The 10th Rugby World Cup kicks off this weekend, with 20 teams competing for the honour of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup. Nine venues across France will host the quadrennial tournament from Sept 8 to Oct 28, with the opening game and final held at the Stade de France.
Here are the matches to look out for in the opening weekend.
France vs New Zealand (Saturday, 3.15am)
Sixteen years ago – has it really been that long? – France opened their World Cup expecting to beat a tough but beatable Argentina. Instead they walked head first and were taken apart by arguably the best Pumas side in history. This time the French will be much better prepared, are much better on paper and on the field, but are facing the best rugby team of all time. A win against the All Blacks will really put down a marker for the rest of the competition.
This New Zealand side, though still pretty good, are not vintage and were a fortnight ago humiliated in a record thrashing by South Africa. If France want to win their first World Cup, it has to start now. And as long as Antonie Dupont is in fine fettle, and the forwards gain the upper hand, then the French should win.
France: Antoine Dupont, Cameron Woki, Damian Penaud
NZ: Ardie Savea, Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett
England vs Argentina (Sunday, 3am)
England have had a poor time of it of late: two wins out of five in each of the past two Six Nations tournaments, and have lost six out of nine tests since Steve Borthwick took over as coach from Eddie Jones in January. They have also, in their last match, lost for the first time to a non-Tier-One country when Fiji beat them 30-22 at Twickenham.
To make things worse, captain Owen Farrell and the squad’s only specialist No. 8, Billy Vunipola, are suspended for the start of the tournament after being sent off for high tackles, and have also lost two first-team players to injury. Which sounds like the perfect time for Argentina to upset the apple-cart – though the Pumas did win their last meeting 30-29 last year. However, Michael Cheika’s men are consistent in their inconsistency and win when not expected to and lose when they’re expected to win.
England: Courtney Lawes, George Ford, Freddie Steward
Argentina: Pablo Matera, Santiago Carreras, Emiliano Boffelli
Scotland vs South Africa (Sunday 11.45pm)
The broadsword vs the rapier; the blunderbuss vs the flintlock. In other words, a team that emphasises size and power against one that relies on speed and the brilliance of flyhalf Finn Russell. The Springboks should win, but being the first match, Scotland could catch them cold if they find something innovative to get over or around the fortress – it’s highly unlikely they can go through them.
Scotland: Finn Russell, Blair Kinghorn, Duhan van der Merwe.
South Africa: Faf de Klerk, Mannie Libbok, Kurt-lee Arendse
Wales vs Fiji (Monday, 3am)
This is the fourth consecutive World Cup that these two are meeting each other at the group stage. While the Welsh have had the upper hand the past few meetings, their last meeting in France, at the 2007 World Cup, proved a humiliating time for Wales as they were upset by the Pacific Islanders in a classic.
And while Wales had had a rough time of things in the past two seasons, the Fijians have probably never been better, coached as they are by former lock Simon Raiwalui, who has managed to bring out the best of their flair and flamboyance while adding a lot of steel, grit and discipline. Their first-ever win over England two weekends ago was a welcome fillip and a sign of where they are right now. Their only downside was the loss this week of their newly established flyhalf Caleb Muntz, who could prove a big loss.
Fiji: Levani Botia, Semi Radradra, Josua Tuisova
Wales: Jac Morgan, Dan Biggar, Liam Williams
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