RWC 2019: Pool D Preview

Pool D: Fiji hopefully to provide fireworks

In the final RWC 2019 pool blog preview series, Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool D. Can Wales top the pool? Can Fiji rattle Australia in the opening fixture of this pool? What do Georgia have outside of their pack?

Pool D

Australia: Consistency key

You have to love Australia. Regardless of their form heading into a world championship or important series, their sport teams always have a swag, always have a confidence that they will deliver the goods.

The Michael Cheika era has been an interesting era. The line out platform has been standout but the scrum set piece has experienced issues. The back options have excelled at various points; the reintegration of O’Connor to accompany the marauding running lines of Kerevi and Kuridrani is a nice addition considering the furor on Israel Folau.

This is a very experienced squad selected. There should be plenty of nous and game management at half back with the likes of Foley, Genia and White in the mix. The sight of Christian Lealiifano in the squad is superb news; class player on and off the pitch.

The back row unit has two standout performers in Hooper and Pocock who needs to be managed well in order for Australia to have any ambitions of World Cup glory. Pocock’s all action style and supreme breakdown work is incredible.

Given the experienced squad assembled, there are issues with the scrum. New Zealand destroyed Australia in this area of play in the previous test match. Other teams have probed Australia in this set piece area too and that could be decisive in a knockout round game.

The Fiji fixture is a massive game. Fiji are a dangerous side to play particularly if you intend to throw the ball around. Australia will look to do this in abundance and could leave themselves open to the counter attack which Fiji could take advantage of.

If Australia can win this opening fixture, then they look with confidence with their match up against Wales, a team which they have had a good recent record against. A nation expects and Australia will look to deliver.

Wales: Gatland era comes to an end

It is the end of an era in Welsh rugby. Warren Gatland is departing back to native New Zealand after the conclusion of this tournament. Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones will then be entrusted to take the national side to new heights. Interesting times.

Prior to preseason, Wales were standout candidates in this pool. Their structured game management style rewarded with a superb 6 Nations Grand Slam. They forced opposition to submit. Their second half dismantling of England was emphatic.

They have identified a back three with extreme potency. Halfpenny / Williams, North and Adams will look to light up the tournament but whether the Wales game plan will provide sufficient early ball for them to impress is an entirely different question.

The preseason has been a mixed bag truth be told. England have been on top form during preseason and Wales were not the only team to face England in a ruthless mood at Twickenham. Wales did beat England a week later but the performance lacked excitement.

The Ireland fixtures during preseason were more of the same. Ireland dominated a second string Welsh selection for sixty minutes only for Wales to rustle up an excellent final quarter to nearly snatch a win on Gatland’s farewell game at the Principality Stadium.

The Ireland away trip saw some good moments from Wales. Parkes’ try was well worked by the pack but once Ireland’s pack asserted dominance in the third quarter, Wales had no answer.

The absence of the likes of Rob Evans, Samson Lee really struck home on that performance in the front row and without the injured Taulupe Faletau in the back row, there was no spark in the pack.

Minds will be focused in the Welsh camp after this preseason. The training put in by the squad has been incredible so may explain the flat performances in recent preseason games. The focus and mindset is to top the pool but they need to get past their nemesis Australia to do so.

Pack platform is everything for this Welsh side. The scrum platform needs to be on point but question marks abound after this squad selection. Lee and Evans omission opens questions in this facet of play. Line out should stand out given Jones, Tipuric and Ball as viable options.

Wales’s back row unit has always been stellar, they will disrupt opposition ball and with the likes of Navidi, Tipuric in the side. Gatland will resist tweaking the game plan that has served his side so well; it may work for the pool phase but in the knockout rounds, that might need to be evaluated.

Georgia: Scrum Central

No sign of Georgia entering the NH top brass and participating in Tier 1 test match fixtures anytime soon. A disappointment given the Tbilisi attendances for the national team. It is stifling the team’s development and progression in the sport.

The focus of this Georgia side will be the set piece; specifically the scrum. Their reputation in this area of play precedes itself. Their scrummaging unit has been asked to train with the likes of England in the past, sessions which were fiery to say the least. Mikheil Nariashvili is a prop who will shine in this tournament. The Montpellier club player is a scrummaging freak.

The pack which is being coached superbly by Graham Rowntree contain several marquee names from French Rugby. Gorgodze is a massive unit and will lead from the front. It is a vastly experienced pack and will pose issues for opposition but after that lies the issue.

