Up and down like a Paul O'Connell line-out routine – their first-half performance in the last warm-up game against England was on the dire side of desperate – Ireland are not heading into the World Cup in anything like as positive a frame of mind as might have been the case. Back in mid-August, when they prevailed over a useful Scotland team in Dublin and recorded their 13th victory in 14 outings, their second place in the world rankings did not quite seem a complete joke, even if there was always something faintly amusing about the notion. A month later, we find them in sixth.
This is a far more realistic assessment of their strength in global terms: for all their shape and structure – no fair-minded person could accuse Joe Schmidt, the New Zealander who has been coaching the team these last two years, of failing to furnish his players with a detailed game plan – they are so profoundly reluctant to go off-script that any opposing tactician worth his salt can see them coming a mile off.
Of course, knowing what Ireland intend to do and stopping them doing it are two very different things. If the back-row unit goes well, it is a force to be reckoned with: we can expect the first-choice flankers, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, to put their recent Twickenham performances down to experience and respond accordingly, while the No 8 Jamie Heaslip not only possesses all the gifts, but has the strength of character to use them. Supported by an engine-room contingent in which the Ulster lock Iain Henderson may stake a claim as the new O’Connell, there is strength in the back five of the scrum.
Rugby World Cup country-by-country guide
Rugby World Cup country-by-country guide
1/20 Pool A: Australia
Captain Stephen Moore.
Coach Michael Cheika.
RWC record Winners 1991, 1999; 2nd 2003; 3rd 2011; 4th 1987; QF 1995, 2007.
Strengths Annual trips to Twickenham and Cardiff mean there’s no mystery to playing here. Coach Cheika has indicated an adventurous game plan with the selection of two openside flankers in David Pocock and Michael Hooper – wisely, given the talent behind them. A long run of narrow wins over Wales is a psychological advantage.
Concerns New prop Scott Sio ripped up the script about a wobbly scrum with a strong display against New Zealand in the summer, but a dewy evening facing England at Twickenham might be different.
Player to watch Israel Folau. So he doesn’t kick very often – but he can catch, run, feint and attack from anywhere.
Team song Let England Shake (PJ Harvey)
Captain Chris Robshaw.
Coach Stuart Lancaster.
RWC record Winners 2003; 2nd 1991, 2007; 4th 1995; QF 1987, 1999, 2011.
Strengths Home advantage, undoubtedly. And togetherness: boat-rockers such as Steffon Armitage have gone overboard and Lancaster has given debuts to 40 players – 21 have made it to this tournament. For Mike Brown, George Ford and Courtney Lawes, a great World Cup could rubber-stamp them as world-class.
Concerns It will be hard work to avoid mentally switching off. Robshaw must be tactically spot on in deciding whether to take points or territory. The scrums should go well, but not every match is dominated by them.
Player to watch Ben Youngs . Scrum-half with a sound mix of passing and handling. Can give the pack a kick up the backside.
Team song A Good Year for the Roses (Elvis Costello)
Captain Akapusi Qera.
Coach John McKee.
RWC record QF 1987, 2007; QF play-off 1999; Pool 1991, 2003, 2011; DNQ 1995.
Strengths The aptly nicknamed “Flying Fijians” love to use the full width of the pitch and will aim to move the ball quickly to the wings Nemani Nadolo and Waisea Nayacalevu, guided by half-backs Nikola Matawalu and Josh Matavesi.
ConcernsThe scrum made mincemeat of Canada’s second string in Sunday’s warm-up but a World Cup opener against England is very different. The lavish offloads of second-row Leone Nakarawa can be counter-productive if they cough up possession.
Player to watch Opposing wings will suck up deep breaths before getting in the way of 19-stone Nadolo. As a kicker at the tee he is the most unusual sight since the Wallaby lock John Eales.
Team song Anarchy in the UK (Sex Pistols)
Captain Santiago Vilaseca.
Coach Pablo Lemoine.
RWC record Pool 1999, 2003; DNQ 1995, 2007, 2011.
Strengths Fly-half Felipe Berchesi came through a test of goalkicking nerve with 15 out of 18 in the two legs of the repêchage win over Russia. Scrum-half Agustin Ormaechea maintains a pleasing family link with the grand man of Uruguay’s earlier World Cup exploits, his dad Diego.
Concerns Former Bristol prop Lemoine says Los Teros’ mainly amateur status makes them the “representatives of the majority of rugby players around the world” but that won’t help them in the pool of death.
Player to watch With 6ft 5in Castres lock Rodrigo Capo Ortega having mysteriously retired from international rugby this summer, Agustin Ormaechea – with his silky sevens skills – may now be Uruguay’s shining light.
Team song Livin’ la Vida Loca (Ricky Martin)
Captain Sam Warburton.
Coach Warren Gatland.
