Joe Marchant will make his first Test start against Italy in England's final Rugby World Cup warm-up game in Newcastle, even though he is not in the squad for the tournament itself.

England named their 31-man squad on August 12 and Harlequins centre Marchant was absent from the final list, but head coach Eddie Jones has selected the 23-year-old alongside Piers Francis in the midfield to face Italy in what the head coach has termed "a mix-and-match selection policy".

Ruaridh McConnochie, who was the only uncapped player named in the World Cup squad, will make his debut on the wing for a team that will be captained by Owen Farrell and will once again feature Billy Vunipola.

Marchant's previous two appearances - against Wales last month and Ireland two weeks ago - have both come from the bench.

His inclusion raises doubts about the long-term fitness of Jonathan Joseph, who pulled out of the Ireland game with muscle soreness, and Henry Slade, who has not featured in any of the World Cup warm-up games due to a knee injury.

"We are delighted to be playing against Italy, one of our traditional Six Nations rivals and the game for us is another important step to develop our game fitness and game strategy," Jones said in quotes published on England's website.

"We have gone with a mix-and-match selection policy to develop our adaptability and the team’s ability to cope with any situation."

 

England: Anthony Watson, Ruaridh McConnochie, Joe Marchant, Piers Francis, Jonny May, Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs, Joe Marler, Jamie George, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry, Mark Wilson, Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler, Charlie Ewels, Matt Kvesic, Willi Heinz, George Ford, Joe Cokanasiga.

Stuart McInally will captain Scotland at the Rugby World Cup but there is no place for Huw Jones in the 31-man squad.

Edinburgh hooker McInally was confirmed in the role on Tuesday by coach Gregor Townsend, who has selected 12 players from Glasgow Warriors for the tournament in Japan.

However, Warriors centre Jones failed to make the cut for one of the midfield spots, with Northampton's Rory Hutchinson also missing out.

Peter Horne and Chris Harris have instead been chosen alongside expected first-choice pairing Sam Johnson and Duncan Taylor, while Adam Hastings will provide cover for fellow fly-half Finn Russell.

John Barclay - the most-capped player in the squad with 74 international appearances - will be involved in a third World Cup campaign, having also featured at the 2007 and 2011 editions.

"We're delighted with the squad and believe we've picked a group capable of playing our best rugby and doing this consistently throughout the tournament," said Townsend, who announced his final list of players at an outdoor ceremony held at a rainy Linlithgow Palace.

"The players have worked hard to be in the best physical shape of their careers and we know that when they play to their potential they are capable of beating any team in the world."

On selecting McInally for the captaincy, Townsend revealed: "Stuart has done a really good job in the opportunities he's had to captain Scotland.

"We have a number of leaders in our squad and it was great to see them work well together out in Georgia last week."

Scotland open their Pool A campaign against Six Nations rivals Ireland in Yokohama on September 22. Host nation Japan, Russia and Samoa are also in the same group.

 

Scotland Rugby World Cup squad in full:

Forwards: John Barclay, Simon Berghan, Fraser Brown, Scott Cummings, Allan Dell, Zander Fagerson, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Stuart McInally (captain), Willem Nel, Gordon Reid, Jamie Ritchie, Blade Thomson, Ben Toolis, George Turner, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson.

Backs: Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Adam Hastings, Stuart Hogg, George Horne, Pete Horne, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland, Ali Price, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Duncan Taylor.

Rassie Erasmus is adamant South Africa will not underestimate Japan again on Friday after naming arguably his strongest XV for the Springboks' final Rugby World Cup warm-up match.

Captain Siya Kolisi, fit again following a knee injury, is the only man included in the starting line-up who did not feature in the 16-16 Rugby Championship draw with New Zealand in July.

An experimental team beat Argentina 24-18 in the Springboks' most recent game but Erasmus has rolled out his big guns in South Africa's final fixture before they face the All Blacks again in their World Cup opener.

Pieter-Steph du Toit will make his 50th Test appearance in the back row alongside Kolisi, with Erasmus mindful about taking World Cup hosts Japan seriously after they pulled off a stunning 34-32 win when the two teams last met four years ago.

