Source: Claude Paris/The Associated Press
Canada will compete in Pool B and it will present a monumental challenge. Canada’s first 3 games of the tournament will all be against tier 1 nations; Italy, New Zealand, and South Africa. They will then close out the tournament against Namibia, the only team competing at the Rugby World Cup ranked lower than Canada.
Head Coach: Conor O’Shea
Captain: Sergio Parisse
Italy has competed at every Rugby World Cup; however, they have never made it out of the pool stages. Despite being ranked 14th in the world, Italy is classified as a tier 1 nation due to the fact that they compete in the Six Nations. Unfortunately, by competing in the Six Nations, Italy often finds themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard. In their last 10 test matches, Italy has only managed 1 win (an 85-15 thrashing of Russia). However, Italy’s 1-0-9 record over their last 10 test matches is generally skewed by having to frequently play some of the top teams in the world. Italy is more than capable of defeating the other tier 1 sides and have a victory over the Springboks in this RWC cycle.
Unlike other tier 1 nations, the goal of raising the Webb Ellis Cup seems out of reach for Italy. Italy has never made it out of the pool stage, and have been placed in a group with the All Blacks and Springboks. The All Blacks and Springboks have combined to win 5 of the 8 RWCs including the last 3. Ultimately, this leaves the realistic expectation for Italy at beating Canada and Namibia to claim 3rd in the group and automatically qualify for 2023.
Legendary Italian captain Sergio Parisse will lead the charge, as the 36-year old competes in his 5th Rugby World Cup. For a scoring threat, Italy will lean on budding star Matteo Minozzi. Minozzi has displayed quite the try scoring ability in his first 13 caps. He had a breakthrough performance at the 2018 Six Nations and finished 5th in player of the tournament voting (behind 4 members of the Irish Grand Slam team). Minozzi has been out with a knee injury, but has returned and will be looking to have a big impact this tournament.
Head Coach: Steve Hansen
Captain: Kieran Read
The All Blacks find themselves in some unusual territory heading into this Rugby World Cup. They enter the tournament as the number 2 ranked team in the world after relinquishing their spot atop the rankings after 500 weeks. The All Blacks suffered a big loss to Australia earlier this year and lost the Rugby Championship. However, in 2011 and 2015, they lost to Australia and failed to win the Rugby Championship and look how those RWC turned out. Perhaps they have the world right where they want them?
The All Blacks have had to deal with plenty of injuries throughout 2019. Damian Mackenzie’s season ending injury left Steven Hansen looking for a replacement at fullback. Beauden Barrett played a few matches there, but ultimate reverted back to flyhalf, the position that the best player in the world is known for. Despite their injury history, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty beat out Ngani Laumape for a spot on the squad, a controversial move that is being heavily discussed in the New Zealand media. Brodie Rettalick, another All Black that can vie for “best player in the world status”, has made the squad but likely won’t be available until the quarter-finals. Ultimately, despite the challenging 2019 campaign, they avenged that loss to Australia and destroyed Tonga in their final tune up game.
Despite the injuries, captain Kieran Read still leads a strong squad into Japan that features Barrett, Ardie Savea, Sevu Reece, Ben Smith, SBW, Sam Whitelock, and an arsenal of elite players. Just because they are ranked number 2, doesn’t mean they aren’t the favourites to win the World Cup. They are still the All Blacks after all.
Head Coach: Rassie Erasmus
Captain: Siya Kolisi
The thing everyone remembers about the Springboks’ 2015 Rugby World Cup is that they lost to Japan. After being on the wrong end of the biggest upset in rugby history it’s easy to forget that they actually finished 3rd at the tournament. In the 4 years since, the Springboks have gone through some highs and lows. They dropped to 7th in the world rankings setting a new record low and coaches have lost their jobs for it.
However, Rassie Erasmus has turned the squad around and now South Africa looks to be the most in form team heading into the RWC. Under Erasmus’ guidance, the Springboks won the Rugby Championship with captain Siya Kolisi out with a knee injury. Kolisi will return to lead his squad into the Rugby World Cup and will be a key cog in one of the strongest packs in the Rugby World Cup.
Malcolm Marx, Peiter-Steph du Toit, and Eben Etzebeth will all have a big role to play in this tournament. Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira will add plenty of veteran experience (110 tests worth) to the pack. The backs will feature Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard as one of the premier 9-10 combinations in the world (de Klerk is certainly the best scrum half). One of the Springboks biggest threats will be S’bu Nkosi on the wing. Nkosi only has 8 caps, but his outstanding 2 try performance against Argentina last month has many people eyeing him to be the breakout player of the tournament.
Head Coach: Phil Davies
Captain: Johan Deysel
Namibia first qualified for the Rugby World Cup in 1999 and have qualified for every RWC since then. However, they still have yet to record their first win at the tournament and will be entering this RWC as the lowest ranked team (23rd).
Namibia has been able to become a mainstay at the RWC because they are clearly the 2nd best African team behind the Springboks. Namibia’s best shot at earning their first win at the RWC will come against Canada in the final game of the pool stage. Namibia has had an interesting build up to the RWC. They defeated Uruguay at the Nations Cup, but have had no test matches in the immediate build up to the tournament. Instead, Namibia played against the Southern Kings (twice) and the Sharks Invitational XV (and went 3-0-0 in those games). Namibia typically plays less test matches than other RWC nations, but it still seems odd that their schedule was pretty light this year.
Coach Phil Davies shocked Namibian fans when he did not name former captain Renaldo Bothma to the squad. Instead, the team will be led by Johan Deysel. Deysel will be looked to for a big impact in the centres. Tijiuee Uanivi will be the squads vice-captain and the lock will provide leadership to the pack. Eugene Jantjies, the most capped Namibian in history, will start at scrumhalf. Rounding out the key Namibia players will be flanker Prince !Gaoseb, who easily has the coolest name at the tournament.
The Outlook for Canada
The winner of the All Blacks and Springboks match will win the pool and the loser will finish 2nd and advance to the knock-out rounds. This leaves Canada to compete with Italy and Namibia for 3rd and earn an automatic qualification to the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Canada gets their bye to open the tournament, meaning they will have to play a condensed and gruelling schedule. Canada will play Italy first and Namibia last with the All Blacks and Springboks in between.
Ultimately, this means that the opening game against Italy becomes Canada’s most important. If Canada loses to Italy that will end their hopes of 3rd right off the bat and the game against Namibia will be to see who finishes last. A loss to Italy means that Canada needs to pull out the biggest upset in sports history by beating the All Blacks or Springboks just to stay alive. No one will be surprised if Canada goes 0-0-3 against Italy, New Zealand, and South Africa. The game against Namibia is certainly winnable, but Canada will still need a strong performance to come away with the win. My prediction is that Canada finishes 4th in group B with their lone win coming against Namibia.