RWC record 3rd 1987; 4th 2011; QF 1999, 2003; Pool 1991, 1995, 2007.
Strengths Big backs bash the ball up, manhandle opponents on the gainline, with centre Scott Williams adding subtlety. Gatland picked 10 Welshmen for the Lions’ victorious third Test in Australia in 2013, and the same crew, more or less, won two Six Nations.
Concerns As a fancied team who always fret over a lack of depth, last weekend’s injuries to world-class goalkicker Leigh Halfpenny and No 1 scrum-half Rhys Webb were a savage blow.
Player to watch Alun Wyn Jones. All of Wales awaits news of the second-row’s dodgy knee, so integral is his ability to find field position with power and intelligence. His maturity was accelerated as stand-in Lions captain in 2013.
Team song Another One Bites the Dust (Queen)
6/20 Pool B: Japan
Captain Michael Leitch.
Coach Eddie Jones.
RWC record Pool 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011.
Strengths In a softly, softly fashion, Japan have been developing into a potential surprise package. Tricky scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka had a briefly productive spell with the Highlanders in New Zealand, and a nice balance of adopted sons such as back-rower Leitch alongside indigenous talent has addressed the age-old size problem in the pack.
Concerns The South Africa and Scotland matches four days apart raises a dilemma: drop one of them and risk a 90-point beating, or flog the first team for no ultimate reward?
Player to watch Ayumu Goromaru. The full-back made his debut at 19 in 2005 and after missing the World Cup in 2011, he has averaged more than 12 points per match.
Team song House of the Rising Sun (The Animals)
Captain Ofisa Treviranus.
Coach Stephen Betham.
RWC record QF 1991, 1995; QF play-off 1999; Pool 2003, 2007, 2011.
Strengths Coach Betham has beaten Wales, Scotland and Italy, and had a close-run thing with New Zealand this summer. The flair in the backs of the three Pisis – fly-half Tusi, centre George and wing Ken – is helped by French-based forward grunt in the prop Zak Taulafo and Toulouse flanker Joe Tekori.
Concerns For all their popular support, Samoa have failed to reach the quarter-finals at the last three World Cups. Their trademark big tackles can leave them stranded in defence.
Player to watch Kahn Fotuali’i. The scrum-half took a while to show his best form after moving from Ospreys to Northampton, but his breaks around the fringes will be crucial.
Team song Mercy Mercy (Don Covay)
Captain Greig Laidlaw.
Coach Vern Cotter.
RWC record 4th 1991; QF 1987, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007; Pool 2011.
Strengths Glasgow backs and Edinburgh forwards offer settled combinations, with the South Africa-born “project player” WP Nel among the latter as the crucial tighthead prop. If the pack can deliver, Laidlaw, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg will weave prettier patterns than most.
Concerns The old rucking game has gone, leaving Scotland prey to teams with greater power and belligerence. Can the second-row Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny, combine with David Denton to win the collisions?
Player to watch Tim Visser (above left). The big Edinburgh wing never seems to stop scoring. Two matches at St James’ Park should make him feel at home, as he played for nearby Falcons.
Team song Whistle While you Work (Seven Dwarfs)
9/20 South Africa
Captain Jean de Villiers.
Coach Heyneke Meyer.
RWC record Winners 1995, 2007; 3rd 1999; QF 2003, 2011.
Strengths Assuming Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers have another tour of duty in them, the scrum will fancy a crack at any opposition. The back row must be in decent nick after leaving Heinrich Brussow at home. Full-back Willie le Roux is one of the best counter-attackers of all.
Concerns They can struggle to turn territorial domination into tries. Totemic centre Jean de Villiers beat expectations with his recovery from a knee reconstruction, only to break his jaw against Argentina. The Springboks often stutter without him.
Player to watch Francois Louw. Surgeon of the breakdown, he mixes exquisite timing with technique to prise ball from opponents.
Team song Trampled Under Foot (Led Zeppelin)
10/20 United States
Captain Chris Wyles.
Coach Mike Tolkin.
RWC record Pool 1987, 1991, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011; DNQ 1995.
Strengths Recent wins over Georgia, Russia and Romania nudged them up the rankings, and we can expect the best of Northampton’s San Francisco hard-man lock/No 8 Samu Manoa and the blindingly quick Zimbabwe-born wing Takudzwa Ngwenya.
Concerns Who’s been bashed about most is likely to decide the key battle within the war, the last pool match against Japan. Forward Cam Dolan, who never had a first-team look-in at Northampton, will be keen to strut his stuff.
Player to watch Chris Wyles. The definition of “utility back”, he has been a winger for Saracens lately but is equally adept at full-back or centre. A crossover talent who would surely have thrived 30 years ago.
Team song No Particular Place to Go (Chuck Berry)
11/20 Pool C: Argentina
Captain Agustin Creevy.
Coach Daniel Hourcade.
