When the final whistle was blown on an emotional night in Yokohama, it was evident from the joy on the players' faces that magnificent Japan's history-making triumph over Scotland was about more than rugby.

Typhoon Hagibis left a trail of death and mass destruction with ferocious winds and record-breaking rainfall after hitting landfall south of Tokyo on Saturday.

There was uncertainty over whether the decisive Pool A showdown between the host nation and Scotland would go ahead on Sunday, but the green light was given following a safety inspection on the morning of the game at Yokohama International Stadium.

What followed was 80 minutes of thrilling action as Japan reached the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time.

Scottish Rugby had talked of taking legal action if the blockbuster contest was cancelled, given they needed a victory to have any chance of being consigned to an early exit.

Instead they may be launching an internal inquest after Gregor Townsend's side went down 28-21 in a pulsating battle.

The stadium was not damaged by the biggest typhoon to hit the Asian nation for decades and a raucous sold-out crowd cheered their team to glorious new ground.

Jamie Joseph's side played with incredible intensity from start to finish, defended stoically and showed their class with ball in hand to set up a meeting with South Africa in Tokyo next Sunday.

The Brave Blossoms waded through knee-high waters to train on the eve of a match that they were not sure would go ahead and although Scotland fought back in the second half, they could not prevent the hosts from advancing.

Japan were relentless after Finn Russell's early try, Kotaro Matsushima whipping their exuberant supporters into frenzy with his fifth try of the tournament.

Keita Inagaki raised the decibels even higher by putting them in front and Scotland looked to be out on their feet after the lethal Kenki Fukuoka - scorer of the only try against Ireland - touched down either side of half-time.

Scotland were struggling to cope with their opponents' expansive style of play; the power, speed and skill of Japan leaving their hopes of qualifying hanging by a thread.

Yet two tries in the space of five minutes from WP Nel and Zander Ferguson threatened to spoil the party, Russell pulling the strings as the tension mounted.

The hosts laid it all on the line as Scotland threw everything at them in an attempt to tear up the script and break Japan hearts.

Joseph's men were not to be denied, though, holding on to make it four wins out of four and secure top spot on a weekend that will be remembered for such contrasting reasons.

Josh Adams scored his fifth try of the Rugby World Cup as Wales beat Uruguay 35-13 at Kumamoto Stadium to set up a quarter-final against France.

Warren Gatland's side made hard work of sealing top spot in Pool D, but scored five tries to ensure they will face Les Bleus at Oita Stadium next Sunday, while Australia will meet England at the same venue 24 hours earlier.

Nicky Smith scored the only five-pointer of the first half and Adams become the outright leading try-scorer in the tournament after the break, with Tomos Williams and Gareth Davies also crossing after Wales were awarded a penalty try. 

Uruguay were magnificent in defence as they bowed out with a spirited performance, German Kessler scoring their only try and Felipe Berchesi notching eight points with the boot.

Hallam Amos had three tries ruled out, but Wales made it four wins out of four to finish three points clear of the Wallabies despite being a long way from their best, Halfpenny converting four times in a man-of-the-match display.

Wales were disjointed in the opening stages but were eventually rewarded for applying huge pressure when prop Smith breached a resolute Uruguay defence, powering over from close range after 16 minutes.

Berchesi reduced the deficit to four points with a fine strike from the tee after Halfpenny converted Smith's score, and Amos was denied Wales' second try due to a forward pass from Hadleigh Parkes.

Handling errors prevented the Six Nations champions from getting into a rhythm and a second Berchesi penalty made it 7-6 at the break.

The clinical in-form Adams gave Wales breathing space when he took an inviting pass from Rhys Patchell to finish in the corner, Halfpenny expertly nailing a difficult conversion.

Amos had another score disallowed, again for a forward pass from Parkes, but referee Angus Gardner awarded Wales a penalty try when Uruguay were unable to legally stop a driving maul after Santiago Civetta was sin-binned.

