Group A: Ireland: They may be heading into the tournament ranked first due to the curious nature of the rankings algorithm, but this feels like a side that peaked a year too soon. Last November they were the team to beat following a clinical takedown of New Zealand, yet at no point this year have they emulated such a performance. While I’m confident they’ll top their group, a tough quarter-final assignment may just be the final nail in their coffin. Prediction: Quarters. One to watch: Connor Murray.
Japan: The pressure on the hosts is titanic. Not only will they be expected to match their superb 2015 showing, but inspiring a new generation of budding local talents to the game will also be viewed as a requirement for them in some quarters. Their fortunes will probably boil down to their clash with Scotland in the last match of the group stages, if they can pass that test, then Japanese rugby will certainly have much to smile about. Prediction: 3rd. One to watch: Yu Tamura.
Russia: They only qualified for their second World Cup by virtue of Romania and Spain having fielded ineligible players. Although they will have the honour of opening the tournament against Japan on Friday, they will have a real task in attempting to avoid multiple humiliations. Prediction: 5th. One to watch: Vasily Artemyev.
Samoa: It’s been a miserable few years for the Samoan players. Recurring issues such as earning just above the poverty line, seemingly endless disputes with their governing body and not even having balls to train with have become an depressing reality for their players. To their eternal credit, you can be certain they will come to play with spades of national pride. While they may no longer have the talent to beat the big boys, they are still certainly capable of sparking a fright or two in the group phase. Prediction: 4th. One to watch: Chris Vui.
Scotland: We all know what they can do when they are on song. The Scots have produced some thrilling rugby at times over the past four years yet this has been all too regularly interspersed with some dour performances particularly away from home, while the formula for beating them – bullying them up front – has become all too obvious. While they should clear the group hurdle, that is probably about as much as they can expect. Prediction: Quarters. One to watch: Finn Russell.
Group B: Canada: For the first time ever in 2015, Canada finished a World Cup campaign with four losses, a sorry return for a nation with an underrated rugby heritage that even reached the quarters in 1991. This time they will surely have their eyes set on pushing Italy close in their pool game in a similar vein to four years ago. However, their recent rankings slump ensures this may be wishful thinking. Prediction: 4th. One to watch: DTH van der Merwe.
Italy: Of all the teams at the tournament, the Italians’ progress will probably be the most predictable. Too good for the two teams ranked below them yet nowhere near the two teams ranked above them, this is the same purgatory that has stalked Italy at the last few World Cups now. Should Conor O’Shea – without a Six Nations win in 20 attempts – step aside at the competition’s denouement, you certainly wouldn’t envy his replacement. Prediction: 3rd. One to watch: Matteo Minozzi.
South Africa: It’s hard to believe this was the same nation that endured such a miserable 2016, losing to the likes of Italy in what is comfortably regarded as their annus horriblis. This is now a team that appears to be peaking at just the right time, as shown by their Rugby Championship victory this year, and if they can lean on their traditional strength and brute force up front coupled with an increasing level of creativity in the backs, it could prove just the right tonic for a 3rd world title. Prediction: Winners. One to watch: Eben Etzebeth.
Namibia: Seemingly always in the tournament if only to make up the numbers, this year the Namibians will be hoping for a few eye-catching results to make their detractors think again. Most obviously they will be targeting their final group match against Canada as a golden opportunity to gain their first ever World Cup victory, and their position in the rankings (just one place below The Canucks) makes this an eminently achievable goal. Prediction: 5th. One to watch: Tijiuee Uanivi.
New Zealand: As ever, they will go into the tournament as the bookies’ favourite. Yet to say their form over the past year has been ideal would be highly inaccurate: a lowly third place finish in the Rugby Championship this summer led to them being knocked out of the number one ranking spot for the first time in a decade. They will still be confident of taking back home a third successive title, yet don’t be surprised if an ageing core falls just short. Prediction: runners-up. One to watch: Beauden Barrett.
Group C: Argentina: The success of the Jaguares in this year’s Super Rugby competition coupled with the Pumas’ tendency to peak in World Cup years make me confident they will have enough to escape this group of death. If they can impress in the group phase, no one will be keen on playing them in the knockouts. Prediction: Quarters. One to watch: Agustin Creevy. England: If they can figure out a way to close out games, something that has been their kryptonite in the last year, then they can definitely go all the way. Their tough group should only ensure they are sufficiently battle-hardened ahead of the knockouts (assuming they don’t repeat 2015 and crash out after four games). Prediction: Semis. One to watch: Maro Itoje.
France: The eight preceding years since their 2011 World Cup final appearance have been dreadful for fans of the French national team. My feeling is that this somewhat predictable, one-dimensional team will ensure their fans will face more suffering before things get better. While this tournament may therefore come a bit too soon for this up-and-coming wave of talent, a home world cup in 2023 could well be their chance to shine. Predition: 3rd. One to watch: Damian Penaud.
Tonga: As they ready themselves for another chance at giving the rugby superpowers that be a bloody nose, it’s important to remember that for a nation with a little under 1,000 registered players, it is nothing short of incredible they consistently manage to get to the biggest stage, yet defeats to Japan and Samoa in the Pacific Nations Cup this year should equally temper expectations. Prediction: 5th. One to watch: Sonatane Takulua.
USA: This is undoubtedly the strongest American side to have ever played at a World Cup. With Major League Rugby looking for a shot in the arm and rugby as a whole in the country seeking to infiltrate into the mainstream American sporting consciousness, some eye-catching performances over the next few weeks could just prove to be the perfect catalyst. Prediction: 4th. One to watch: AJ MacGinty.
Group D: Australia: While it’s true that since making the final in 2015 the Aussies have endured a pretty miserable time of things both on and off the field, their thrashing of New Zealand in the Rugby Championship last month does show this is a side still more than capable of mixing it with the top dogs. Should they beat off Wales – a side they are traditionally strong against – and top the group, they could easily go much further than expected by many. Prediction: Quarters. One to watch: David Pocock.
Georgia: Finishing third in their group in 2015 and thus automatically qualifying for this year’s tournament was undoubtedly a seminal moment in Georgian rugby history. While they have largely dominated all before them in the Rugby Europe Championship recently, heavy defeats to Scotland in the tournament warm-ups prove they may not be quite ready to consistently cut it at the top level. Prediction: 4th. One to watch: Mamuka Gorgodze.
Fiji: Watching the Flying Fijians express their dazzling rugby philosophy is undoubtedly the highlight of any World Cup. Yet beyond just enjoyable rugby there is substance to their game. Before Australia and Wales turn their attention to the knockout stages, they’d be well advised to steer clear of being upset by these barnstorming boys of the South Seas. Prediction: 3rd. One to watch: Ben Volavola.
Uruguay: Seeing their wide-eyed celebrations at the two tries they scored at the last World Cup was one of the most memorable moments from the last World Cup. Yet with the rapid growth of professionalism in their ranks they will be surely expecting to achieve a bit more of themselves this time round. While a win may be asking a lot, just having the chance to test themselves against some of the best teams in the world will be a huge bonus for them going forward. Prediction: 5th. One to watch: Manuel Leindekar.
Wales: This Wales side isn’t awash with star power; instead their team cohesion and spirit ensure they usually get the better of their opponents. After a grand slam Six Nations earlier this year they are (whisper it quietly) one of the favourites heading into Japan, even with the late drama of assistant coach Rob Howley being sent home days before the opener. If they can top the group, a clear path to the final lies ahead. At what point will the valleys start to dream? Prediction: Semis. One to watch: Alun Wyn Jones.