Rugby World Cup 2019: Week One Picks (20th September-23rd September)

With the World Cup finally arriving this weekend on Friday we take a look at the first set of games and pick out the three we think are definitely worth a watch.

Pick One: France v Argentina, Pool C, Tokyo Stadium, 05:45 (UK Time), Saturday 21st September

This clash could very well decides who advances from Pool C with England also in this pool. The unpredictable France could very well turn up like they did against Scotland in Paris and blow the Pumas away although France have never travelled excessively well.

They have a strong squad and some really exciting backs behind a well oiled, large pack that won’t shy away from what will be an attritional and physical battle with Argentina’s forwards.

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Credit: Instagram (@lospumasuar)

Argentina have selected some of their overseas stars which has allowed them to include their star fly-half Nicolas Sanchez and Saracens prop Juan Figallo further bolstering a largely Jaguares based squad that advanced all the way to the Super Rugby final.

Although Argentina lost all three of their Rugby Championship games they will be confident that if they play the way they know they can then France will be in serious trouble.

Players to Watch: Antoine Dupont (France), Nicolas Sanchez (Argentina)

Pick Two: New Zealand v South Africa, Pool B, International Stadium Yokohama, 10:45 (UK Time), Saturday 21st September

I mean there is very little to say about this clash that hasn’t already been said.

Two absolute heavyweights of world rugby, world number ones and current World Champions, New Zealand need no introduction and as for South Africa, who have won the cup twice themselves also need no superlatives to emphasise just how good they are as a team.

The most intriguing battle may come at fly-half if New Zealand revert to picking the wildly talented Beauden Barrett at 10 as he would then face off against possibly the most underrated fly-half in the world right now Handre Pollard.

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Credit: Instagram (@handrepollard)

Then again if we focus on that individual battle it may take away from Brodie Retallick against Even Etzebteh, Dane Coles v Malcolm Marx, Aaron Smith versus Faf de Klerk, a Rieko Ioane S’busiso Nkosi footrace, Kieran Read challenge Duane Vermeulen and the list goes on.

This is going to be engrossing, enthralling and above all brutal. Neither of these teams ever take a backward step.

It would take a brave man to put money on either of these giants in the playground of International rugby. So rather than putting money on it just sit back and enjoy the best the southern hemisphere has to offer.

Players to Watch: Brodie Retallick (New Zealand), Siya Kolisi (South Africa)

Pick Three: Ireland v Scotland, Pool A, International Stadium Yokohama, 08:45 (UK Time), Sunday 22nd September

The big one from the hosts pool. Ireland current world number one despite being thrashed by England just a few weeks ago. They play their Six Nations rivals, Scotland.

Scotland are arguably one of the most exciting teams as shown by their extraordinary Calcutta Cup draw way back in March. Down 31-0 at half-time they then scored 38 points before George Ford scampered over to spare England’s blushes.

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Credit: Instagram (@finnrussell92)

Finn Russell the mastermind behind this aided by his capable lieutenants Stuart Hogg and Ali Price in Scotland’s impressive armoury of backs.

Ireland more than have the pedigree to match and will fancy their chances against what is a fairly light pack north of the border. Johnny Sexton is key to Ireland’s chances with Joey Carbery injured and Jack Carty fairly new to the trial and tribulations of test match rugby if Ireland want to progress they are going to need the playmaker to be on top form.

Players to Watch: Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

These are just three of the best there are of course other games this weekend with Japan in action against Russia on Friday, then on Saturday Australia kick off their campaign against Fiji, Sunday starts with Italy v Namibia before England get underway against Tonga which is followed by Wales first taste of the action as they play Georgia on Monday.

Three Key Battles: New Zealand v South Africa

This is probably the most eagerly anticipated clash of the shortened 2019 Rugby Championship and should give us a clear indication about which of these will come out on top later this year when they meet in the pool stage of the World Cup.

Last year the Springboks won at the very same stadium (Westpac Stadium, Wellington). Could there be a repeat?