Kessler had a moment to remember when he dived over with a pick-and-go before Williams picked up a loose ball to grab the bonus-point try, with Halfpenny converting superbly.

Amos was frustrated again when he lost control as he went to touch down, but Davies raced away long after the clock had turned red to go under the posts and Halfpenny converted, leaving the scoreline looking harsh on Uruguay.

Israel Folau's hopes of a rugby league return have been dashed after the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) suspended Tonga.

Former Wallabies star Folau – who was sacked by Rugby Australia (RA) for homophobic posts on social media in April – planned to make a rugby league comeback for Tonga in upcoming Tests against Great Britain and Australia.

However, the RLIF board voted to cancel the Tonga National Rugby League's (TNRL) international membership on Thursday, pending a full investigation into issues raised by various parties, including the Rugby Football League and the Australia Rugby League Commission.

The unanimous decision came after the "Tonga Prime Minister advised the RLIF that TNRL had lost the trust and support of its members, clubs and players", with a list of Tonga's highest profile players making themselves unavailable under the current administration.

"The RLIF has received representations and concerns from the Office of the Prime Minister of Tonga, the Tongan Sports Council, the RFL, the ARLC, the RLPA on behalf of leading players and from concerned groups in the Kingdom of Tonga," RLIF chairman Graeme Thompson said in a statement.

"In view of the considerable evidence that the interests of international rugby league were not being best served at this time. The RLIF Board voted unanimously that the TNRL’s membership be suspended with immediate effect while these matters are properly investigated. The RLIF, at the request of the Tongan government will work with the Tongan Sports Council to ensure that the forthcoming international calendar is not undermined.

"The RLIF stresses that the suspension of TNRL is not an expulsion and is intended to provide a period of stability, while the matters raised by the various stakeholders can be properly and fully investigated. We now call on all parties to cooperate fully with the process to ensure a swift resolution."

A former Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos star in the NRL, Folau – who last played rugby league in 2010 before switching to rugby union in 2013 following a spell in Australian rules football – in July opened court proceedings against his former employer after his contract was terminated for expressing views which breached the team's code of conduct on his official channels.

Folau and the Tonga National Rugby League announced his selection in the squad for the upcoming games on October 26 and November 2, however, the RLIF on Monday denied the 30-year-old had been approved to represent the 2017 Rugby League World Cup semi-finalists.

Israel Folau's desire to return to rugby league via Tonga has been backed by Siliva Havili as the controversial former Wallabies star awaits his fate.

Folau – who was sacked by Rugby Australia (RA) for homophobic posts on social media in April – plans to make a rugby league comeback for Tonga in Tests against Great Britain and Australia.

A former Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos star in the NRL, Folau in July opened court proceedings against his former employer after his contract was terminated for expressing views which breached the team's code of conduct on his official channels.

Folau and the Tonga National Rugby League announced his selection in the squad for the upcoming games on October 26 and November 2, however, the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) denied the 30-year-old has been approved to represent the 2017 Rugby League World Cup semi-finalists.

Asked about Folau – who last played rugby league in 2010 before switching to rugby union in 2013 following a spell in Australian rules football – with the RLIF expected to discuss the matter on Thursday, Tonga veteran Havili said: "Hundred per cent. I would love to see him play. It's good for the international game and it's good for our little nation.

"He is a superstar in his own right, in both codes he was. Having that sort of player in our team makes us a big threat.

"It's exciting what we can display. Not only for us, but for nations like Samoa and Fiji if they can have players come to them, it's going to be exciting for international rugby league."

Steve Hansen is confident there is more to come from New Zealand after they kicked off their Rugby World Cup defence with an impressive 23-13 victory over South Africa.

The All Blacks had to withstand plenty of pressure in the opening quarter of their Pool B opener in Yokohama, but they seized control of the game in a stunning six-minute spell featuring tries for George Bridge and Scott Barrett.

