Coach: Jacques Nienaber, although it’s safe to assume he has Rassie on auto-dial.
Captain: Siya Kolisi.
World ranking: 2nd following that big win at Twickenham
World Cup pedigree: Winners in 1995, 2007 and 2019, South Africa are aiming to be the first team to lift a fourth title.
Missing out: The decision to leave Handre Pollard and his 68 caps out of the squad despite the fly-half being fit is bizarre. He is probably the best kicking No 10 in the world and excellent off the tee. Might Nienaber still whistle him up at some point? Lood de Jager is unwell with a ‘minor’ heart condition. Lukhanyo Am is injured, a big blow. All three named above are on a list of reserves so let’s wait and see …
Bolter: The inclusion of lock Jean Kleyn took a few by surprise. The former Munsterman helped his province lift the URC title just months ago. He was capped five times by Ireland but not since RWC’19 which means he is now eligible to switch to the land of his birth. It will be interesting to see if he features in the crucial game against Ireland.
Achilles heel: In the past we might have pointed to the lack of plan ‘B’ if the Bok’s traditional plan ‘A’ wasn’t working out but in recent years South Africa have changed things up considerably, tweaking their shape in attack and showing a willingness to give the ball to their electric backs when the space beckons. Now we will just point out that one potential Bokke fly-half Damian Willemse is flaky off the tee while his rival Manie Libbok has just nine caps to his name.
Superpower: The Springboks superpower is the sheer depth of talent they bring to this RWC’23. Who would be a South African selector? Do you go for Malcolm Marx or Bombi Mbonambi? Do you stick with man of the match Willemse at full-back or revert to the veteran Willie le Roux who acts as second distributor? Do you start Duane Vermeulen at eight or Leicester’s Jasper Wiese? Andre Esterhuizen or Damian de Allende at twelve? Is Canan Moodie best placed on the wing, at outside centre or starting on the bench? Do you have a coin to toss?
Key players: Whoever wears the number 10 jersey in the absence of Pollard, Libbock or Willemse, has a job to do.
Best guess: Notwithstanding the ugly draw, the Springboks will be there or thereabouts come the business end of this tournament. Few rise to the occasion like the men in green who, let’s not forget, dismantled Wales and New Zealand in the run up to the big event. The depth of their squad means they can accommodate injuries better than most of the opposition and, if they can get to the semi-finals, it would be a brave man who bets against them thereafter.
Coach: Farrell … the elder. [Andy]
Captain: Johnny Sexton.
World ranking: 1st.
World Cup pedigree: Oddly enough, Ireland have never ventured beyond the quarters, they almost lost to Georgia in 2007 for heaven’s sake, so this squad is looking for redemption.
Missing out: Dan Sheehan has a question mark over his participation because of a foot injury, which could prove costly as he is probably the stand-out hooker in Europe. Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour were overlooked altogether. Cian Healy was injured against Samoa.
Bolter: Munster prop Jeremy Loughman is only there because of that unfortunate injury to Healy. Can he seize the moment?
Foreign legion: Jamison Gibson-Park, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen and James Lowe have all done good service for their adopted nation. Prop Finlay Bealham was born and raised in Canberra.
Achilles heel: When the opposition’s big lads huff and puff, long and hard enough, then Irish packs are liable to make like a house of straw. See Leinster’s two European Cup Final losses to La Rochelle if you want to know how the story ends. A scratchy win against Samoa in their last warm-up match was less than convincing. The depth of fly-half cover will also be tested. Johnny Sexton’s 38-year-old body will not last too many matches so he will need to be used sparingly in the pool stages, but he hasn’t played for weeks thanks to that dumb ban! (Sexton being dumb, not the ban).
Superpower: This Ireland side is a team consisting of good players who become great when they pull on the green shirt. They boast oodles of patience, holding onto the ball for long periods without making an error, forced or otherwise, and have the happy knack of choosing the right option most of the time. They are the new New Zealanders, highly efficient at what they do.
Key players: Sexton is vital to this group of players, more for his leadership these days than his play, although his game management is a cut above anything else Farrell has to hand. Up front, Caelan Doris is the commanding character, along with Sheehan.
Best guess: Ireland start this campaign in a decent frame of mind with the memory of that Grand Slam still fresh and they have two (relatively) straightforward games against Romania and Tonga before they have to face South Africa and Scotland. Even then they have a two week recovery period between the big games, which is nice. In contrast, Scotland have a seven day turnaround between Romania and Ireland. If ever Ireland are to do something special at RWC this is their time but the draw, with New Zealand or France in the quarter-finals (presuming they get there) is brutal. The truth is that Ireland could go all the way or crash at the quarters … yet again?
Coach: Gregor Townsend
Captain: Jamie Ritchie
World Ranking: 5th … but not when the draw was made.
