How they rate: top teams' progress at the Rugby World Cup

Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth
Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth
Image: BackpagePix

As the Rugby World Cup nears the end of the pool stage, AFP looks at the leading contenders to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2.

New Zealand

With wins over South Africa, Canada and Namibia, defending champions New Zealand remain the team to beat as they head towards the knockouts.

They are not yet the complete package and struggled with their handling during a high-paced game against Canada in the clammy atmosphere under the roof in Oita. They were also off-key in the opening half-hour against the amateurs of Namibia.

But they remain dangerous in all areas, with a wide variation in their attacking options: scoring through the middle and out wide, and with tries coming from delicately placed kicks, set-piece moves and turnover ball.

They have also been scoring in bursts, seizing control against South Africa with 17 points in five minutes midway through the first half and putting 14 points on Canada within the first seven minutes.

England

England's path through the Rugby World Cup has been compared to a game of Donkey Kong - each match is a level up, starting with the United States and Tonga, then Argentina, France and next the quarter-finals.

So far, Eddie Jones's men have negotiated all the barrels and fireballs that have come their way, without really hitting top gear but underscoring their status as second favourites after the All Blacks.

England have an embarrassment of riches in the back three, a crashing outside centre in Manu Tuilagi and the effective "dual playmaker" system with Owen Farrell and George Ford at 12 and 10.

Up front, England have nimble flankers and a rampaging number eight in Billy Vunipola, a strong second-row and a powerful scrum. The question is: how high can they try?

It's already a better showing than their woeful first-round exit on home soil at the 2015 World Cup, a showing that saw Australian coach Jones put in charge.

"We're exactly where we wanted to be - we're 15 points after three games," said Jones after England's 39-10 victory over Argentina.

South Africa

The Springboks gave a decent account of themselves in their 23-13 defeat by New Zealand, and a solid pack built around foraging prop Steven Kitshoff, hard-hitting lock Eben Etzebeth and barn-storming number eight Duane Vermuelen will pose problems for any team.

Flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit more than lived up to his billing as one of the world's best current crop of players by going toe-to-toe with an All Black back-row featuring the touted Ardie Savea and Kieran Read.

A second-string team saw off African neighbours Namibia 57-3 before a convincing 49-3 win over 14-man Italy, their potential rivals for the Pool B runners-up spot.

Coach Rassie Erasmus has been able to alternate two teams, keeping his troops fresh for a quarter-final likely to be against the winner of Pool A, either Ireland, Scotland or Japan.

Wales

The Six Nations champions opened their account with an emphatic 43-14 victory over Georgia, a team that has never beaten a Tier One nation.

Warren Gatland's team then fronted up in what looks set to be the Pool D decider, edging Australia 29-25 in a Tokyo thriller.

The Welsh were outscored three tries to two, but raced to a 23-8 half-time lead and resisted a strong second-half fightback from the Wallabies.

Ultimately, a drop-goal apiece from Dan Biggar and his replacement Rhys Patchell were the difference in a result that set up Wales as likely pool winners.

Gatland's squad are currently enjoying a nine-day break before taking on Fiji, who are all but eliminated, on Wednesday. They will take on Uruguay in their final match after a four-day turnaround from Fiji.

Australia

Even coach Michael Cheika has admitted that discipline is a problem for Australia after two yellow cards and 12 penalties against Uruguay.

The Wallabies have also been struggling to retain the ball, suggesting they are not yet title material. But for all their faults there is enough to like about the Wallabies to say they are capable of going deep into the play-offs.

They have scored 16 tries in three matches, six by wingers, three by centres and one from fullback, showing they are capable of striking out wide.

France

France have already won a play-off place but even coach Jacques Brunel has admited their three-from-three record in Pool C has been far from impressive, and they will need a big improvement when they face also-unbeaten England for first and second place next weekend.

The famous Gallic flair has produced some scintillating tries with the outside backs running incisive angles and producing precision offloads, but there have also been long periods filled with unforced errors and an inadequate set piece.

From 20-3 up against Argentina they hung on to win 23-21. Against Tonga, they led 17-0 and again scraped home 23-21. Between these two games, they showed they could finish strongly with three late tries against the USA to go from 12-9 to 33-9 in the last 14 minutes.

If they cannot up their consistency, it is difficult to see Les Bleus going much past the quarter-finals.

Ireland

Ireland arrived in Japan top of the World Rugby rankings and launched their Pool A campaign with a resounding 27-3 win over old rivals Scotland.

But a shock 19-12 defeat by hosts Japan left Ireland needing to make history if they were to be crowned world champions for the first time, as no side has lifted the Webb Ellis Cup after losing a pool match.

A lacklustre and injury-hit Irish side then beat Russia 35-0 but only secured a four-try bonus point in the final quarter. They now need a bonus-point win over Samoa in their final pool match on Saturday to be sure of a quarter-final place.

Japan

Hosts Japan set themselves the bold target of reaching the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time.

Though few would have put big money on the Brave Blossoms actually getting there, they find themselves on the brink of doing just that.

After overpowering Russia 30-10 in their Pool A opener, Jamie Joseph's side pulled off the shock of the tournament by stunning Ireland 19-12.

A 38-19 victory over Samoa last weekend sets up the biggest game in Japanese rugby history against Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday.

The Scots will not relish facing a home side who attack with such dizzying speed and defend with the sort of tenacity they showed against a shell-shocked Ireland.

Japan's 'Miracle of Brighton' - a breathless 34-32 win over South Africa four years ago - was the biggest upset in World Cup history.

Beating Ireland and Scotland to achieve a quarter-final spot would top even that. But who would bet against Japan now?

- AFP

 

 

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