Although South Africa fought back impressively after the interval, New Zealand were able to remain ahead and extend their streak of never losing a World Cup pool game.

"We're pretty happy with where we're at at the moment," said coach Hansen in his post-match news conference. "Everybody knew that this was going to be a big match and obviously it was. Both teams played very well at times and we're very happy to come out with a win.

"Were we perfect? No. But you're never gonna be at this stage of the tournament and that was the interesting part about this game for both teams.

"You're not in the swing of the tournament and right from the get-go you've got probably the biggest game of the group. We've come out on top. [I'm] very happy that we did, but there's plenty of stuff we can work on."

South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus highlighted New Zealand's discipline as a key factor in the outcome.

"Discipline was always going to be a massive thing for us," said All Blacks skipper Kieran Read.

"South Africa love to build pressure through those penalties and they've got a kicker like [Handre] Pollard who showed right from the outset he can kick from 50 metres.

"It was a conscious decision from us to make sure we didn't give away too many penalties and we probably haven't been as smart throughout this whole year, but we were at a different level today."

Rassie Erasmus felt South Africa's Rugby World Cup defeat to New Zealand owed much to the All Blacks' superior discipline.

The Springboks applied plenty of pressure in the first quarter of Saturday's blockbuster Pool B opener but saw their 3-0 lead quickly turn into a 17-3 deficit, the defending world champions hitting top gear in a stunning six-minute blitz.

A Pieter-Steph du Toit try and Handre Pollard's second penalty gave South Africa hope after the interval, only for Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett to land three-pointers as New Zealand triumphed 23-13.

In a post-match news conference, Erasmus said: "I think they won it. I don't think we lost it. Two tries to one, they definitely deserved to win the game.

"If you concede, I think, 11 penalties to two, you're going to struggle to beat New Zealand. I think discipline was our biggest downfall. I don't think we can moan about anything.

"As I said, I think the penalty count was 11-2, so we did 11 things wrong. We have to go and fix it. They only did two things wrong, which is unbelievably well disciplined by them. That battle, we lost.

"I give all credit to New Zealand. When we had territorial and scoreboard pressure and they had that one opportunity to pounce, they pounced."

No team has ever won the World Cup after losing in the pool stage, but Erasmus believes his side can buck that trend.

"I think we can fight back. I think even in the game we fought back," he stated. "To be down 17-3 and get back to 17-13 and being in their 22 ... there were stages when we really fought back well."

With a smile, he added: "If you're grouped with New Zealand in your pool, you've got a good chance of not going undefeated through your pool.

"And then you have to fight back and try and get to the final, for the first time in history not being unbeaten. We have to go [down] that route now."

Erasmus said Trevor Nyakane (calf) was the only Springboks player to pick up an injury, attributing late concerns over Cheslin Kolbe and Du Toit to cramp.

Kieran Read was pleased with the clinical edge New Zealand showed as they saw off South Africa 23-13 in their opening game at the Rugby World Cup.

The Springboks started the highly anticipated Pool B clash in Yokohama - which will also host the final - positively but only scored three points through Handre Pollard during their period of dominance.

When Richie Mo'unga set upon a loose pass from Faf de Klerk and was illegally challenged by Makazole Mapimpi, the fly-half restored parity and kick-started a six-minute spell in which the reigning champions racked up 17 points.

George Bridge scored his eighth try in six Tests before a handling error from Pollard preceded Scott Barrett running in the All Blacks' second.

Pieter-Steph du Toit made the most of some slack New Zealand defending after the restart and Pollard was successful with a drop-goal from distance, but Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett kept the Springboks at arm's length from the tee.

"It was a heck of Test match. It was the full 80 minutes that we had to work," said All Blacks skipper Read.

"You're fortunate [that] sometimes it just happens in those couple of moments and we managed to take them. That's probably the difference in the game.

"We had to defend a little bit early on and when you don't have the ball you can't do too much, so when we did get opportunities we wanted to try to speed the game up."