"I hope this selection will send a strong message that we have the utmost respect for Japan," Erasmus told reporters.

"Perhaps we made the mistake of complacency against them in the past but we've been hammering the message all week that we should never do that again against Japan.

"They're a smart team of great athletes, playing at home, having won a title in the past month and now desperate to prove something. This Test is as big a challenge as any we've had this season.

"They made a movie about the last time they played us - it's our job to make sure there's no sequel."


South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, RG Snyman, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn, Jesse Kriel.

Brian O'Driscoll feels England have "all the attributes" to win a Rugby World Cup, making Eddie Jones' side a "huge threat" in Japan.

England have one World Cup warm-up match remaining against Italy at Newcastle's St James' Park this week, having impressed in recent weeks with home victories over Wales and Ireland.

The defeat of Ireland was particularly striking, with Jones' men running up a record margin of victory over one of the world's best sides.

Manu Tuilagi, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola all starred in that victory and retired Ireland great O'Driscoll, who played at four World Cups, was impressed.

"I feel as if England are in a phenomenal position at the moment," O'Driscoll, a Land Rover ambassador, told Omnisport. "They are playing great stuff, they've got all their main players fit and in rude health, they're trying different combinations.

"If they can go into it with a limited injury list off the back of the final game against Italy, I think they are really humming at the moment and they'll be a very, very difficult team to beat.

"They look fit, they look strong, powerful, good variety to their game.

"I think they've got all the attributes we've seen in other previous World Cup-winning teams if they're able to implement that on the big stage. I think they'll be a huge threat."

Jamie Heaslip, O'Driscoll's ex-Ireland team-mate, similarly sees England challenging in Japan, suggesting injuries have prevented the team from getting the credit they deserve previously.

"Ireland, England and Wales have shown their form over the last two years – particularly England in the last 12 months," said Heaslip, also a Land Rover ambassador.

"People forgot they had a lot of players who were injured. They have a very fit squad right now available for selection.

"Look at Manu Tuilagi and his impact [against Ireland]. You've got Billy Vunipola, who impacts the game at number eight, and Joe Marler and the difference he makes."

As a former number eight, Heaslip has paid particular attention to Vunipola and the balance England have been able to strike in their back row with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill.

"Billy carries unbelievably well – he's so dynamic for such a big man, he's fast, he's got really good footwork – so you need balance," he said.

"I think you saw that [against Ireland]. There was a really balanced back row. That's going to be the trick for Eddie Jones in the back row, finding that balance.

"You can't just carry the ball, you need guys who rook, guys who do some hard yard work at times, and I think England have a very vast pack to be able to do that.

"They've got some players who are really dynamic and I look at that England back row and it's pretty formidable."


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Warren Gatland believes the quality of the players he has left out of his Wales squad shows they have the strength in depth to win the Rugby World Cup.

Gatland announced his final 31-man selection on Sunday, with Rob Evans and Samson Lee missing out while Rhys Patchell was preferred to Jarrod Evans.

The Wales coach had revealed on the eve of the squad announcement that six positions were still "up for debate" and, on Sunday, acknowledged the difficulty of the decisions he had to make.

But Gatland feels it has left Wales with a squad capable of going all the way through the tournament in Japan and building on their Six Nations Grand Slam success.

"I think it's good enough to win [the World Cup]," he said of the group, as reported by WalesOnline.

"The most difficult thing about this squad is the depth we've created over the last three or four years, so we've left out some real quality players.

"In the past when you've picked a World Cup squad, you may have been happy with 24 or 25 players and the others, making up the numbers, you're not sure about their quality.

"But this time we've left out some class players. I thought Owen Lane played well [in Saturday's warm-up against Ireland] and is definitely a player for the future.

"We've left out two experienced props and Bradley Davies, an experienced player, has been left out as well.

"Then you've got players who aren't available - someone like Rhys Webb - so the depth of the squad and the difficult decisions we've made is a sign of the preparation that's gone into the last three or four years.

"So I think we go there with a lot of belief and self-confidence."

Gatland said of Jarrod Evans, "I'm sure his time will come sometime in the future", while he explained the decision to look for more "durable" options than Rob Evans or Lee.