  1. Shannon Frizell v Pieter-Steph du Toit

Frizell comes into this contest with just four caps but he has had a strong season in Super Rugby for the Highlanders and he will be full of confidence against du Toit.

The South African is one of only two forwards retained following South Africa’s impressive win over Australia last weekend, he played a starring role with his deft kick through which led to Lood de Jager’s try.

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Credit: Instagram (@kingnoni676)

A titanic battle Frizell is definitely in form but du Toit is becoming undroppable for Rassie Erasmus.

2. Beauden Barrett v Willie le Roux

New Zealand’s superstar fly-half Beauden Barrett being deployed so the All Blacks can deploy three times Super Rugby winning ten Richie Mo’unga. Barrett certainly has the pace, control, tactical kicking and defence to play fullback it will be interesting to see how he is utilised in attack from the back.

The South African, le Roux. Dangerous attacker with electric feet, alongside two lethal finishers in Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi out on the wings, New Zealand will certainly have their hands full.

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Credit: Instagram (@wjjleroux)

Barrett at fullback could be a sign of things to come for New Zealand whilst le Roux is tried and tested and is among the best in the world in his position.

3. Sonny Bill Williams v Lukhanyo Am

The return of Sonny Bill Williams against one of South Africa’s newest stars Am. The six cap Springbok will provide stiff opposition for New Zealand’s poster boy. Am is a strong carrier and his pairing with de Allende is certainly there to provide physicality so New Zealanders will be hoping that Sonny Bill Williams is up for a testing battle following his injury.

We all know what Williams can do. He’s a freak.

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Credit: Instagram (@sonnybillwilliams)

Definitely one to watch to see if South Africa look to expose Williams lack of match practice and then if they do to watch how he responds, knowing him probably with one of his outrageous offloads or a thundering hit. He is the ultimate big game player.

It was hard to pick three all 15 of the one-on-one match ups could have been on here. New Zealand v South Africa is always a cracker, this is set to be no different.

How Good Are Saracens?

Saracens claimed a 37-34 comeback victory over Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership final. Jamie George was the star man, backed up by the brilliant Maro Itoje, the masterful Owen Farrell, a committed Alex Lozowksi and the totemic George Kruis.

It was one of the greatest finals any supporter could have wished for, the early try for Exeter Chiefs a sign of what was to come.

Saracens managed to turn the irrepressible tide that had solely been behind the men in white at Twickenham.

Owen Farrell’s inch perfect kick for Liam Williams coupled with two touchline conversions following two first half misses was the mark of man that has come to personify the wolfpack, warrior spirit of Saracens.

USO - Saracens - 20151213 - Chris Ashton, Owen Farrell and Marcelo Bosch
By Clément Bucco-Lechat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46847556

Saracens bench with the likes of veteran scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, hat-trick hero from the semi-final Nick Tompkins, fast developing Nick Isiekwe and South African flanker Michael Rhodes further reinforcing the red machine.

This is not to take anything away from Exeter who know how they want to play and have become incredibly successful at it, their pick and go gameplan the blueprint for their first half barrage of tries.

This final was a mark of just how high intensity the Premiership is. The perceived notion that Super Rugby or the Top 14 is a higher quality competition can be scoffed at by anyone who witnessed the display put on by England’s two greatest sides on one of Saracens’ greatest days.

This club match was reminiscent of any test match with the level of commitment, physicality and pace on show. Club rugby is well and truly alive and kicking.

It will take something special to dethrone the English and European champions, they are now synonymous with success, the benchmark to which all others aspire to.

This was a show of what Saracens can do and the worrying part is their stars are still some way off leaving this dynasty that has dominated the domestic scene.

Rugby Australia Have Made a Brave Decision

Israel Folau’s contract with Rugby Australia is set to be terminated following a post on Instagram from the Waratahs star that stated that homosexuals among other groups are sinners and will be sent to hell unless they repent.

Accompanying the photo was the following caption “Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.”