Springboks skipper Siya Kolisi was frustrated his team did not punish New Zealand further when they had the chance, having reduced their arrears to four points in the second half.

"I think we took too long to get into the game," said Kolisi, despite his side appearing to be firmly on top during the first quarter.

"I think we stuck to our guns and our plan worked in the second half. We wanted to score first and it happened, but we couldn't capitalise on our opportunities."

Beauden Barrett, who started at full-back, played on with a bloody nose after being hit in the face by Duane Vermeulen's boot when trying to tackle the forward.

Barrett said: "It's a bit sore. It's never good getting a boot to the nose, especially from a big lad like Duane. You expect to take a few bumps when you play the Springboks, so it was worth it.

"We got to throw the ball around a bit – sometimes too much, it was a bit greasy out there, but there was some expansive rugby. If we can keep doing that all tournament that's what we're here for."

New Zealand were unforgiving as they punished South Africa errors to get their Rugby World Cup title defence under way with a thrilling 23-13 victory in the blockbuster Pool B clash in Yokohama.

Rugby Championship winners South Africa had been tipped as the leading contenders to dethrone New Zealand in Japan and they piled the pressure on the All Blacks in the early stages.

However, they only had three points from Handre Pollard to show for their efforts before sloppiness set in during a six-minute blitz that included tries from George Bridge and Scott Barrett.

Pieter-Steph du Toit crossed and Pollard scored a fine drop-goal as the Springboks regained a foothold in the second half, but the All Blacks were able to retain their record of having never lost a group stage match.

Pollard split the posts in the second minute after Bridge was pinged for not releasing the ball, and the Springboks maintained their commanding start.

He then hit the upright from the tee after Faf de Klerk intelligently won another penalty, but the scrum-half's stray pass was pounced on by Richie Mo'unga and Makazole Mapimpi's illegal attempt to win it back led to the fly-half restoring parity.

The champions had clicked into gear and Mo'unga's cross-field kick enabled Sevu Reece to charge down the right, setting a move in motion that ended with Beauden Barrett darting through a gap and offloading for Bridge to score his eighth try in six Tests.

New Zealand punished another mistake when Pollard dropped a high ball and Anton Lienert-Brown skipped in off the right before sending Scott Barrett under the posts, while Mo'unga missed a chance to make it 20-3 at the break from the left touchline.

Du Toit took advantage of a defensive lapse from the All Blacks to run straight in from a ruck in the 48th minute and Pollard reduced the arrears to four points with a stunning drop-goal from 40 yards out.

Mo'unga slotted through another penalty and the boot of Beauden Barrett helped keep the Springboks at bay as New Zealand extended their winning run in World Cups to 15 matches.

 

De Klerk opens the door

South Africa were in complete control until De Klerk's sloppy pass was set upon by Mo'unga, and it proved to be the turning point. New Zealand added 17 points in the next five minutes to underline their status as favourites for the trophy, with Rassie Erasmus likely to have concerns over the fitness of Trevor Nyakane and Cheslin Kolbe after late injuries.

Barrett at full-back pays off

Hansen's decision to play Mo'unga at fly-half and Beauden Barrett at 15 paid dividends, with both playing important roles as playmakers as the All Blacks tore South Africa apart in the first half. The latter was then granted the chance to play the last 10 minutes in his favoured position.

What's next?

The Springboks return to action against neighbours Namibia in Toyota next Saturday, while the All Blacks must wait until October 2 to take on Canada in Oita.

France captain Guilhem Guirado thought his side had thrown away victory in their Rugby World Cup opener against Argentina when Emiliano Boffelli lined up a last-minute penalty in Tokyo.

Les Bleus claimed a 23-21 victory on Saturday, which could well prove crucial with England also in Group C, but only after Boffelli's last-gasp attempt at three points drifted narrowly wide from 53 metres.

