Jacob Whitehead takes a look at the lower-profile matches at this year's World Cup that could provide shocks and thrills
Unsung Rugby World Cup Pool Matches You Don’t Want To Miss
Everybody is ready for the big games of this Rugby World Cup. New Zealand will take on South Africa on the first Saturday with Scotland v Ireland on the following day. Meanwhile the column inches likely to be filled on England’s matches against France and Argentina could well dwarf War and Peace.
But looking beyond the major matches, what of the unsung fixtures which really give impetus to a World Cup? Those which may not impact the name engraved onto the Webb Ellis Trophy, but are at the forefront of our World Cup memories. Could 2019 see another Japan v South Africa?
With that in mind, here are the games for the rugby connoisseurs, the Tests for which it could be worth getting up early, putting the kettle on and settling onto the sofa…
Everybody’s second favourite side in 2015, Japan’s fairytale at the last World Cup was ultimately doomed by their 45-10 defeat to Scotland only four days after that win over the Springboks. This year they meet the Scots in the last game of the group stages, in what is likely to determine second place in the pool. With eight days rest and a home crowd at the 72,000-capacity Yokohama Stadium, the Brave Blossoms are in a far stronger position than four years ago.
Scotland are now more French than the French, their unpredictability embodied by their 38-38 draw against England this year. If second-half Scotland turn up, Japan will be blown away; if first-half Scotland appear, Japan could well be on course for a rematch with South Africa in the quarter-finals.
The one definite is that this game will be played at a manic pace. Japan pride themselves on quick ruck ball, relying on manipulating a defence out of shape rather than crashing through it. Meanwhile, Scotland fly-half Finn Russell plays what Finn Russell sees – whether it’s the right or wrong decision, rapid risks will be taken. Expect a cagey 9-6 Scotland win now I’ve predicted this!
If you want to start the build-up for Japan v Scotland very early – or are even returning from a late Saturday night – why not switch on Namibia v Canada?
“But they’re two of the worst teams in the World Cup!” I hear you cry. Hear me out.
Each side is realistically likely to be winless up to this point, having played New Zealand, South Africa and Italy in their previous matches. So for Namibia and Canada, this game is their World Cup. Victory here will not only ensure the preceding four-year cycle has been worth it but could also dictate funding and professional contracts after the World Cup ends. Other teams will battle it out for the trophy, but this game has huge repercussions for the nations and players involved.
Glasgow and Scarlets fans will need no introduction to Canada’s DTH van der Merwe, but keep an eye out for fellow winger Jeff Hassler, who had a few excellent seasons at the Ospreys. No 8 Tyler Ardron has become a fans’ favourite at the Chiefs in Super Rugby after captaining the Canadians four years ago.
Namibia have less talent plying their trade at the highest level, save for Harlequins blindside Renaldo Bothma, but full-back Chrysander Botha will still be one of the quickest players at the World Cup.
Rugby World Cup Fixtures The 2019 Rugby World…
Key dates around the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Tonga are less heralded than their Pacific Islands counterparts Fiji and Samoa, but did shock France in the 2011 World Cup by winning 19-14.
It will be hard to miss prop Ben Tameifuna, likely the largest player at the World Cup, and he will be up against familiar foes in the French game given that he plays club rugby for Racing 92 in the Top 14. Goalkicking Newcastle scrum-half Sonatane Takulua also plays in the French way as the key pivot for his side.
France will be expecting to battle it out at the top of the group with England and Argentina, but their record as one of only three teams to qualify for the quarter-finals at every World Cup could be in jeopardy. Having been thrashed by England in February and facing a perennially strong Argentina side, their attention may be solely focused on escaping from these two matches with a single win. Yet as eight years ago showed, underestimate Tonga at your peril.
Georgia and Fiji – two of the most rugby-obsessed nations in the world. Both sides are brimming with potential and the future looks bright, too, as their U20s did brilliantly at the Junior World Cup, each beating Scotland to secure their place in the elite age-grade tournament next year.
This match is likely to be a clash of styles: Georgia’s incredible set-piece coming up against Fiji’s attacking magic. With the former often favoured in tournament rugby, can Fiji’s flair win through?
The sides have played each other three times in the past seven years, with Fiji leading the head-t0-head 2-1. In their most recent meeting, in Suva in 2018, Georgia led 15-10 at half-time before Fiji stormed back in the second 40 to win 37-15.
Fiji’s current side, including Leone Nakarawa, Viliame Mata, Semi Radradra and Vereniki Goneva, is one of their strongest ever, but they will be without giant winger Nemani Nadolo, who announced his surprise retirement from international rugby earlier this year. For the Georgians, the inspirational Mamuka Gorgodze may have retired, but near namesake Beka Gorgadze may make a similar impact, especially with ball in hand.
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