisport of McInally. 

"He has an explosive element to his game, he is a leader with ball in hand, if he can pop up in other areas of the pitch, he ultimately is a catalyst for a lot of good Scotland can do. He actually delivers slightly more around the field of play because he's a former flanker.

"He's in amongst it, against the Tadhg Furlongs, the Cian Healys, the Rory Bests. The fact is he needs to lead from the front."

Hastings believes victory over Ireland is especially important for Scotland, as it could help them avoid a winner-take-all clash with hosts Japan in the final group game.

"From a Scotland perspective they have got to target everything on that Ireland game, otherwise they put themselves under huge pressure," Hastings added.

"If they lose, they have then got to go out and beat Russia, Samoa and Japan to qualify for the quarter-finals.

"You beat Ireland and you put yourself in a very strong position to qualify. We all know how tricky Japan can be, if Japan were going for a quarter-final place with that last game of the pool stages against Scotland then that is going to be a hugely tricky assignment. 

"Ultimately, everything hinges on that opening game in terms of Scotland's success in this tournament. They must deliver against Ireland and if not they've got to be clinical against Russia, Samoa and Japan.

"Ireland will be very aware of the fact they need to improve upon their recent performances, but then again so do Scotland. Unless Scotland deliver 100 per cent performance, then they're not going to win that game.

"If it doesn't click for Scotland, life will be tough. What faces both Ireland and Scotland if they get out of the group is either the winner or loser of Group B, which happens to be South Africa or New Zealand. Once you get in knockout rugby anything can happen.

"Scotland know the last time they were in a quarter-final they were very, very unlucky not to beat Australia and if they get that chance and they put themselves in that position for a quarter-final, it doesn't matter if it's New Zealand or South Africa, they will give it their best shot."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is little surprise to see powerhouses New Zealand start the Rugby World Cup as pre-tournament favourites.

The two-time defending champions remain the most fearsome side in world rugby and only the brave would bet against the All Blacks winning an unprecedented third straight trophy.

But the gulf between New Zealand and the chasing pack has been closed significantly, with Ireland starting the tournament as the number one ranked side.

With that in mind, three Omnisport writers give their thoughts on who will triumph in Japan, who may upset the odds and the player to watch throughout the tournament.


PETER HANSON

Winners: New Zealand

The All Blacks may not have the same air of invincibility they once held but it will still take an off day from Steve Hansen's men and a top performance from the other contenders to deny New Zealand a third straight title. Rare blips, such as the defeat to Australia and draw with South Africa in the Rugby Championship, will only galvanise this scarily talented squad, which has so much depth the likes of Owen Franks and Ngani Laumape did not even make the plane. England, Ireland, Wales and South Africa will all feel they can spring an upset, but I just don't see anyone dethroning the All Blacks.

Dark horses: Australia

It seems pretty absurd that a proud rugby nation such as Australia should be considered as outsiders, but that is the position Michael Cheika's side find themselves in. Inconsistent form over the past few years has seen the Wallabies lose some of their fear factor. You should always beware the wounded animal, though, and Australia really know how to turn it on at the World Cup. Twice champions of the world and twice runners-up, including four years ago when again they flew somewhat under the radar to make the final, discount the Aussies at your peril.

Player to watch: Sevu Reece

Exciting, electric, powerhouse New Zealand wingers go hand-in-hand with the World Cup and Sevu Reece is the next off the seemingly never-ending production line. He only made his Super Rugby debut for Crusaders in March, but finished the season as top try scorer with 15. At 22 years old, Reece still has plenty of time on his hands but he can already make a name for himself on the world stage.


PETE THOMPSON

Winners: South Africa

New Zealand will take some stopping in their bid to do what has never done before, but South Africa look well equipped to match the All Blacks' record of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup three times.

The Springboks have experienced a renaissance under Rassie Erasmus, with a formidable pack mixed with flair, and after winning the Rugby Championship in August they can become champions of the world in Yokohama on November 2.

Dark horses: Japan

Japan stunned South Africa in 2015 and home advantage can inspire them to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.

Captain and number eight Michael Leitch will drive on Jamie Joseph's exciting side, who can be a joy to watch with their skill, speed and agility.

Player to watch: Faf de Klerk

Faf de Klerk is not a giant in stature, but the South Africa scrum-half can light up the tournament.

The playmaker has played a huge part in the Springboks' resurgence, pulling the strings and setting the tempo and he can get South Africa ticking on the biggest stage of all.


TOM WEBBER

Winners: South Africa

The Springboks have come a long way under Erasmus and are unbeaten in 2019. They claimed an impressive draw against the All Blacks in New Zealand in July and went on to seal the Rugby Championship, undoubtedly making them the form team heading to Japan.

Dark horses: Argentina

The Pumas have not won a Test match since beating Australia 23-19 in September 2018, but the Jaguares making it all the way to the Super Rugby final this year shows this is a group of players with serious talent. The success of their campaign will likely hinge on their opening match against France at Tokyo Stadium, with England also in Pool C.

Player to watch: Peceli Yato

Yato has shown himself to be an accomplished flanker with Clermont Auvergne in the Top 14 in recent seasons; in 2018-19 he scored more tries and made more metres than any other forward in the division. However, with Fiji in a group that includes Australia and Wales they will likely need to claim a scalp against one of those sides to have a chance of advancing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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