RWC record 3rd 2007; QF 1999, 2011; Pool 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003.
Strengths With ex-hooker Mario Ledesma schooling the Wallaby pack, only about a million scrummaging experts are left in Argentina. Entry to the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship in 2012 sharpened up the Pumas and, with everything bouncing their way, they had a famous win in Durban in August.
Concerns Creevy was tipped as one to watch by the great flanker Juan Fernandez Lobbe before the 2011 World Cup; the hooker must now learn to deal with his team being a pool favourite.
Player to watch Juan Martin Hernandez, aka the “Maradona of rugby”, has made a welcome return after long years of injury misery following his stunning 2007 World Cup.
Team song Tango Till They’re Sore (Tom Waits)
Captain Mamuka Gorgodze.
Coach Milton Haig.
RWC record Pool 2003, 2007, 2011; DNQ 1995, 1999.
Strengths Back-rower Gorgodze and fly-half Merab Kvirikashvili made it into my team of the World Cup in 2011, such was their contribution to England’s otherwise stodgy pool. Both are involved again: it will be a fourth World Cup for Georgia’s record points scorer Kvirikashvili.
Concerns If the pack is going backwards there’s not much strength elsewhere to reverse the flow. It will take all the New Zealand nous of Haig, one of seven Kiwi head coaches operating in the competition, to keep better attacking units at bay. Player to watch Davit Zirakashvili. If you want a blueprint for a tighthead prop, look no further. He is beloved of his crack French club Clermont Auvergne.
Team song The Devil Went Down to Georgia (Charlie Daniels Band)
Captain Jacques Burger.
Coach Phil Davies.
RWC record Pool 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011; DNQ 1995.
Strengths English eyes are so accustomed to the curly mane of Saracens’ Burger hammering into tackles and rucks, it’s easy to forget the flanker spent two years out having his knee rearranged.
Concerns Rumours of racism among the old management on last autumn’s European tour were followed by the resignation of coach Danie Vermeulen, leaving Davies, the former Wales lock and Cardiff Blues and Leeds coach, to take charge. Even with ex-Wales wing Wayne “The Body” Proctor advising on fitness, a squad of mostly amateurs handling full-time pros is a tall order.
Player to watch Russell van Wyk. A wing or full-back, his stooping gait and searing foot speed bring to mind another hero of southern Africa, Bryan Habana.
Team song I Say a Little Prayer (Aretha Franklin)
14/20 New Zealand
Captain Richie McCaw.
Coach Steve Hansen.
RWC record Winners 1987, 2011; 2nd 1995; 3rd 1991, 2003; 4th 1999; QF 2007.
Strengths Continuity, with 2011 assistant coach Hansen as head honcho now and the mighty McCaw and Kieran Read as near-enough co-captains. The All Blacks are the best at turning momentary opportunity into points with straight running, quick hands and tireless support.
Concerns Teams driving up the middle might make gaps in the strung-out defence. The All Blacks have never lost a pool match but in knockouts have lost six out of 19: two to France, two to Australia and two to South Africa.
Player to watch Conrad Smith. The masterly centre, 34 next month, has reached that sporting apotheosis of retaining his vision and distributive skills alongside a new calmness.
Team song Back to Black (Amy Winehouse)
Captain Nili Latu.
Coach Mana Otai.
RWC record Pool 1987, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011; DNQ 1991.
Strengths Latu was named among The Independent’s top 50 players in the world in 2008. Ten England-based players in the squad means there will be no culture shock. The traditional South Seas tactics of tackle hard, ask questions later, will be to the fore. And there’s some Aussie wisdom in the attack coach Jim McKay.
Concerns Will they stand tall against their illustrious neighbours the All Blacks? All that fire and brimstone has tended to peter out in the second half of World Cup matches, with the memorable exception of the shock defeat of France in Wellington last time round.
Player to watch Steve Mafi. The leggy back-rower or lock won a lot of friends in his time with Leicester Tigers, and is still only 25.
Team song Thunder Island (Jay Ferguson)
16/20 Pool D: Canada
Captain Tyler Ardron.
Coach Kieran Crowley.
RWC record QF 1991; Pool 1987, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011.
Strengths Crowley is on his fifth World Cup – twice as Canada coach, twice as an All Black full-back, and once as a selector – and Ardron is a sparkling flanker. Their final pool game against Romania in Leicester is the big one.
Concerns Jamie Cudmore, Phil Mackenzie and DTH van der Merwe are stalwarts of European rugby, but most of the squad play for Canadian clubs such as Castaway Wanderers, Prairie Wolf Pack and Calgary Hornets. Sadly, professionalism has turned the country of Gareth Rees’s 1991 quarter-finalists into the land that time forgot.
Player to watch Jamie Cudmore – or “card more” as wags will have it, owing to the lock’s penchant for a punch-up. Or, a top man who keeps the opposition honest.
