Rugby Union: Preview of the 16 nations in this summer's World Cup

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japan JAPAN went to Tonga last month for a two-Test series they expected to share, if not win outright - they lost both games, the first by a 31-point margin. Last week the consequences became clear. It was felt that if Japan were to do more than make up the numbers in South Africa, they would have to drop their rule allowing only three domiciled foreigners to play in the side. A Tongan right-winger was immediately added to the two Tongan flankers and the Fijian lock already playing. Japan's problem has always been in finding a large ball-winning pack, so expect more drafts from the foreign ranks to follow.

The other significant change is the recall of Seiji Hirao (above), the 32-year-old centre known as "Mr Rugby" who retired after the last World Cup. "I have accepted the leading role of player-coach which will enable me to advise the young players," Hirao said. "There was a lot of pressure for my comeback and I have confidence in myself now after my performance this season."

Form Guide

24 October 1994 Japan 67 Sri Lanka 3

26 October Japan 97 Malaysia 9

29 October Japan 26 S Korea 11

11 February 1995 Tonga 47 Japan 16

19 February Tonga 25 Japan 16

World Cup run-in: No international fixtures.

Odds: 1,000-1

new zealns LAST season was one of the worst ever for the All Blacks. Coach Laurie Mains stood accused of inconsistency in selection, of discarding fresh All Blacks in their youth and, quite simply, of losing too often. His bid for re-election at the season's end attracted more media attention than a simultaneous by-election which could have resulted in a hung parliament.

To resurrect the All Blacks' World Cup run-in, Mains started with a stroke of genius: appointing as "campaign manager" Brian Lachore, the 1987 World Cup-winners' coach and a widely reverred man. Lachore will keep the press at bay and dispell the rumblings of disquiet among the players. The close season also showed good intentions. The first squad camp involved bungee- jumping and white-water rafting, a bonding experience to shed animosity between Auckland and North Harbour players who fought a shockingly violent First Division final in October.

Subsequent training camps have been revealing: Sean Fitzpatrick, Richard Loe and Olo Brown, the old men of the front row, have been the fittest of the bunch, while Jonah Lomu and Waisake Sototu, the young wings, have been criticised for being out of shape. Andrew Mehrtens, the Canterbury fly-half, looks likely to take the all-important position in the national side. Enormous expectations rest on all of them.

Form Guide

3 July 1994 New Zealand 20 France 23

9 July New Zealand 22 South Africa 14

23 July New Zealand 13 South Africa 9

6 August New Zealand 18 South Africa 18

17 August Australia 20 New Zealand 16

World Cup run-in: Test vs Canada (22 April, Auckland).

Odds: 7-2

Romania FEW in South Africa will have a story to match that of Ion Gheorghe, the Romanian hooker. Shot in the foot during an altercation in a Bucharest petrol station, Gheorghe was given little chance of playing again - certainly not in the World Cup - but he is, and has every chance of being selected. Romania will have to make a similarly remarkable recovery from their November thrashing by England to survive the World Cup "Group of Death" (Australia, South Africa, Canada).

With their best men, such as the lock Constantin Cojocariu (below) playing in France, the Romanian coaches are pushed to get their team together with any frequency. The two April internationals will therefore provide essential preparation. Romania showed against Wales that they can be good scrummagers, though Alan Davies, the Welsh coach, doubts how effective this will be in South Africa. "They are a big pack," he said. "And whether they have the mobility the World Cup requires is a question."

Form Guide

7 May 1994 Romania 30 Russia 0

14 May Romania 26 Italy 12

18 September Romania 9 Wales 16

1 October Italy 24 Romania 6

12 November England 54 Romania 3

World Cup run-in: Test v France (8 April, Bucharest); Test v Scotland (22 April, Murrayfield).

Odds: 250-1

Scotland SCOTLAND are undoubtedly the surprise of the season and Saturday's Calcutta Cup will show whether theirs is really an improvement to note. The bookies certainly do not think so as beleaguered Wales are still at shorter odds to win in South Africa. From nine games without a win, though, Scotland have now recorded four successive victories, a turn-around thanks in no small part to the rejuvenation of their inspirational captain, Gavin Hastings. While matching England's success in the Five Nations', Scotland are also beginning to sound like England. Victories are no longer followed by paeans of triumph but by assessments of where they went wrong. "We have improved with every game and this must continue," Dougie Morgan, the coach, said. "Our particular focus right now is to improve in the contact situation. The ideal situation would be to have no turn-overs, and that is still some way off. What else we're working on, I really can't disclose!"

Of especial benefit to the Scots is the early finish to their domestic season. Unlike the other home unions, they have considerable time to work together: a Test against Romania and a week-long training camp in the Spanish Pyrenees which culminates in a Test match against Spain. "Until then," Morgan said, "they have to keep their feet on the ground. They mustn't get carried away with what's happening and that is what I'm drumming in."

Form Guide

19 Nov 1994 Scotland 10 South Africa 34

21 January 1995 Scotland 22 Canada 6

4 February Scotland 26 Ireland 13

18 February France 21 Scotland 23

4 March Scotland 26 Wales 13

World Cup run-in: Calcutta Cup (Twickenham, Sat); Test v Romania (22 April, Murrayfield); one-week training camp in Spanish Pyrenees (from 29 April), Test v Spain (6 May).

