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The Rugby World Cup is here, with hopes high that this could be the most competitive and enthralling tournament yet.
It is four years since Siya Kolisi became the third Springboks skipper to hoist the Webb Ellis Cup aloft, and South Africa are again right among the contenders, with Ireland, New Zealand and France also setting their sights on the 30 October final.
But could there be a shock winner? The last men’s World Cup in France saw England make an unlikely run to the final, and Steve Borthwick’s side, as well as Wales and Australia, will hope to put their struggles behind them and produce a deep tournament run.
And which players are set to light up the French stage over the next two months?
Find out whoThe Independent’s writers are tipping for success:
Harry Latham-Coyle in France: The hosts may be beaten in their opening game against New Zealand, but France will ride the atmosphere thereafter to a first World Cup triumph. A glorious side has already showed it can handle the weight of expectation.
Luke Baker in France: On home soil, with a fervent crowd roaring them on and given what Fabien Galthie has built during this World Cup cycle, I think France finally lift the Webb Ellis Trophy for the first time. The always slightly nonsensical “you don’t know which France will turn up” cliché has been torn to shreds over the past four years, with a top-two finish in every Six Nations showing what a ruthless machine they’ve become. The loss of fly half Romain Ntamack hurts but no other country can boast the No 10 depth they have with Matthieu Jalibert and Antoine Hastoy waiting in the wings. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the best player in the world, Antoine Dupont. It’s their time.
HLC: New Zealand, France, South Africa, Ireland, Australia, Fiji, Argentina, England: The top half of the draw may well go to form, with Scotland narrowly squeezed out, but I fancy Fiji to win their opener against Wales and earn a last eight spot, just as they did in 2007.
LB: New Zealand, France, South Africa, Ireland, Australia, Fiji, Argentina, England: I’m afraid I’m also predicting déjà vu from 2007 for Wales as a loss to Fiji in France sends them crashing out at the group stage. Pool C is brilliantly wide open and I genuinely believe any two of Wales, Fiji, Australia and Georgia can reach the last eight. Luckily for England, this Japan team are at the end of their current cycle, so Steve Borthwick’s troops will scrape through alongside Argentina. France and New Zealand are far too strong for Italy in Pool A and while Scotland could easily crash the Pool B party, I’ll say the Springboks and Ireland battle their way through, albeit battered and bruised.
HLC:Fiji probably don’t quite qualify for this award after rising to seventh in the world after their Twickenham win, but I think Samoa could run Argentina and England close in Pool D. Steven Luatua, Charlie Faumuina and Lima Sopoaga are particularly useful additions ahead of the tournament, complementing a squad that already had few holes from top to bottom. Portugal and their backline could be all sorts of fun, too, even with four defeats likely.
LB: Fiji. Chile play some really exciting rugby and I can’t wait to watch them in action. It wouldn’t surprise me if they stun Samoa. But I think the Fijian side will be the true surprise package of the World Cup. The impact of having the Fijian Drua compete in Super Rugby can’t be overstated and it’s helped the cohesion of their national team in the same way the Jaguares did to Argentina. The incredible talent has always been there in Fiji but now it’s being channelled properly on the club front as well. They have two genuine cracks at a quarter-final spot, with both Australia and Wales severely flawed, and don’t rule out a last-eight win over Argentina or England (or Japan) that could give them a first-ever semi-final berth.
Player of the tournament?
HLC: Antoine Dupont, France. Who else? The best player on the planet is a certainty for this award if he captains France to home glory. Dynamite as a runner, capable of kicking off both feet, Dupont is the beating heart of the French side.
LB: Dupont. If I think France will win the World Cup, then it stands to reason that a Frenchman will be player of the tournament, so why not the best player in the world? Dupont’s skillset is unique – the vision and distribution of a world-class No 9, the running ability of a back-three star and a severely underrated kicking game that may be leant on more given the absence of Romain Ntamack. He’s the genius conductor of the pitch-perfect French orchestra and he’ll live up to the billing as the face of the World Cup.
Top try scorer?