This led to Rugby Australia releasing a statement which stated “”In the absence of compelling mitigating factors, it is our intention to terminate his contract.”

This is not the first time Israel Folau has been accused of exhibiting homophobic behaviour due to his devout Christian beliefs.

This will not have been an easy decision for Raelene Castle and Andrew Hore to have made. We are just five months away from the 2019 World Cup and Israel Folau is undoubtedly a key player for the Wallabies.

This decision though is widely supported and makes a statement that this sort of unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated.

Previously athletes have got away with awful offences including domestic violence and assault but the contract termination has shown that there are human beings behind the corporate logo and image presented by some of sport’s most prominent governing bodies.

What’s next for Israel Folau? It’s unlikely any other Super Rugby franchise will take the fullback and a move to England is unlikely with their currently being a massive focus on culture and team spirit in England and a the divisive nature of Folau’s comments will not have gone down well.

Folau may see if any of his previous employers in the AFL or NRL are interested in the multi-talented player. He could also join the rugby revolution going on in Western Australia. One thing’s for sure Folau will no longer be Rugby Australia’s golden boy.

A very brave and strong decision by Rugby Australia, I for one support them.

State of the Nation: New Zealand

The world’s best team and reigning World Champions are definitely the frontrunners for the showpiece event in Japan and have a plethora of options across the park as the excellent domestic and youth structure continues to churn out All Blacks in the making.

Once again the Christchurch based Crusaders sit atop the Super Rugby ladder and their forwards continue to dominate opposition packs.

New Zealand have a very good set of test props in Karl Tu’inukuafe and Owen Franks, they will both be in the squad along with their understudies Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala. Steve Hansen will want at least one more prop in his World Cup squad.

Chiefs Angus Ta’avao and Ofa Tu’ungafisi both worthy contenders for us the more experienced Blues prop takes this one.

Props: Owen Franks (Crusaders), Nepo Laulala (Chiefs), Joe Moody (Crusaders), Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafisi (both Blues)

In between them Codie Taylor, Dane Coles and Nathan Harris are the established trio. If you had to bet on an outsider upsetting the established order you would bet on Liam Coltman but with New Zealand limited to just 31 players for a World Cup it looks as though he will miss out.

Hookers: Dane Coles (Hurricanes), Nathan Harris (Chiefs), Codie Taylor (Crusaders)

New Zealand have arguably the best second row pairing in the world with the caveman from New Zealand, Sam Whitelock and the athletic Brodie Retallick. Another certainty for New Zealand’s second row is the largest of the Barrett brothers, Scott.

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By http://www.davidmolloyphotography.com from Sydney, Australia – 2017.08.19.20.22.55-Sam Whitelock, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61951964

Jackson Hemopo has impressed in recent times and will definitely be in Hansen’s mind when he names his squad and he will fight it out with Blues captain, Patrick Tuipulotu for what will most likely be the final spot in the squad. Hemopo gets in due to form.

Locks: Scott Barrett (Crusaders), Jackson Hemopo (Highlanders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Sam Whitelock (Crusaders)

In the back row with space again limited I would expect New Zealand to go with five players here.

Here there is one player that gets in without question and that is the departing captain, Kieran Read.

New Zealand are blessed at openside flanker, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Matt Todd all very strong at international level but with space limited one will miss out. Sam Cane is the leader and starts for New Zealand. Savea’s ability to slot in at eight makes him the winner in a shootout with Todd,

At blindside there is the obvious first choice Liam Squire who is looking more and more like an All Black with every test he plays, like Savea has the versatility to cover eight allowing Hansen to give the final spot to another six.

There is of course Vaea Fifita and Dalton Papalii both of whom were part of the squad that toured Europe in November but our pick is the outstanding, breakout player of last season Shannon Frizell.

Back Row: Sam Cane (Chiefs), Shannon Frizell (Highlanders) Kieran Read (Captain, Crusaders), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes), Liam Squire (Highlanders)

Catch our take on the backs tomorrow!