That miss ensured a Camille Lopez drop-goal with 11 minutes remaining was decisive for a France side that had led 20-3 at the interval, only to be comprehensively outplayed in the second half.

Asked what was going through his head when Boffelli prepared to kick what could have been a match-winning penalty for Argentina, Guirado said: "I was thinking the game is finished and we lost the game."

Reflecting on his side's hit-and-miss display, the veteran hooker added: "We never controlled the game and we never controlled the ball in the second half, but we are very proud of the first half because we were very clinical. When we play like this we are very dangerous.

"I don't know [what went wrong after the interval], but we never controlled the ball. We were doing just two or three phases, we were playing a lot of kick-chase. I think we are better when we play with the hands."

Argentina captain Pablo Matera was deeply unimpressed with his side's performance in the first 40, which ultimately left them with just too much to do.

"[It was a] really bad start from us as a team and it's not good enough," said Matera.

"I think France at the beginning didn't do too much, but they took their opportunities and scored points."

France escaped the ignominy of being on the receiving end of the biggest comeback in Rugby World Cup history as Camille Lopez's drop goal secured a 23-21 victory over Argentina.

A Jekyll and Hyde display from Les Bleus saw them take a 17-point lead in the first half as Gael Fickou and Antoine Dupont crossed within four minutes of each other at the end of impressive moves.

But the Pumas roared back and were soon leading after using their set-piece to get Guido Petti Pagadizabal and Julian Montoya over from line-outs.

Lopez's first act after coming on as a replacement was to kick the winning points, with Emiliano Boffelli missing a last-minute penalty and the final whistle was followed by a short brawl between the two sets of players.

Nicolas Sanchez slotted through a penalty after a bulldozing run by Petti Pagadizabal but France moved ahead when Virimi Vakatawa dropped Pablo Matera and fed Fickou, who stepped in off the left and stretched over in the 17th minute.

A surge down the right from Damian Penaud proved key to Les Bleus' opener and, after some terrific hands in the build-up, the wing offloaded in the tackle for Dupont to go over in the corner.

After adding the extras to both tries, Romain Ntamack contributed a pair of three-pointers either side of some stoic try-line defence to send France into the break 20-3 up.

The Pumas meant business after the restart, though, and had their first try within two minutes – Petti Pagadizabal making the most of the decision to opt for a line-out rather than a kick at goal from a penalty.

Argentina repeated the trick in the 53rd minute and Montoya touched down off the rolling maul, but Sanchez – having appeared to hurt his shoulder in the first half – missed the conversion and was replaced by Benjamin Urdapilleta, who quickly reduced the deficit to two points.

Urdapilleta edged the Pumas ahead for the first time after the TMO decided Boffelli's aerial challenge with Penaud, which saw the wing leave for a head injury assessment, was fair.

Lopez's ambitious drop goal just about had enough length on it and Fickou was let off the hook by Boffelli after a clumsy tackle on the full-back, whose 53-metre penalty curled narrowly wide to give France the win.

 

France strike first blow

In a pool that also includes England, it always seemed likely that the winner of this game will follow them into the quarter-finals. Having fallen in their opener, Argentina will need a big performance against Eddie Jones' side if they are to revive hopes of progression.

Les Bleus lose their discipline

Les Bleus struggled to cope with Argentina's electric start to the second half and referee Angus Gardner warned them twice that repeated infringements could lead to a yellow card. They were fortunate that did not come to fruition.

What's next?

Argentina take on Tonga in Higashiosaka next Saturday, while France are not in action until their match with the United States in Fukuoka on October 2.

England have earned the right to be considered among the favourites for the Rugby World Cup, according to Lawrence Dallaglio.

Eddie Jones' side, along with top-ranked Ireland, Six Nations Grand Slam champions Wales and Rugby Championship winners South Africa, have been tipped as the most likely sides to challenge holders New Zealand in Japan.

England crashed out of their home World Cup at the first hurdle in 2015 but will aim to make amends this time around.