Odds: 33-1

South Africa THE PAST year has not been quiet for the host nation with allegations of everything from drug-taking and player-paying to ear-biting. The sound and the fury was quelled on the successful tour of the British Isles with captain Franois Pienaar (below) leading an impressive PR exercise on and off the pitch. It all looked good.

Who, though, could account for Louis Luyt, the Sarfu president, who then sacked the team manager, rocking a boat that finally looked settled? Recovering some calm is the chief objective for Morn du Plessis, who has taken the job: "I hope it's not disruptive - the team has accepted me, I think! At this stage, everyone is comfortable with the training patterns. The system's in place, it just needs a honing of talents."

Three months off has mended injuries and only Pienaar (knee) has missed the season's start (he started running again recently). "There's great excitement here. We realise that it's the greatest adventure we've ever been involved with."

Form Guide

6 August 1994 NZ 18 South Africa 18

8 October South Africa 42 Argentina 22

15 October South Africa 46 Argentina 26

19 November Scotland 10 South Africa 34

26 November Wales 12 South Africa 20

World Cup run-in: Test v Western Samoa (13 April, Johannesburg); friendlies v Western Province (29 April), v Natal (6 May).

Odds: 11-4

"Tonga AS ONE of the poorest of the Pacific islands, Tonga has a problem. The best players go overseas to play a higher standard of club or provincial rugby, the rugby union cannot afford to fly them back (it is £24,500 in debt) and so the national side spends very little time together as a unit. "Nevertheless I think we are catching up with the top countries," Sione Taumoepeau, the team coach, said. "We were disappointed to lose to Wales last year, but even then several players were in Australia and New Zealand.

"We are now getting most of our best players back from those countries, we are slowly building at the moment and we have had a big boost from the two wins over Japan last month. They were also good for us to test a few players and to eliminate about another nine.

It is still early season in Tonga. "We are doing strength work, but we are especially working on our line-out because our players aren't as tall as other teams'. Our game-plan for the World Cup will be a fast rucking style, with the backs often not getting the ball until third-phase ball." Until then, the national side will be in South Africa for the early rounds of the Super 10 tournament, followed by a training schedule back in Tonga based on the All Blacks' programme. "We think they probably know about World Cup preparation. After all, they have won it."

Form Guide

4 June 1994 Western Samoa 32 Tonga 13

22 June Tonga 9 Wales 18

9 July Tonga 12 Fiji 10

11 February 1995 Tonga 47 Japan 16

19 February Tonga 25 Japan 16

World Cup run-in: The national team's involvement in the Super 10 tournament.

Odds: 750-1

Wales FROM Five Nations' champions to wooden spoon contenders. The Welsh had a fair gust of wind in their sails at the season's start but appear to have run out of puff. "We live in a village in Wales," Robert Norster, the team manager, said after last weekend's defeat by Scotland, referring to the intensity of expectation in the Principality that has stripped confidence from nervous players.

An unremitting spate of injuries has also been destructive to the Welsh. "It's good that some of the injured are back," Alan Davies, the Welsh team coach, said. "Nigel Walker (above) is likely to be playing again in four weeks and there's a possibility of the prop Ricky Evans being fit for South Africa. The full-back Mike Rayer, though, is not likely to be training before May."

There is no frantic run-in to the World Cup for Wales: simply meetings once a fortnight. "We're not doing any special camps and there are no further internationals. Our players need the opposite: they need structured rest."

Form Guide

12 October 1994 Wales 29 Italy 19

26 November Wales 12 South Africa 20

21 January 1995 France 21 Wales 9

4 March Scotland 26 Wales 13

18 February Wales 9 England 23

World Cup run-in: Five Nations match v Ireland (Cardiff, Sat).

Odds: 25-1

Western samoa DESPITE wins over Wales and Tonga last season, there is one result that sticks in Samoan memory: the 73-3 thumping by Australia. Even the World Champions were surprised at the scoreline and, with the World Cup approaching, the chief task of coach Peter Schuster is to ensure the psychological bruises from that defeat have healed. "It's a matter of reassessing things," Schuster said. "In training last year we lacked dedication in our fitness and that certainly contributed to the result. Our focus in 1994 was to introduce more players to international rugby, to build strength in depth. Against Australia we had seven new caps and it backfired."

Like Tonga, Western Samoa suffer from having players at clubs in Australia and New Zealand. "It's not like the Scots and the Irish, who play in London and can fly home so easily. It's too expensive for us to fly the players back." New International Board rules also mean that Schuster is more likely to lose young, potential internationals. Previously, players would be poached by New Zealand having established themselves in the Samoan side. The new rule demands a three-year gap between representing different countries and this has deterred some from playing for Westerm Samoa at all. "Kids want to be All Blacks. That tendency is here to stay."

Form Guide

31 July 1993 NZ 35 Western Samoa 13

4 June 1994 Western Samoa 32 Tonga 19

25 June W Samoa 34 Wales 9

2 July Fiji 20 Western Samoa 13

6 August Australia 73 W Samoa 3

World Cup run-in: Tour of South Africa, Test match (13 April, Johannesburg); friendly v Auckland (6 May, Auckland).

Odds: 40-1