Due to the lack of standout Tier 1 test match fixtures, Georgia are still struggling to implement an efficient half back and back line game plan. The game management can be very inconsistent; indecisive decision making at vital moments a plight on the side.

If this was a scrummaging tournament and pack contest, Georgia would be one of the favorites but it is not and the weak points will be ruthlessly exposed particularly in the back field defensively.

Fiji: Offloading excitement reigns

Fiji will add excitement to the tournament. Their offloading game is par excellence and their pack led by the likes of Leone Nakarawa will pose issues for pool opponents.

How will pool opponents play Fiji? Will they go conservative and look to create out wide once the pack platform is secured or do they look to exploit any defensive back field deficiencies early which is dangerous but Fiji love unstructured contests and will eat up any attacking miscues from opposition.

The pack contains massive ball carrying threat. Nakarawa is a specimen in the second row. His speed and mobility is incredible and his offloading ability is world class. You throw in Mata from the back row and you have potency in the pack which will need to be looked at.

The weak point. The lack of team cohesion due to players playing in far flung countries. Preseason has been promising but fixtures against Tonga are not going to cut it when facing Australia and Wales in particular.

The scrum set piece can be exposed; their front row if moved around the park will tire and see opposition look to exploit this area in the pool phases. A team to be respected. A team where pool opposition tactical setup will be intriguing to see.

Uruguay: Tough Ask

Good to see Uruguay in this tournament. They will bring passion, endeavor and hard work but the squad looks quite exposed in multiple areas. They secured their World Cup ticket by beating Canada in the playoffs; that is the baseline performance to evaluate the side.

The squad has no marquee names of note. It could be a breakout tournament for some players. This looks a daunting task for Uruguay. Hopefully they will be competitive but a distinct lack of preseason games makes this a tournament too far. This could get embarrassing.

Verdict:

Hoping that Fiji upset the pool form guide and beat one of either Australia or Wales. If they can, then this pool gets interesting but for now think they will be just short given lack of team cohesion and competitive fixtures.

Australia have a superb record against Wales in recent seasons and I think they will have the nous and game smarts to win this test match. Wales will look to build momentum as the pool progresses; they should do so provided that they are accurate against Fiji in particular.

Georgia and Uruguay are looking at a winner take all game to not finish bottom in the pool.

RWC 2019: Pool C Preview

Pool C: Pool of Death

In the third part of this Rugby World 2019 preview series; Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool C. It is a pool which looks on paper to be effectively a shootout between England, Argentina and France for the two quarter final berths. 

Pool C

An intriguing pool with three marquee teams pitted together. USA and Tonga complete the pool lineup; two sides who will provide energy and passion but a distinct lack of quality when compared with the other three teams will be decisive.

England: The Eddie Jones England era hinges on this tournament

It has always been about this Japan Rugby World Cup 2019 for England and particularly Eddie Jones. The World Cup cycle has seen Eddie Jones arrive and run the rule over the best talent English rugby union has to offer; there were those infamous training camps in Brighton which caused some consternation among the clubs. There were also those heated scrummaging practice games against the Georgians. Eddie Jones has left no stone unturned for this World Cup and he will be on the front foot with his press conferences and the sound bites.

England in the last eighteen months has seen a progressive upward curve. They have demolished Ireland in 6 Nations and preseason friendly test matches. Their pack looks traditionally strong. Jamie George provides mobility, discipline and set piece line out accuracy in the absence of Dylan Hartley. The pack is at a nice age demographic. The sight of Genge, Itoje, Kruis, Curry in the pack provides energy and overall quality in all facets of pack play.

Ford and Farrell versatility to play the ten channel will be key to England progression. Youngs and Heinz if provided quick ruck ball have the ability to create havoc in the back field. I am expecting Manu Tuilagi to be a key fulcrum for England much like the Vunipola’s in the pack. Their dynamism and physicality with ball in hand is going to cause opposition untold damage.

Where are the weak points? The key question for England is can they produce a full eighty minute performance. The preseason games have seen massively impressive periods of play but there have been lulls in quality – look at the opening half performances against Ireland and Italy during preseason. England have the ability to blow away teams with their quality but the consistency of their play for an entire game remains a question mark.

The discipline question surrounding England is never too far away. England is skirting a fine line on their defensive line speed and offside at ruck time. Officiating decision making early in this tourney will determine whether these areas are a concern for Eddie Jones; if they are heavily pinged early, expect Jones to be frank in press conference settings.

On paper, this side will look incredibly far in the tournament. They are stacked with talent and provided that discipline does not become a big issue in the group games, I expect them to advance from this pool and into a semi-final match. After that, all bets are off.