They start their campaign against Tonga on Sunday, before facing the United States, Argentina and France, with Jones' men having lost just twice – both times against Wales – in 2019.

Dallaglio lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 and sees no reason why England cannot go on to claim rugby's top prize once more.

"They've set the bar high," the former England captain told Omnisport, speaking on behalf of Land Rover, Official Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2019.

"There's always expectation with England in any sport, particularly rugby. We've got a history in rugby of doing well and I think they've earned that right quite frankly.

"I think the progression under Jones has been there right the way from 2015 when he declared he didn't feel we had enough world-class players.

"But I think on that journey over the last four years, you look at the team now and it's packed full of top-class international rugby players who have won Grand Slams, they've won the title a few times and domestic and European honours. So I think we can rightly go into this World Cup in Japan cautiously optimistic.

"They know they are capable of beating any of the sides in the world as they showed in Dublin in the Six Nations, as they showed in the first half against New Zealand and as they've shown in games more recently against Ireland.

"We're contenders, we're challengers and New Zealand are the team to beat. But we've got a chance."

Pressed on what else England need to do to prove their credentials, Dallaglio conceded a World Cup triumph may be required.

"How do you measure success in a side? It's what you win, tangibly," he added.

"This England team have a won a couple of Slams, they've equalled the world record for international victories under Jones, so I think the one thing they need to do is win a World Cup.

"To do that away from home would be some achievement. I'm really excited about their prospects, I'm looking forward to it. It's wide open."

Wales' Rugby World Cup squad have pulled together after the shock of backs coach Rob Howley being sent home from Japan over an alleged breach of betting regulations.

On Tuesday, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) confirmed Howley had returned to Wales six days before the team's opening World Cup match against Georgia in order to "assist with an investigation in relation to a potential breach of World Rugby regulation 6, specifically betting on rugby union".

Head coach Warren Gatland was forced to absorb a potentially damaging blow to his squad on his 56th birthday – something he made light of a Wednesday news conference where he praised the players' togetherness and discussed former Wales fly-half Stephen Jones coming in as Howley's replacement.

"I've had better birthdays, for sure," Gatland told a news conference at Wales' Kitakyushu base.

"We were shocked with it but, as I said, the union are dealing with this and my focus now has to be on the next five days, in terms of preparing the squad for their first game against Georgia.

"I spoke to Stephen Jones the other night about his availability to come in. He was willing to help and do that. The exciting thing about that is he's been in this environment in the past.

"He'll bring his own personality to the squad and have the opportunity to give his own ideas and input.

"For us [we have to] make it as seamless as we possibly can. You have to deal with adversity at times. I must say that the players in the past 24 hours have really stepped up.

"They've been incredibly responsible and resilient and sometimes that brings teams closer together. We've got to draw a line in the sand and really focus on preparing the team for the next five days.

"We got a shock the other day and it took a bit of time for this to sink in."

Dan Biggar could feel the effects of Howley's departure more than most, as he heads into the tournament as Wales' first choice at number 10.

"They [the players] were disappointed," Biggar said. "Especially for people like myself and Jon [centre Jonathan Davies], who have only ever had Rob as coach in the set-up and he has given us every single cap we've had.

"It's a huge disappointment, really, and shock, I suppose, but we are also adults and realise if things like this happen then we have just got to get on with it.

"That's what has been great about this squad over the last year or two. Whatever has come our way – we had a couple of distractions in the last Six Nations and we went on to win our final two games and the Grand Slam – we are strong."

Davies has plenty of experience working alongside Jones for Scarlets and believes he will have a positive impact upon the group.

"As well what he carried over to the coaching side, [what stood out] with Steve was the energy he always had as a player," Davies said. "On the training field he always had that bounce about him.

"He always demands high standards and tactically he wants the boys to play what's in front of them and make sure we make the right decisions.

