1 New Zealand

Steve Hansen was asked the inevitable question when New Zealand arrived in London. How would the All Blacks guard against complacency, an indictment of their predecessors at previous northern hemisphere World Cups. In truth his answer came last month, when picking Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder, wings with three caps between them. “Nehe and Waisake bring something different. Something that this team hasn’t had for a little while … we can’t win this World Cup by just having ordinary.”Their rivals may take encouragement from their Rugby Championship performances, when they finished second to Australia, but they will also note the response against the Wallabies, when the beast was stirred. They would prefer not to face Argentina first but, led by the irrepressible Richie McCaw, they begin the tournament at a level to which the rest aspire.

First match v Argentina (Pool C)

2 Australia

Whisper it quietly but the Wallabies boast a scrum that should not crumple against Wales and England and, as usual, they have a wealth of talent behind the scrum with Israel Folau the leading light. Like England they begin against Fiji in what should be an entertaining match but one that Australia will expect to win. Michael Cheika’s main issue is selection at nine, 10 and 12 and whether he opts for the individual talents of Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Matt Giteau or the more direct Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley and Matt Toomua. They have lost their last three World Cup matches against England but they have a hold over Wales and would not fear New Zealand in the latter rounds, having beaten them in August.

First match Fiji Wednesday 23 September (Pool A)

3 England

England have hammed up the importance of home advantage – perhaps too much considering some of their best performances in the last 18 months have been away – but they will be difficult to beat at Twickenham. Fiji will be a test but arguably the perfect one before meeting Wales and Australia. Jonny May and Anthony Watson are in form, while the defeat in Paris gave the pack the reminder it can sometimes need and beating Ireland was a necessary confidence boost. The XV for Fiji is unsurprising; Stuart Lancaster favours continuity and, while it may not please everyone, it demonstrates an appreciation of how best to win matches. The continued inclusion of Sam Burgess is a risk but it does at least deflect the spotlight from everyone else. Expect England to begin with promise.

First match v Fiji (Pool A).

4 South Africa

Jean de Villiers is fit to captain South Africa.
Jean de Villiers is fit to captain South Africa. Photograph: David Davies/PA

Far less fancied than when they beat New Zealand just under a year ago, having lost four matches in a row before turning the tables on Argentina last month, but that may work in the Springboks’ favour. Injuries, particularly in the pack, have played their part but have now largely cleared up and seeing Jean de Villiers fit to captain the side brings a smile to supporters of all nationalities. If experience wins World Cups then South Africa will collect their third next month – the XV to face Japan contains a national record 880 caps. Fly-half is a quandary; Handre Pollard is more expansive but Pat Lambie plays against Japan and will maximise their forward might. The team New Zealand will least want to face in the final.

First match v Japan (Pool B).

5 France

They couldn’t do it again could they? Four years have passed since the most improbable World Cup final appearance and each Six Nations campaign is more insipid than the one before. But Philippe Saint-André has often protested France would improve if he were not so hamstrung by the overbearing Top 14 and now he has a chance to prove it. The warm‑ups were typically inconsistent but they have huge power up front and some dazzling backs when in the mood. France v Italy has been a turgid affair in the Six Nations of late and Saturday’s match may be another but there are signs that Les Bleus’ tails are up and their Pool D rivals Ireland, who have a dreadful record against the French, will be watching closely.

First match v Italy (Pool D).

6 Ireland

It would be foolish to read too much into Ireland’s warm-up defeats to Wales and England, yet there is the growing sense that Joe Schmidt’s side have gone a little flat since the Six Nations. That said, the Wales match was one they might have won and England could not afford to lose at Twickenham whereas Ireland do not want to peak until after their opening two pool matches against Canada and Romania. Schmidt’s risk-averse tactics have suited Ireland so far but, while there is no need to panic yet, his game plan means Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton must move swiftly through the gears in the coming weeks. Has progressed slowed under Schmidt or is the Kiwi yet to show his World Cup hand?

First match v Canada (Pool D).

7 Argentina

Argentina sprung a surprise in their opening game in 2007 against France and what a catalyst it would be if they did so again against New Zealand. There is the danger that, Pool A aside, the early exchanges will be predictable but if the Pumas can catch the All Blacks cold then this World Cup will be turned on its head – assuming Fiji have not already done so against England, of course. Impressive against Leicester earlier this month, particularly in the backs with Juan Martín Hernández, Marcelo Bosch and Juan Imhoff vibrant, the likelihood is that New Zealand will be too strong and a probable quarter-final against Ireland or France, both of whom they beat in 2007, would await.

First match v New Zealand (Pool C).