HLC: Will Jordan, New Zealand. Part of predicting who finishes top of the try charts is envisaging who is likely to play the greatest number of games. Jordan is one of the world’s most prolific finishers and a certain wing starter in the All Blacks’ toughest contests, but could also be utilised at full back against Uruguay and Namibia. That should allow plenty of opportunities for the impossibly smooth Jordan to weave his way to the top of the try-scoring charts.
LB: Damian Penaud, France. Perhaps slightly boringly going back to the France well but Damian Penaud is the best finisher in world rugby, playing for a mesmerising attacking outfit that I think will win the World Cup. At some point, you have to accept Occam’s Razor. This could easily be Mark Telea or Will Jordan as I expect the All Blacks to rack up big scores against Namibia, Uruguay and maybe even Italy but Les Bleus have those same opponents and Penaud is a man for the big occasion.
HLC: Such is the depth of talent in rugby now that it is tough to pick just one. Samoa’s Theo McFarland was in irresistable form for Saracens before injury last year, moustachioed menace Davit Ninashvili should star for Georgia and, while a little bit older, New Zealand’s Mark Telea is a slippery eel through contact who has been making defences look silly for several seasons in Super Rugby. But let’s give some love to Jac Morgan, the latest outstanding openside off the Welsh flanker production line. Installed as co-captain for this campaign, Morgan combines breakdown nous with real intelligence in the loose, and hits hard from a compact frame. I don’t think Wales will go deep in the tournament but Morgan could further establish himself as a real superstar.
LB: Canan Moodie, South Africa. Keep an eye on the likes of Georgian full back Davit Niniashvili, Australia fly half Carter Gordon and Argentina back-rower Juan Martin Gonzalez but Canan Moodie is pure box office. The South African utility back was still at school when the Springboks were lifting the trophy four years ago but the 20-year-old is now as electric as anyone in world rugby. He announced himself on the world stage with a stunning solo try on debut against Australia last September, becoming the second-youngest South African international in history. He gets over the gain-line on seemingly every carry, is enthusiastically powerful in defence and beats defenders for fun. A slight injury ruled him out of the first game but he’ll make a huge impact in the subsequent matches.
How will England do?
HLC: A quarter-final exit to Eddie Jones and Australia feels both the narrative dream and an entirely feasible outcome. A deeply flawed England are still good enough to get out of their group but Steve Borthwick will fear the Wallabies’ developing power game.
LB: Ooof. This could be an eternally painful World Cup for England fans or a pleasant surprise. Either way, given the current state of the attack, it feels like it will be a tough watch. Anything from group-stage departure to semi-final appearance feels possible, so let’s split the difference and say a quarter-final exit is on the cards. They’ll best Japan and maybe Argentina to come through the group but Australia or Fiji prove a step too far. Actually, it’s got Eddie Jones feeling smugly vindicated as the Wallabies take down his old employers written all over it, hasn’t it…?
Most looking forward to?
HLC: Having been lucky enough to feel the noise in Paris for France’s grand slam-sealing victory over England last year, to experience an entire tournament in a country so fully behind their side. The atmopshere in the Stade de France for that grand slam game was immense, and the combination of a thrilling on-field product, a fine array of venues and a strong chance of home success should make this tournament a real spectacle.
LB: Pool B. There are so many things to be excited about. Given the state of some of the traditional ‘top’ teams, the tournament feels ripe for some shocks, Fiji’s ascension to a genuine tier-one nation will be great to watch and there are a slew of tier-two teams pounding at the door more loudly every year. Almost every team in the tournament has at least one blockbuster, box-office star to watch and then at the top end, you’ve got four genuine title contenders who will be duking it out right from the start of the group stage. On that note, let’s give a nod to Pool B. South Africa, Ireland and Scotland all being in the same pool is clearly hugely unfair but from a fan’s perspective, it will be incredible to watch them knock seven bells out of each other from the off. With a real possibility of one win and one loss each in that three-team round robin, the games against Tonga and Romania then become vital to potentially decide who snatches a quarter-final spot on points difference. Drama guaranteed!
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