"There will be a lot of excitement and Steve will give it his best shot, I can guarantee that."

After facing Georgia on September 23, Wales take on Australia, Fiji and Uruguay in Pool D.

It is little surprise to see powerhouses New Zealand start the Rugby World Cup as pre-tournament favourites.

The two-time defending champions remain the most fearsome side in world rugby and only the brave would bet against the All Blacks winning an unprecedented third straight trophy.

But the gulf between New Zealand and the chasing pack has been closed significantly, with Ireland starting the tournament as the number one ranked side.

With that in mind, three Omnisport writers give their thoughts on who will triumph in Japan, who may upset the odds and the player to watch throughout the tournament.


PETER HANSON

Winners: New Zealand

The All Blacks may not have the same air of invincibility they once held but it will still take an off day from Steve Hansen's men and a top performance from the other contenders to deny New Zealand a third straight title. Rare blips, such as the defeat to Australia and draw with South Africa in the Rugby Championship, will only galvanise this scarily talented squad, which has so much depth the likes of Owen Franks and Ngani Laumape did not even make the plane. England, Ireland, Wales and South Africa will all feel they can spring an upset, but I just don't see anyone dethroning the All Blacks.

Dark horses: Australia

It seems pretty absurd that a proud rugby nation such as Australia should be considered as outsiders, but that is the position Michael Cheika's side find themselves in. Inconsistent form over the past few years has seen the Wallabies lose some of their fear factor. You should always beware the wounded animal, though, and Australia really know how to turn it on at the World Cup. Twice champions of the world and twice runners-up, including four years ago when again they flew somewhat under the radar to make the final, discount the Aussies at your peril.

Player to watch: Sevu Reece

Exciting, electric, powerhouse New Zealand wingers go hand-in-hand with the World Cup and Sevu Reece is the next off the seemingly never-ending production line. He only made his Super Rugby debut for Crusaders in March, but finished the season as top try scorer with 15. At 22 years old, Reece still has plenty of time on his hands but he can already make a name for himself on the world stage.


PETE THOMPSON

Winners: South Africa

New Zealand will take some stopping in their bid to do what has never done before, but South Africa look well equipped to match the All Blacks' record of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup three times.

The Springboks have experienced a renaissance under Rassie Erasmus, with a formidable pack mixed with flair, and after winning the Rugby Championship in August they can become champions of the world in Yokohama on November 2.

Dark horses: Japan

Japan stunned South Africa in 2015 and home advantage can inspire them to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.

Captain and number eight Michael Leitch will drive on Jamie Joseph's exciting side, who can be a joy to watch with their skill, speed and agility.

Player to watch: Faf de Klerk

Faf de Klerk is not a giant in stature, but the South Africa scrum-half can light up the tournament.

The playmaker has played a huge part in the Springboks' resurgence, pulling the strings and setting the tempo and he can get South Africa ticking on the biggest stage of all.


TOM WEBBER

Winners: South Africa

The Springboks have come a long way under Erasmus and are unbeaten in 2019. They claimed an impressive draw against the All Blacks in New Zealand in July and went on to seal the Rugby Championship, undoubtedly making them the form team heading to Japan.

Dark horses: Argentina

The Pumas have not won a Test match since beating Australia 23-19 in September 2018, but the Jaguares making it all the way to the Super Rugby final this year shows this is a group of players with serious talent. The success of their campaign will likely hinge on their opening match against France at Tokyo Stadium, with England also in Pool C.

Player to watch: Peceli Yato

Yato has shown himself to be an accomplished flanker with Clermont Auvergne in the Top 14 in recent seasons; in 2018-19 he scored more tries and made more metres than any other forward in the division. However, with Fiji in a group that includes Australia and Wales they will likely need to claim a scalp against one of those sides to have a chance of advancing.

Rassie Erasmus' tremendous development of the South Africa squad has made Bryan Habana extremely optimistic about their Rugby World Cup hopes.