Team song It Ain’t Easy (David Bowie)
Captain Thierry Dusautoir
Coach Philippe Saint-André
RWC record 2nd 1987, 1999, 2011; 3rd 1995; 4th 2003, 2007; QF 1991.
Strengths The French have course-and-distance form dating back to the 2007 quarter-final win in Cardiff and 1999 semi-final win at Twickenham, both over New Zealand. The pack know their onions (ho ho), and the super-smooth Fiji-born wing Noa Nakaitaci could set the tournament alight.
Concerns As in 2011, France have a head coach serving his notice – Guy Novès will take over from Saint-André after the tournament. It could be uniting or disrupting.
Player to watch Mathieu Bastareaud. I’d tended to dismiss the oil-tanker of a centre as all muscle and no finesse but there have been signs of late of a Ma’a Nonu-style expansion of his range.
Team song Tangled Up in Blue (Bob Dylan)
Captain Paul O’Connell
Coach Joe Schmidt
RWC record QF 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011; QF play-off 1999; Pool 2007.
Strengths O’Connell never gives an opposition pack a moment’s peace – he’s a Martin Johnson de nos jours. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton may be the world’s best half-back combination and if Sexton is on the front foot, he implements Schmidt’s tactical ploys with precision kicking.
Concerns Palpitations over the scrum if loosehead prop Cian Healy is at less than full bore, or anything happens to tighthead Mike Ross.
Player to watch Robbie Henshaw. The era of Brian O’Driscoll is over; step forward Henshaw of Connacht, with his mix of heft and intricate handling. Schmidt has given him and Jared Payne every chance to forge a centre combination .
Team song Get On the Good Foot (James Brown)
Captain Sergio Parisse
Coach Jacques Brunel
RWC record Pool 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011.
Strengths For Veni, Vidi, Vici, read Parisse, Parisse, Parisse – the captain and contender as world’s greatest No. 8 has it all, with quick feet, hands and brain, and will patrol the back of a decent pack shrewdly overseen by Brunel and former prop Giampiero de Carli.
Concerns Italy have beaten their trans-Alpine foes France twice in Rome in recent years, but this is neutral ground and the Azzurri’s World Cup record is… lamentable.
Player to watch Josh Furno has inherited the second-row jersey of the long-serving Marco Bortolami, and can also do service on the blindside flank. Dean Richards signed him at Newcastle, which is a good recommendation.
Team song Arrivederci Roma (Mario Lanza)
Captain Mihai Macovei
Coach Lynn Howells
RWC record Pool 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011.
Strengths Howells, a one-time right-hand man to Graham Henry when the latter was Wales coach, will expect a sturdy pack performance based on a number of French-based forwards. The 32-year-old Paulica Ion does the anchoring job.
Concerns As with all the “Tier Two” nations, the Romanians take time to adjust to the quadrennial jousts with the big boys. Much will depend on new backs Michael Wiringi and Paula Kinikinilau.
Player to watch Catalin Fercu. Take care pronouncing the surname, but enjoy the full-back, an Anglo-Welsh Cup winner at Saracens last season, whose devil-may-care style is a throwback to the era before gym bunnies.
Team song Even the Losers (get lucky sometimes) (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)
As for the half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, we are talking here about the best in Europe. But the Irish know there are many tons of earth still in need of shovelling before the Brian O’Driscoll-sized hole in midfield is finally filled, and with the dynamic loose-head prop Cian Healy short of match sharpness, there has been a diminishing of the X-factor fore and aft.
In a sense, Ireland still have two warm-up games in which to hit optimum form. Their opening World Cup pool game against Canada at the Millennium Stadium is less than hazardous; the second, against Romania at Wembley, may turn out to be even less challenging. The matches that count? Italy in round three, France in round four.
They have decent records against both: the defeat in Rome in 2013 was their first at the hands of the Azzurri in Six Nations history, although they briefly made a habit of losing to them in the mid-1990s; the last time they finished second to Les Bleus in a “real” game, as opposed to a World Cup warm-up, was as long ago as February 2011. But the World Cup fixtures ahead are risk-extreme: indeed, the thought of playing the French in a one-off pool decider on neutral territory is enough to keep anyone awake at night. Where’s that O’Driscoll bloke when you need him?
Forwards R Best, S Cronin, T Furlong, C Healy, J Heaslip, I Henderson, C Henry, J McGrath, J Murphy, S O’Brien, P O’Connell, P O’Mahony, M Ross, D Ryan, R Strauss, D Toner, N White.
Backs T Bowe, D Cave, K Earls, L Fitzgerald, R Henshaw, P Jackson, D Kearney, R Kearney, I Madigan, C Murray, J Payne, E Reddan, J Sexton, S Zebo.
The best half-backs in Europe
Ultra-conservative in attack
Jonathan SextonReuse content