8 Wales

Rhys Webb will be sorely missed by Wales.
Rhys Webb will be sorely missed by Wales. Photograph: BPI/REX Shutterstock

Deprived of three of their best players through injury, it is the absence of Rhys Webb that may prove the most costly. Webb gives them such quick ball from the set piece, which in turn allows Jamie Roberts to bash over the gain line, whereas Leigh Halfpenny is replaced by Liam Williams – electric with ball in hand. The problem is replacing Halfpenny the goal-kicker, who makes opponents think twice at the breakdown anywhere in their own half. Still, you cannot underestimate the significance of last autumn’s win over South Africa. Victory over Uruguay is guaranteed but more important is that Williams and the tighthead Samson Lee prove their form. Alun Wyn Jones’s fitness is also a worry.

First match v Uruguay (Pool C).

9 Scotland

If Pool B is among the hardest to predict then Scotland are the cause. There is quiet optimism after beating Italy twice and almost turning France over in Paris, and of the home nations Vern Cotter’s Scotland have probably used the warm-ups the wisest. Cotter’s backs, in particular Mark Bennett and Tommy Seymour, are coming to the boil nicely and South Africa’s recent woes means that match is earmarked as one of the potential shocks. That said, an out of sorts Scotland could easily come unstuck against Samoa or even find life difficult in their opener against Japan.

First match v Japan Wednesday 23 September (Pool B).

10 Fiji

John McKee pointed to Fiji’s improved set piece this week but his team to face England suggests they are coming to play. At fly-half, Ben Volavola, recently acquired by the Crusaders, is raw but has bags of talent to add to their electric back division. Will the scrum and lineout hold up at Twickenham, where conditions are not likely to be conducive to their explosive style? Probably not. More likely a fast start gives way to England putting on the squeeze in the last quarter. A shame they are in such a hard pool having got their act together under John McKee but it is a perfect opportunity to show they still have talent despite so much being prised away.

First match v England (Pool A).

11 Italy

A frustrating four years under Jacques Brunel is likely to climax with a limp pool stage exit for Italy, who will be without Sergio Parisse against France on Saturday. Frustrating because there have been false dawns – victories over their pool rivals Ireland and France in the Six Nations – but no sustained development. The warm-ups were not disastrous – they were impressive in spells at home to Scotland and away to Wales – but it amounted to three defeats. Parisse would walk into any other side in the tournament and without him they will badly struggle.

First match v France (Pool D).

12 Samoa

Samoa’s Census Johnston has come out of retirement for the World Cup.
Samoa’s Census Johnston has come out of retirement for the World Cup. Photograph: Steve Bardens/World Rugby via Getty Images

A popular pick to cause the biggest upset of the pool stages with Scotland, and even South Africa, their potential victims. Neither will have been pleased to see Census Johnston, Toulouse’s near-22st prop, come out of retirement last week, while Tim Nanai-Williams and Kahn Fotuali’i demonstrate they are not all just big lumps. Samoa should be too strong for the USA on Sunday, even if they were below par against the Barbarians at the Olympic Stadium last month. New Zealand, who eventually prevailed on their historic trip to Apia in July, would bear witness to the threat they pose.

First match v USA (Pool B).

13 Japan

Japan are fast improving and their coach, Eddie Jones, is convinced second place in Pool B is up for grabs. Long gone are the days of shipping 145 points (as was the case against New Zealand in 1995) but they are not helped by their schedule. Samoa, Scotland and the USA will be their targets and they would prefer not to have to face South Africa first. Still, they boast wins over Georgia, Wales, Italy and Samoa since the last World Cup and in the scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka and Kotaro Matsushima, the South Africa-born wing, and Male Sa’u they have a handful of eye-catching backs.

First match v South Africa (Pool B).

14 Tonga

Much less has been made of Tonga’s potential than that of Fiji or Samoa but they memorably beat France in 2011 and there is belief that they can squeeze past Argentina and into second place. They and Georgia are relatively closely matched so Saturday’s contest at Kingsholm, where the locals will love the physicality, is crucial. It is an ageing squad but they arrive on the back of four straight wins, against Canada, the USA, Romania and Japan, and in Halani Aulika and Elvis Taione they have some considerable front-row muscle.

First match v Georgia (Pool C).

15 Georgia

Defeats to Canada and Japan earlier this month do not represent ideal preparation for their most important match against Tonga. Georgia have won one game at each of their last two World Cups but they will expect to beat Namibia later in the competition meaning a win on Saturday would demonstrate progress and perhaps advance claims on a Six Nations spot in the future. As is usually the case, they have colossal power up front but little behind it. Mamuka Gorgodze, of Toulon is their standout name but they have quality in the front row in the shape of Clermont’s Davit Zirakashvili and the scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze will become the youngest World Cup player in history , aged 18.

First match v Tonga (Pool C).

16 USA

Samu Manoa is the USA’s star man.
Samu Manoa is the USA’s star man. Photograph: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In Samu Manoa the USA possess a player head and shoulders above his peers. During his time at Northampton Manoa used to joke that he didn’t really know the rules but his physicality can be eye-watering. The XVs side is not at the same stage of development as the sevens but they have an accomplished captain in Saracens’ Chris Wyles.They will lament the absences of the Stade Français lock Scott Lavalla (injury) and the former captain Todd Clever (disciplinary reasons) – with them, they may have had a fighting chance against Samoa.