Former Stormers and Munster boss Erasmus in March 2018 took over from Allister Coetzee, whose dismal spell at the helm included 11 wins in 25 Tests and the Springboks' heaviest loss – a 57-0 drubbing at the hands of New Zealand in the 2017 Rugby Championship.

Coetzee was appointed in 2016 and in his first year suffered eight defeats in 12 Tests.

Although Erasmus lost his first match at the helm, he engineered a series success against England and ended a nine-year wait for an away victory against New Zealand in 2018.

The Springboks head into the World Cup undefeated this year and having won the Rugby Championship for the first time since 2009.

"Given that 2016, 2017 [were] pretty disappointing years, 2018 - Rassie's first year in charge - also only a 50 per cent win ratio, a really poor Super Rugby season for all of the South African sides, so going into this Rugby Championship, [there was] a lot of uncertainty," Habana told Omnisport, speaking on behalf of Land Rover, Official Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2019.

"Fast forward four weeks post the start of that championship and I think the optimism, the positivity and excitement around this Springboks side leading into a World Cup is absolutely incredible, and justifiably so given that they've gone out and won a Rugby Championship for the first time since 2009.

"It's the first time since 98 that they've gone unbeaten in the competition, albeit a shortened competition. They've really come to the fore in a massive way over the last month and a half, and what has been even more brilliant to see is that a year ago you didn't really know who your 31, 23, or even starting 15 were, given that you're not quite sure what the talent was.

"All of a sudden, Rassie's conundrum of having to choose only 31 players going into the this World Cup was a fantastic one to be in, given that development from a squad perspective that he's been able to achieve over the last 18 or so months.

"It all bodes really well in a World Cup that is probably going to be the most unique we've ever, ever seen. Unique by the fact that the top six teams realistically go into this competition with a pretty decent chance of winning it, realistically."

A late draw against the All Blacks was key to the Springboks' Rugby Championship triumph and they begin their campaign in Japan against the two-time defending champions in Yokohama on Saturday.

Habana said: "I don't think it's just the draw that will be fresh in South Africa's mind. I think the win in Wellington in the Rugby Championship last year, the first time a South African side has ever gone to Wellington and scored five tries against a New Zealand outfit, to then win it for the first time since '98 in Wellington was incredibly special.

"I think they'll take a lot of confidence out of that going into what is almost a decider against New Zealand because [over] the last three games everything is all equal - they've both won one, lost one and then drawn one. The points difference is zero at the moment.

"What an epic game to start out a brilliant tournament against the number one side in the world, the current reigning champion of the tournament.

"The South African side will be able to go into that game with an incredible amount of confidence, knowing what they've achieved against New Zealand in the last 12 months."

Wales backs coach Rob Howley has been sent home from the Rugby World Cup over an alleged breach of betting regulations.

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) confirmed Howley has returned to Wales six days before the team's opening World Cup match against Georgia in order to "assist with an investigation in relation to a potential breach of World Rugby regulation 6, specifically betting on rugby union".

A WRU statement said: "The decision was taken to act immediately in light of recent information passed to the WRU.

"No further details can be provided at this stage as this would prejudice the investigation. If required an independent panel will be appointed to hear the case.

"Rob has co-operated fully with our initial discussions and we would ask that the media appreciate this is a difficult and personal matter for Rob and that his privacy is respected before an outcome is reached.

"Warren Gatland has consulted with senior players and Stephen Jones will be arriving in Japan imminently to link up with the squad as attack coach."

Howley has been a key member of Gatland's backroom staff and oversaw their 2013 Six Nations success while the New Zealander was on a British and Irish Lions sabbatical.

The former Wasps scrum-half was part of Gatland's coaching team when the Lions triumphed in Australia in 2013 and drew a series against the All Blacks four years later.

The 48-year-old will leave his role with Wales when Gatland departs after the World Cup and had been touted as a potential replacement for Conor O'Shea as Italy boss.

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