Bulls v Sharks: Three Key Battles

It’s our second instalment of this feature and again we take a look at one of the weekend’s Super Rugby clashes as two of South Africa’s strongest franchises take on each other in Pretoria.

These are the three contests we think could decide what is set to be an enthralling contest.

  1. Cornal Hendricks v Sbu Nkosi

Both right wings so we will probably be robbed of watching a foot race between these two amazing finishers that have been key men for their franchises.

Nkosi is one of the most deadly players in the league and is in a backline that will want to get the balls to their wings and exploit the wider areas.

Hendricks possesses slightly less pace than his Sharks counterpart but with the strong pack the Bulls possess and a very creative midfield if Hendricks is given space there will be fireworks.

2. Handre Pollard v Robert Du Preez

Two very capable fly-halves with rounded games. Du Preez is in his last season with him set to join England’s Sharks based in Sale.

Pollard is South Africa’s number one for a reason, he’s an attacking master and if he is given the front foot by his pack he will have no problem running at defenders and using his handling and kicking game to manipulate the Sharks defenders.

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By David Roberts from London, United Kingdom – South Africa vs. USA, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44256325

Du Preez showed what a good player he is in Sale and proved that he has it in him to be a really steadying presence. He will not be found wanting off the tee and Pollard will have his work cut out containing the Sharks ten.

3. Schalk Brits v Akker van der Merwe

The all action Brits has had a great career and he is continuing to defy the ageing process back in his homeland following a very successful period with Saracens in England. Akker van der Merwe is no pushover though and earned his first three caps for South Africa last year.

Brits will be his usual self playing like a centre in a hooker’s body and will be key to give Bulls some go forward and try to give Bulls the advantage on the gainline.

Akker van der Merwe will try and build on what was a good season for the 26 year old last time out if not for the Sharks. A different type of player than Brits but very good at the basics and offers Sharks some real power.

This game could decide the winners of the South African conference and is sure to a brutally physical and bruising encounter in Pretoria.

Crusaders v Hurricanes: Three Key Battles

This weekend presents us with one of the most enticing Super Rugby clashes as the champions, Crusaders take on the exciting Hurricanes.

Crusaders are favourites playing at home and with the Hurricanes missing star All Black, Beauden Barrett who only returned to training on Monday.

  1. Jordan Taufua v Reed Prinsep

Two very talented players match up in this crunch tie. Jordan Taufua is set to be New Zealand’s next import to England with Leicester Tigers snapping up the flanker.

Taufua’s most high profile appearance to date was when the Barbarians played South Africa at Wembley in 2016, the game ending in a 31-31 draw.

For Reed Prinsep this will be somewhat a homecoming considering he played his NPC rugby for Canterbury. Prinsep is less experienced than Taufua at Super Rugby level but certainly has the pace and physicality to match the rampaging Crusader.

2. Richie Mo’unga v Fletcher Smith

The Crusaders fly-half was the in-form player at the end of last season as he guided his team to a second successive title under Scott Robertson. Mo’unga’s kicking skills and game management earned him his first All Black call-up.

For Fletcher Smith this will be a tough one, the 23 year old has just one Super Rugby appearance to his name and Beuaden Barrett’s boots are big ones to fill for the youngster.

It will be interesting to see if the young ten can hold his own against one of the best players in the league in this high pressure, high stakes game.

3. Matt Todd v Dane Coles

Not a positional battle but the two captains will be going head to head. Matt Todd is one of the less celebrated Crusaders players who has been pivotal for his franchises success. He is a traditional open side, strong at the breakdown and a master on the floor. Todd leads by example and he’ll need to inspire his team to beat a very competent Hurricanes outfit.

This is some test of Coles leadership, the hooker is brilliant. Just exceptional at his best, he runs well, tackles physically and leads exceptionally.

It will be interesting to see which captain plays to the referee early on as that could effect how the game is played.

This will be a close one and definitely one of the biggest games this season. Two franchises that are sure to have play-off ambitions for the end of the season.