First match v Samoa (Pool B).

17 Romania

Nowhere near the force they were in the 1980s and 1990s, before the end of communism in eastern Europe; success for Romania would be victory over Canada, which they have achieved in their last three meetings. Romania do have pedigree, with wins against Wales and France to speak of, but that seems a lifetime ago. Powerful enough up front but Lynn Howells’ side will not upset the French on Wednesday, no matter how off-colour Les Bleus are.

First match v France Wednesday 23 September (Pool D).

18 Canada

It was an experimental side that was soundly beaten by Fiji at the Stoop recently and they would prefer to look at the victory over Georgia just a few days before that. It was however, a first win in eight. There’s plenty of pace out wide, with the Scarlets’ DTH van der Merwe and the Ospreys’ Jeff Hassler, but the omission of the former captain and stalwart James Pritchard suggests at least one eye is on the future. They will cause Ireland few problems on Saturday, although there is history between Canada’s enforcer Jamie Cudmore and Paul O’Connell. That particular battle is not to be missed.

First match v Ireland (Pool D).

19 Namibia

They have lost all 15 of their previous World Cup matches and their record is highly unlikely to improve. They are one place below Uruguay in the world rankings but do not have such a daunting pool and do boast one world-class player in the Saracens flanker Jacques Burger. This is his third and final World Cup – he will retire at the end of this season – and he will show typical disregard for his well-being throughout. They do not begin their campaign until next Thursday, when they face New Zealand at the Olympic Park. The All Blacks’ try tally that day will be high, Burger’s tackle count could be higher.

First match v New Zealand Thursday 24 September (Pool D).

20 Uruguay

How to measure success for Uruguay, a squad with only a handful of professionals? Certainly not on the scoreboard. Getting to the World Cup in the first place with a surprise two-legged victory over Russia does at least gives them their day in the sun. They are not ranked as the worst side at the World Cup but looking at their Pool A opposition, starting with Wales, coming through the tournament without any serious injuries may well constitute success.

First match v Wales (Pool A).


Gerard Meagher

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Rugby World Cup 2015 power rankings: France up to second, Boks plummet
All Blacks remain top despite vulnerability against Argentina, Les Bleus climb three places after two regulation wins and South Africa fall to ninth after shock loss to Japan

Gerard Meagher

25, Sep, 2015 @11:13 AM

Article image
Rugby World Cup 2015 power rankings: England plummet, Australia climb | Gerard Meagher
England slip five places after defeat to Wales but Wallabies move up to second, while New Zealand stay top and Ireland are upwardly mobile too

Gerard Meagher

02, Oct, 2015 @10:15 AM

Article image
Rugby World Cup power rankings: breaking down all 20 teams in Japan
England, Ireland and Wales are among the throng pushing to challenge New Zealand as the World Cup enters crunch time

Michael Aylwin

16, Oct, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Pools of intrigue: how the Rugby World Cup groups stack up | Paul Rees
Paul Rees takes a look at how the World Cup opening stage could pan out in Japan

Paul Rees

02, Dec, 2018 @9:01 AM

Article image
Rugby World Cup 2015: day-by-day fixture schedule
Times and venues for all 48 games as England host the World Cup from 18 September to 31 October

Guardian sport

30, Jul, 2015 @10:34 AM

Article image
Rugby World Cup 2015: talking points from the opening weekend
A frantic turnaround may halt Japan’s rise, Wales are finding their groove amid the wreckage and is this the moment for England and South Africa to make changes?

Guardian sport

21, Sep, 2015 @7:54 AM

Article image
Rugby World Cup 2015: Tom Jenkins's photographic highlights
After six weeks and filing around 2,000 images from 19 matches, we present a selection of the Guardian and Observer’s Tom Jenkins’s favourite shots from the tournament

Tom Jenkins and Steven Bloor

02, Nov, 2015 @1:11 PM

Article image
Rugby union power rankings: All Blacks still No 1 despite rare defeat | Gerard Meagher
A year out from the World Cup, New Zealand look good for a hat-trick of wins but Ireland, South Africa and Wales are all on the rise with England and Australia heading in the other direction

Gerard Meagher

19, Sep, 2018 @12:46 PM

Article image
Rugby World Cup 2015: the pick of intriguing and affordable match-ups
Rugby World Cup 2015: the pick of intriguing match-ups, including New Zealand v Tonga, Wales v Fiji, France v Romania, South Africa v Samoa and Scotland v Japan

Paul Rees

13, Sep, 2014 @9:30 PM

Article image
Rugby World Cup 2015: talking points from the weekend’s matches
Injuries will not dampen Wales’ spirits after beating England, Australia gamble on freshness and Italy’s coach isn’t popular at home after listless displays

Guardian sport

28, Sep, 2015 @8:00 AM