World Cup pedigree: A semi-final in 1991 and a whisker away from another in 2015 but an exit after the pools last time out.
Missing out: Full-back Stuart Hogg bucked the trend by calling time on his career immediately before, rather than after a RWC, which was a surprise. Stuart McInally missed the cut and immediately left the building.
Bolter: Javan Sebastian, born in England, raised in Wales, Scottish dad, worked as a butcher a few years back so deserves some kudos for making the RWC squad.
Foreign legion: Are you sitting comfortably? Scotland selected four Saffas in Kyle Steyn, WP Nel, Duhan VDM and Pierre Schoooooeman. Ewan Ashman was born in Ontario to a Scottish father and English mum. Huw Jones has Welsh ancestry and grew up in England but was born in Edinburgh because his dad was teaching at Watsons College. Javan Sebastian see above, Sione Tuipulotu is an Aussie with Tongan/Scottish heritage, Jack Dempsey is an Aussie who played for the Wallabies at the last World Cup, Ben White came through the England age grades and Ben Healy came through the Irish system.
Achilles heel: The team is so slow out of the blocks that you wonder if they are a little HARD OF HEARING? Was it Linford Christie who claimed he went on the ‘B’ of bang because this Scotland side wakes up on the ‘H’ of half-time. It happened against France at Murrayfield and again against Georgia with Scotland losing 21-3 and 6-0 respectively before winning both matches. More worryingly Scotland pursued an idiotic wide-wide game-plan against Georgia. It very obviously was not working but no one, captain, coach, water boy, medic, ball boy, TMO etc etc bothered to correct it until the break. Finally, you have to ask if the hot headed Jamie Richie is: 1. Worth his place? 2. Able to stay on the field; he will be targeted?
Superpower: The squad is in a good place and their full strength XV can trouble anyone on their day due largely to their try-scoring abilities thanks to an exciting back-line and, of course, Finn Russell’s vision/execution.
Key players: Russell and his midfield amigo Tuipolotu who, often as not, acts as first receiver with the fly-half then looping behind his inside-centre and so giving the opposition defence more options to mull.
Best guess: A worrying number of fans think that Scotland not only can beat South Africa in the opening game but will do so! It’s not impossible but it’s a big ask given the Saffas strength and depth, not to mention the record score they put on the All Blacks at Twickenham. Meanwhile, Townsend’s record against Ireland of one win in 10 outings does not engender much optimism. An exit after the pool matches remains the most likely, if not the only possible outcome.
Coach: The talismanic Toutai Kefu
Captain: Sonatane Takulua
World Ranking: 15th
Tonga are the dark horses of Pool B, especially after picking up several key players from New Zealand. The challenge lies in integrating the ‘stars’ into the islanders’ squad but when those names include Charles Puitau and George Moala (included despite his ban), Malakai Fekitoa and Augustine Pulu you have to think that it is worth the trouble! Missing out is the Christian flag bearer Israel Folau, not because of ‘hate speech’ but simply because he is injured. Glasgow’s breakaway Sione Vailanu is present and correct after claiming a brace of tries against Canada in the warm-ups. It’s not clear whether a sprinkling of stardust will be enough for this Tongan side to challenge the big guns but they have been beating minnows for fun ahead of the serious stuff.
Coach: Eugen Apjok
Captain: Christian-Marion Chirica…after Mihai Macovei got injured.
World Ranking: 19th
Romania missed the last shindig in Japan after fielding an ineligible player in one of the qualification games so welcome back to them, even if they probably won’t bring much to the party. Their recent results put them firmly behind European (developing nations) trailblazers like Georgia and Portugal, who beat them by 50 and 18 points respectively. Toulon’s Atila Septar missed out on selection but fly-half Tudor Boldor was a surprise inclusion. (He doubles up as a brand ambassador for Under Armour!). Back in 1981, Romania lost 14-6 to the All Blacks but those days are long gone and damage control will be top of their agenda against the big hitters in Pool B.
Pool B fixtures –
- Saturday 9th September: Ireland v Romania (2.30pm, Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux)
- Sunday 10the September: South Africa v Scotland (4.45pm, Stade Vélodrome, Marseille)
- Saturday 16th September: Ireland v Tonga (8pm, Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes)
- Sunday 17th September: South Africa v Romania (2pm, Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux)
- Saturday 23rd September: South Africa v Ireland (8pm, Stade de France, Paris)
- Sunday 24th September: Scotland v Tonga (4.45pm, Stade de Nice, Nice)
- Saturday 30th September: Scotland v Romania (8pm, Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille)
- Sunday 1st October: South Africa v Tonga (8pm, Stade Vélodrome, Marseille)
- Saturday 7th October: Ireland v Scotland (8pm, Stade de France, Paris)
- Sunday 8th October: Tonga v Romania (4.45pm, Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille)