HONG KONG — The Rugby World Cup, which opens Friday in Tokyo, is likely to be about which of the 19 other teams has the right stuff to knock the two-time defending champion New Zealand All Blacks off their throne.
New Zealand slipped slightly in August. And after a loss to Australia and a combination of other results in Europe, the Kiwis were nudged from the top of the World Rugby rankings for the first time since November 2009. For three weeks, they sat a fraction of a point behind Wales, but regained the top ranking after Wales dropped a World Cup warm-up match at home to Ireland, 22-17, on Aug. 31 that dropped the Welsh to fourth.
A week later, on a day New Zealand thrashed Tonga’s World Cup team, 92-7, Ireland still slipped past the All Blacks by beating Wales again to go into the World Cup as the new No. 1.
Most experts, however, still make New Zealand a heavy favorite to secure a third straight World Cup title, and a fourth over all. But there are formidable challengers.
The 20 participants are broken into four pools of five teams, with the two best teams in each pool advancing to the quarterfinals. Here is a rundown of the pools, with the World Rugby ranking, as of Sept. 9, for each team:
Pool A: Ireland (1), Scotland (7), Japan (10), Samoa (16), Russia (20)
Ireland should be the class of this pool, just 18 months from an impressive sweep of the Six Nations tournament in Europe that followed an upset win over New Zealand in Chicago in November 2016. But Ireland’s best player, flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, the 2018 world player of the year, has been battling injuries and was sorely missed last month when Ireland was thrashed by England, 57-15, in a World Cup warm-up. The Irish looked old and lethargic, especially the front row of the forward pack, which averaged 34 years and has been anchored by the captain, 37-year-old Rory Best.
That said, Ireland still should be favored to finish on top of the pool, especially as Sexton now is looking fit, with Scotland and the host nation Japan challenging for the second spot. Japan has been impressive in recent tests, and playing at home could be the surprise of the tournament.
The captain of the Brave Blossoms, Michael Leitch, originally of New Zealand, said he believed they can win it all. The Japanese probably have confidence carried over from their 2015 World Cup upset of the mighty South African Springboks, a victory many called the biggest upset ever in the tournament.
Scotland has not looked sharp recently, though it ended this year’s Six Nations tournament with an amazing comeback against England. The Scots trailed at one point, 31-0, then scored 38 straight points to go ahead before giving up a last-minute try allowing the English to escape with a 38-38 draw. Other than that match and the second leg of a recent series split with France, Scotland has looked mediocre and is the top-tier team that appears most vulnerable to a rising Japanese team and could be in danger of missing the quarterfinals.
Neither Russia nor Samoa is likely to advance beyond pool play.
Pool A players to watch:
Ireland — Peter O’Mahony (flanker), Conor Murray (scrumhalf)
Scotland — Jonny Gray (lock), Greig Laidlaw (scrumhalf)
Japan — Michael Leitch (No. 8), Kotaro Matsushima (utility back: wing, fullback or center)
Samoa — TJ Ioane (flanker), Alapati Leiua (wing)
Russia — Andrei Ostrikov (lock), Ramil Gaisin (flyhalf)
Pool B: New Zealand (2), South Africa (4), Italy (14), Canada (22), Namibia (23)
The first match in Pool B, between New Zealand and South Africa, should determine who finishes first and second in the group. The teams are two of the tournament favorites and have played several scintillating matches against each other recently. New Zealand has the series edge and has to be a slight favorite, but under Coach Rassie Erasmus, the Springboks have a recent draw and a win against the All Blacks on New Zealand’s home turf.
New Zealand feels it ought to have permanent possession of the Webb Ellis Trophy and was glad to recapture its world No. 1 ranking recently. The All Blacks thrive on the pressure. The squad is traditionally the deepest in the world, with multiple talented, experienced players at every position.
Beauden Barrett, a two-time world player of the year who has two brothers in the squad, is a major threat and has moved from the playmaking flyhalf position to fullback or inside center. Richie Mo’unga has taken over most of the flyhalf duties from Barrett as well as handling place-kicking for penalty goals and conversions, an area where Barrett has struggled.
South Africa has several game-breaking backs with exceptional speed, but the strength of the Springboks’ game is in its rush defense and ability to win turnovers at the breakdown after opponents are tackled. The hooker Malcolm Marx is especially good at this. Flanker Siya Kolisi, the first black captain of the South African team, is an inspirational leader who has returned from a recent knee injury and looks fit.
Italy is the third first-tier nation in Pool B. It has played New Zealand and South Africa 14 times each and has a single upset over South Africa to show for it. Expect that cumulative record to go to 1-29.
Namibia and Canada will each be hoping to beat the other and maybe catch Italy on an off day to claim a second win.
Pool B players to watch:
New Zealand — Kieran Read (No. 8), Sevu Reece (wing)
South Africa — Siya Kolisi (flanker), Herschel Jantjies (scrumhalf)
Italy — Sergio Parisse (No. 8, flanker), Mattia Bellini (wing)
Canada — Tyler Ardron (No. 8), Jeff Hassler (wing)
Namibia — Renaldo Bothma (flanker), Justin Newman (center)
Pool C: England (3), France (8), Argentina (11), United States (13), Tonga (15)
The United States has been gaining on the world rugby elite, but the USA Eagles have been placed in what surely must qualify as a Group of Death. World No. 3 England is playing again like a bona fide title contender, France has been rejuvenated and looks like a dangerous squad, and though Argentina’s recent results have been disappointing, the team has plenty of world-class talent and was a semifinalist in the 2015 World Cup. Even Tonga is capable of knocking off a top team occasionally.
That said, the United States played well in the recent Pacific Nations Cup, and as long as flyhalf A.J. MacGinty has recovered from the ankle injury sustained in the first half against Japan, the Eagles should be able to hang around in most of their games and possibly win a couple. But it seems unlikely they could beat two of the three top teams in the pool to advance.
On current form and with world-class players like Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Courtney Lawes all healthy, it is hard to imagine anyone but England winning this pool.
Pool C players to watch:
England — Maro Itoje (lock), Joe Cokanasiga (wing)
France — Louis Picamoles (flanker, No. 8), Maxime Médard (fullback)
Argentina — Pablo Matera (flanker), Emiliano Boffelli (wing)
United States — Malon Al-Jiboori (flanker), A.J. MacGinty (flyhalf)
Tonga — Paea Fa’anunu (prop), Siale Piutau (center)
Pool D: Wales (5), Australia (6), Fiji (9), Georgia (12), Uruguay (19)
Pool D should be a two-team race to the quarterfinals, with Wales the class of the group and Australia good enough to advance. Wales in particular figures to advance after a year in which it swept the Six Nations and recently wrested (briefly) the No. 1 world ranking from the All Blacks.
But Wales and Australia had better not underestimate Fiji, which has a wealth of fast, powerful runners skilled at offloading the ball and scoring long tries off counterattacks. The Fijians are a dominant force in the quicker, shorter seven-man format of the game and won the Olympic gold medal. A number of Fiji’s players are veterans of that team. And playing in Japan should suit the Pacific Islanders.
If only some of the top players who were born in Fiji but will play for other nations in the Rugby World Cup, could have been persuaded to play for their home country, it might be one of the favorites to win it all. That list includes, but is not limited to, the try-scoring machine Sevu Reece (New Zealand), Isi Naisarani and Marika Koroibete (Australia), Joe Cokanasiga (England) and Alivereti Raka (France).
It is a similar story for Samoa and Tonga, the other two South Pacific island nations in the tournament, but it seems a particularly telling tale for Fiji, the strongest of the three.
Pool D players to watch:
Wales — Alun Wyn Jones (flanker), Leigh Halfpenny (fullback)
Australia — Michael Hooper (flanker), Kurtley Beale (fullback)
Fiji —Leon Nakarawa (lock), Ben Volavola (flyhalf)
Georgia — Levan Chilachava (prop), Merab Sharikadze (center)
Uruguay — Juan Manuel Gaminara (flanker), Leandro Leivas (wing)