Argentina: In Jaguares, we trust

One look at this squad and you see why Argentina will be an extremely tough pool opponent. Their continuity is obvious with the majority of players coming from Super Rugby finalists Jaguares. The familiarity and cohesion of the team should be on point from the opening minute of this tournament. You then throw in the players who are playing in England and France; quality operators in Figallo, Sanchez and Urdapilleta.

The Argentina defensive shape and structure has steadily improved in this year’s Rugby Championship. This was seen to good effect in their performance against New Zealand; disciplined defensive display and when provided with the opportunities were competitive at the breakdown. The line out has been solid; Creevy is a talisman hooker and his relationship with Lavanini and Alemanno will be seen to good effect in this tournament.

The back line play has evolved too. Jaguares in particular provided explosive attacking plays in their run to the Super Rugby final. Delguy is going to be a star at this tournament; outstanding back three player whose ability to snip and create from open play will be standout. The Argentinian style of pack orientated play and kick game is now complemented with the ability to offload in the tackle, set the tempo high and look for opportunities to exploit on the outside.

The issue is with the scrum. Ireland in the November series took advantage of uncharacteristic erratic Argentinian scrummaging. The pen count was high and setup huge pressure for Argentina from a defensive perspective. If Argentina can address those scrum set piece concerns (they need to France and England in this area of play), then this is a side that will advance to yet another quarter final appearance. Their kicking game is unparalleled; superb footballers who will win any kicking exchange contest.

France: Enigma

France come into this tournament on the back of an encouraging preseason win over Scotland (32-3) but this is when France were in the mood, lovely French summer sunshine at their backs to express themselves. You cannot guarantee that France will do the same when in Japan.

The lead up to this tournament has been a shambles; squad selection has been erratic at best. Brunel does not know his best squad, has decided to ditch Lopez and Parra looks hasty at best. No general shape to the pack and the front five that will lineup in the pool stage could be significantly different to the one that played in the 6 Nations this year.

What is the ethos of this side? Is it pack orientated or is it attacking / offload game? I am not sure and I do not think the French public knows either. The best thing for France is for Brunel to step aside at the end of this tournament and start afresh.

The hope is that the young guns which Brunel has vouched for deliver on the big stage. Dumbo Bamba in the front row could be a standout in the tournament; mobility and scrummaging to boot. Dupont and Ntamack tandem at half-back is potentially very good on paper. Penaud has the attacking skill but defensively is he solid enough?

This is a tournament where France have thrown the dice on squad selection. The likes of Bastareaud are removed from the squad; leaders need to step forward. Picamoles needs to be a leader in this pack but has failed to deliver in recent seasons. There are too many questions on this French side for me so I suspect pool elimination is the smart bet.

Tonga: Passion but vulnerability aplenty

The key question you have to ask yourself is how do Tonga bounce back from that absolute pasting at the hands of New Zealand last weekend? 90+ points is an embarrassing score concession and the lack of structure, conditioning and general cohesion from Tonga was a massive wakeup call.

The squad composition is varied with players based in England, France, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. The lack of quality test match competition is undermining Tonga like the other Pacific Island nations; the club vs. country issue with player release is a continually recurring theme.

What to expect from Tonga? Expect passion, physicality in ball carrying and offloading when possible but not far behind will be disciplinary issues particularly when we get into the second half of games. The lack of cohesion is an issue for this squad. New Zealand match created massive gaps in quality on both sides of the ball.

Their key fixture looks to be against USA to secure a win and to be honest, it is going to be a struggle to see them win that encounter. Bottom place in the pool potentially beckons despite the best efforts of Piutau and Mafi.

USA: Work in progress

There is a lot to be hopeful for the long term development of USA Rugby. The establishment of their domestic league will only increase the quality of players in the country and the fact that players can play in their own country means more national training camps and more cohesion. Has this tournament come too soon?

The squad on paper has a lot to like about it when you consider the likes of Taufete’e and Lamsitele in the front row. Peterson at lock is a solid lineout operator and Tony Lamborn plays in Melbourne. AJ McGinty at ten will need to provide game management to allow USA to secure a pack platform.

The concern is the lack of squad depth in the back line to complement the performances of Cam Dolan in the back row. The Ireland November series test match showed the good, the bad and the ugly part to the USA play and the outside defense shape was at times hugely lacking.

The side will fight to the bitter end but when you compare the side with England, France and Argentina; it is a step too far. Their fixture against Tonga has cup final written all over it. A win there and some competitive outings in the pool is the goal.

Verdict:

Three teams vying for two quarter final berths. England is the standout side for me in this pool; they have the ability to beat their pool foes either in the pack or out wide. Argentina for me with their cohesion and game management will pip France to the second berth.

RWC 2019: Pool B Preview

Pool B: Clash of the Titans

In the second part of this Rugby World 2019 preview series; Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool B. It is a pool where two of the tournament favorites New Zealand (reigning champions) and South Africa are pitted against each other and their clash on the 21st September will go a long way in determining the destination of the Webb Ellis Cup this year.

Pool B

You have to feel for Italy, Namibia and Canada. They have got the proverbial stinker of a pool.

The press media duties from these sides will be ‘look forward’, ‘pitting our wits against the best’ but in all honesty, the morale of these squads must be a mix of trepidation and nervousness ahead of this tournament kickoff.

The pool teams to advance from this pool before a ball is kicked will be New Zealand and South Africa. The only question is who will top the pool?

New Zealand: Confidence and form on the rise ominously

If there was any hint of overconfidence in the New Zealand prior to the World Cup, it was well and truly smashed in the performances against South Africa (home) and Australia (away) in the Rugby Championship.

Two subdued performances, two inaccurate performances where discipline reared its head against Australia away with the opening period red card. Some respected figures in the sport were beginning to question New Zealand? They should have known better.

The performances since then have been on point. The shutout victory against Australia at home issued a fiercely defiant statement of intent from Steve Hansen’s side.

Their defensive shape and structure was sublime; they never gave Australia a sniff. Their line speed with / without the ball was vastly improved.

Their complete demolition of poor Tonga last weekend in Hamilton with a second string team lineup further evidence of their upturn in form. Their skill set and line speed were devastating to watch. Tonga never stood a chance.

There are so many strong points to this New Zealand squad; their coaching and playing staff experience to win this competition is huge. Their skill set and ability to create from any facet of play is outstanding.

Steve Hansen has not been afraid to drop loyal test match performers of the past; evident in the omission of Owen Franks in the pack. Their all round game is so solid and with the likes of Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga orchestrating behind the scrum, good things should happen for New Zealand.

The potential question ahead of this tournament is selection consistency. Who plays at ten? Barrett or Mo’unga are vying for that jersey. Barrett has switched to full back in recent test games with mixed results.

Ben Smith (personally) is an incredible full back option still and it will be interesting who Steve Hansen and management deem to be the better ten option for the side.

The scrum potentially may be an area to watch for New Zealand. The pool opponents apart from South Africa are realistically not going to threaten or identify many issues.

The key opening fixture against South Africa will provide potential New Zealand foes will plenty to scrutinize in the pack exchanges; the scrum can at times be exposed and the absence of the likes of Franks may be felt.

South Africa: On the rise under Erasmus

The fact that we are talking about South Africa as a genuine World Cup 2019 contender is a testament to the work and transformation undertaken by Rassie Erasmus and coaching staff.

Reverse the tape back to the start of this world cup cycle, the team were in complete chaos with little direction or game plan. Painful defeats to New Zealand and then a humiliating Northern Hemisphere tour in 2017 where Ireland in particular had a record win over the South Africans signaled that changes were required.

Rassie Erasmus as he did in Munster Rugby came in and started to laid the foundations of success and the performances in the past eighteen months have been on the upward curve.

South Africa’s pack platform has been huge in this revival. Eben Etzebeth has led the pack from the front; his all action style accompanied by a superb set piece game has provided the side with confidence. The assured captaincy of Kolisi (albeit has been sidelined with injury for a good chunk of the preseason) has also been prominent in the pack / breakdown area.

There is a formidable half back partnership in Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard whose sniping runs and assured game management respectively have posed serious issues for opposition in recent test matches. The back three is loaded with pace and expect the likes of Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe to revel in the fast track conditions of Japan.

The key question is how they will stack up against New Zealand on September 21st at Yokohama. The pack needs to bully New Zealand who are now well warned of their threat after that draw in the Rugby Championship.

The half back depth chart is a concern. Elton Jantijes has threatened to become a superb test match operator but his lack of consistency and composure is frustrating to watch in recent seasons.

A win over New Zealand and this tournament suddenly opens up for South Africa. A loss in the opening game and there is then the prospect of a potential bruising last eight encounter with Ireland.

Italy: Best of the rest

Conor O’Shea has laid solid foundations during his tenure as Italian head coach in recent years. The emergence of Benetton Rugby last season in Guinness Pro14 action is reward for concerted effort in player recruitment and development. Zebre Rugby continues to be the key developmental squad for the national side.

Progression is now been seen in underage teams but the improvements in these areas are slow to reach the senior national team at present and this pool setup does little for their overall confidence, development and progression.

What to look out for from Italy? The hope is that Italy can execute an efficient game plan on both sides of the ball. The pack set piece has been a mixed bag in recent seasons particularly the scrum; they cannot give away the number of penalties in this area of play in this tournament.

The line out should be solid platform ball with the likes of Ghiraldini at the controls.

Tebaldi and Allan need to provide direction in their attacking play which at times has been extremely one dimensional; one out runners – no variation in attacking lines and then the back three defensively have been exposed in their shape and coverage at various points in recent seasons.

The word is progression from an Italian perspective. Unless the top two have an extreme off day (highly unlikely), they are not going to qualify from this pool. The focus is performance delivery as a springboard for the future. Campagnaro hopefully can provide attacking threat. 

Namibia: Little to suggest any upsets

The Namibian challenge is tough to assess given the lack of quality test match opposition in this World Cup cycle.

Their most illustrious opponent came in the form of Russia which is no gauge to evaluate the side. The pool of players in the county is small (90 registered players) and the cohesion issues of the side given the lack of top quality test match opposition will rear its head in this tournament.

Namibia should provide sufficient physicality in the pack but conditioning and endurance will be key issues here in the third / fourth quarter of games.

The attacking side of their game will be focused on the likes of Johan Deysel who plays with Colomiers in France. Janco Venter will be required to perform at an ultra-high level of performance at the breakdown area.

Realistically, Namibia are going to aim for a long awaited Rugby World cup win against a vulnerable looking Canadian side. If they achieve this result, then mission accomplished for Phil Davies, coaching staff and playing squad.

Canada: Vulnerable squad limitations to be ruthlessly exposed

Kingsley Jones has had an unenviable job as Canada head coach. There has been a changing of the guard in this World Cup cycle and the squad is very much in transitional mode, looking to gain experience and consistency at test match level.

From an Ireland perspective, there is plenty of interest in this squad with the inclusion of the likes of Peter Nelson (full back) and Shane O’Leary (Fly-Half) in the squad. Both are solid performers but will they get sufficient game time to impress for Canada?

The key player for Canada is the all action Tyler Ardron whose has impressed with Waikato Chiefs this season. He will look to lead from the front but question marks on the pack set piece are huge.

You can see the side being turned over by the better sides and they look particularly vulnerable against Namibia in the wooden spoon pool game.

The hope is that DTH van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler can provide attacking threat but it is dependent on Ardron and the pack to provide good ruck ball; this is going to be a challenge.

Canada were the last team to qualify for this World Cup and I fear for them when they face the big two in the pool.

Verdict:

This will be a pool with precious few surprises. New Zealand until they are beaten for me will top the pool. South Africa will comfortably finish second while the others will hope that their dignity is intact after some awful beat downs come the end of this pool phase.

RWC 2019: Pool A Preview

Pool A: Can Japan repeat their 2015 exploits?

In this opening preview blog, Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool A. The key question is whether Japan as the host nation can emulate their standout pool performances of 2015?

Pool A

The pool team setup is intriguing. Take Russia out of the equation and we potentially are going to have some very competitive fixtures in this pool. Ireland and Scotland will be fancied but can Japan and Samoa upset the form guide?

Russia vulnerabilities to be ruthlessly exposed

Let us cut to the chase with respect to Russia. The side have shown little in preseason games to render much consideration in this pool. An abrasive pack but the discipline and back three defensive structure is pretty poor.

Connacht traveled to Moscow and dispatched Russia with the minimum of fuss and one wonders how Lyn Jones and Mark McDermott can resurrect this tournament before a ball is kicked. Expect some really heavy losses, enthusiasm in abundance but the lack of experience in international test match rugby will be ruthlessly exposed.

Vasily Artemyev

The key player for Russia is Vasily Artemyev. He has the unenviable job of trying to organize the back three. His experience will be crucial for Russia and his wing and full back versatility should be a positive in what could be potentially an arduous tournament.

With Russia out of the picture, we will look at the other pool teams.

Ireland: Confidence slowly restored

Ireland come into the tournament with confidence somewhat restored after a shaky 6 Nations campaign and horrendous preseason loss to England at Twickenham.

The subsequent performances against Wales in Cardiff and Dublin this past weekend has restored confidence among the fans, confidence in the side with Murray and Sexton showing positive signs in the 19-10 win over Wales.

The Ireland squad selection was not without several soundbites. The omission of Kieran Marmion at scrum half was particularly harsh and the fact that Joe Schmidt has decided to go with only two scrum halves is a calculated risk.

The other key omissions were Jordi Murphy, Will Addison and Devin Toner whose omission has riled up the Irish press rat pack. How dare Devin Toner be omitted for Jean Kleyn?

The selection process has been ruthless. The question is whether the Ireland line out has been undermined by the Toner omission who has managed the set piece for such a long time. Time will tell.

The opening fixture against Scotland will define how Ireland perform in this tournament. Ireland squad on paper is excellent, the form guide in this World Cup cycle has been outstanding. The enigma of a Rugby World Cup and getting past the quarter final is the issue?

Scotland: Pack needs to be deliver

The Scottish squad selection has thrown up several surprises. The initial omission of Bradbury is a key mistake. The Edinburgh Rugby forward leads by example and his set piece execution is outstanding. He is currently on standby with Jamie Ritchie injury concerns.

The key question for me is how the front five of Scotland perform? They have deliberately picked Georgia for preseason games to test their pack unit. There are key questions still to be answered in the set piece and their defensive maul. Teams can bully Scotland’s pack and that could spell trouble for Townsend and management.

The key strengths is their open play, their ability to create scoring opportunities from deep. Hogg at full back along with Graham look to have pace and danger with ball in hand. The omission of the likes of Huw Jones could be another omission that could come to haunt Scotland in this tournament.

Finn Russell

The key player is Finn Russell again for Scotland. His game management, play making from ten will be crucial. If his back row unit can deliver quick ruck ball to the Racing 92 player, expect fireworks. Laidlaw at scrum half will also play a crucial role; his goal kicking and box kicking will be required in key fixtures against Ireland and Japan.

Japan: Host nation the dark horse

The 2015 Rugby World Cup saw Japan produce standout performances against South Africa and Samoa. Their attacking front foot offloading play was sensational and they were unfortunate not to advance to the quarter final phase of the competition.

Fast forward four years. Japan are primed to host this Rugby World Cup and with an opening fixture against a vulnerable Russia, confidence should be established quickly.

The key strengths from Japan is their pace and speed. Their ability to offload and beat the first tackle will be standouts. Their conditioning will be immense and teams will need to play for the full eighty minutes.

Michael Leitch

The unfortunate weak points could be the pack set piece. The pack boosts the mercurial Michael Leitch in the back row and could easily slot into the second row if the need arises. The line out and their defensive maul shape at times can be exposed.

If Ireland and Scotland are not on their game, expect Japan with their passionate home support to cause a shock. Whether it will be good enough to get out of this pool is an entirely different story.

Samoa: Consistency key

The lead up to this tournament has being shrouded in disarray. Players not getting released for training camps, the disconnect between the association and the player group.

Samoa needed to get through the playoff process to advance to this tournament. An efficient playoff victory over Germany was mission accomplished but the real work starts now.

Rey Lee-Lo

What to expect from Samoa? Physicality and creativity with off the cuff attacking moves. There are dangerous players in the side and watch out for the Cardiff Blues centre Rey Lee-Ho; his explosive speed off the line is sensational and will cause issues for opposition.

The weak points unfortunately is a lack of consistency in set piece execution and when that goes, the discipline is not far behind. The lack of composure could see disciplinary issues for Samoa with yellow and red cards.

Their fixture against Japan will define their tournament. Japan will enter this fixture with confidence and whether Samoa have the collective structured game to defeat Japan is a difficult question to answer. This could be potentially an arduous tournament for Samoa.

Verdict:

Ireland provided that their pack platform is established early can beat Scotland and Japan to secure top spot in the pool. Who they play in the last eight will be a difficult task (New Zealand or South Africa) regardless of the opponent.

The second place is the one that intrigues me. Samoa will try hard but look set to finish fourth in this pool. It is up to Japan and Scotland for the second spot and I just wonder if Japan can sneak the second spot in this pool?

Scotland have had a mixed preseason. A heavy loss to France focused the squad and management to then deliver victories over France at home (albeit struggled in the opening period) and then a double against a tough but limited Georgia side.

Japan for me is the dark horse. Their front five is going to determine their progression and I think they match up well against Scotland. I am going to go with the host nation to upset Scotland and get into the quarter final phase.