"Rob hasn't trained a lot in the lead up to the warm-up matches," Gatland said. "He came in with a shoulder injury, then he's picked up a neck injury and a couple of back issues. Rob hadn't played a lot.

"Samson has missed a few campaigns through injury, had a hamstring issue during the campaign. We looked at the durability of the props coming in.

"Someone like Rhys Carre has made incredible progress. He's dropped 10 kgs, I thought he did well yesterday, he's a big man. Apart from one day, where his calves were a bit tight, he hasn't missed a training session or been in the physio room.

"All the other props are also pretty durable."

Rory Hutchinson scored two tries on his first Test start as Scotland cruised to a 44-10 victory over Georgia in their Rugby World Cup warm-up match in Tbilisi.

In the last game before coach Gregor Townsend names his final squad of 31 on Tuesday, Hutchinson boosted his chances of tournament selection with a fine display that helped Scotland to their first away win in 14 months.

Prior to the match, Townsend and star man Finn Russell defended the decision to name a strong XV for the contest, despite losing Sam Skinner for the World Cup in an injury picked up in last week's home win over France.

While there were 10 changes, Hamish Watson, Greig Laidlaw and Russell all started, while hooker Stuart McInally returned to captain a side containing many players expected to be on the plane to Japan.

Scotland, the first tier-one nation to play a Test in Georgia, produced a much better performance than in their last away game, the humbling 32-3 defeat to France in Nice for which they took revenge in Edinburgh.

They led Georgia 23-3 at the interval after Ben Toolis and Hutchinson dotted down inside the first 19 minutes.

They raced clear in the second half, with centre Hutchinson scoring his second before Darcy Graham and Scott Cummings went over, the latter getting his first international try.

Laidlaw had 15 points with his boot to supplement a five-try display, with Karlen Asieshvili scoring Georgia's only try just before the hour mark.

Warren Gatland acknowledged six positions in Wales' Rugby World Cup squad are still to be decided in the wake of their final warm-up match, with Cory Hill a doubt due to a leg fracture.

Wales' squad for the tournament in Japan is set to be announced on Sunday and Gatland's players were given one final opportunity to impress against Ireland on Saturday.

However, they were beaten 22-17 in Cardiff after a poor first-half showing.

The performances of certain individuals still appeared to give Gatland much to ponder, though, as he confirmed his plans to debate Wales' various options.

"We're going back to the hotel tonight to sit down and it'll take a few hours," he told a news conference. "There are probably six positions really up for debate."

Gatland confirmed Hill's inclusion was one issue that was still to be settled, revealing the 24-cap lock has been absent from the warm-up games due to a leg fracture.

"Our big discussion tonight is with Cory Hill," he explained. "He's got a fracture in his leg.

"We scanned yesterday [Friday] and he has a very small fracture which will probably keep him out until game two or three. It'll be a big discussion point as to whether we take him or not."

Another area of contention would appear to be at fly-half, where Jarrod Evans started against Ireland before Rhys Patchell came off the bench to score a smart late try.

Gatland insisted Patchell's role in Wales' attempted second-half fightback would not necessarily give him the edge over Evans.

"There's no doubt that Rhys came on and did a good job," the head coach said. "But it's a hell of a lot easier coming off the bench when there's no pressure on you.

"It was hard for Jarrod in the first half when the team isn't going as well as it could."

Saturday's defeat means Wales, the world's top-ranked side, will fall to number four in next week's update.

Ireland did not do enough with a narrow margin of victory to take top spot in the rankings, but they will climb to second as New Zealand return to the summit.

Next week's remaining warm-up fixtures are set to decide who will head to the World Cup as the number-one team.

Ireland bounced back from last week's dismal defeat to England with a much-improved display and a 22-17 win in Wales in their latest Rugby World Cup warm-up.

Jacob Stockdale scored twice in the first half to secure bragging rights for the Irish in the first match of a double-header between the sides across consecutive weekends.

The display was extremely encouraging considering what had gone before for Joe Schmidt's side, although they were kept off the top of the rankings, having needed a 15-point victory against the world's number one side.

A late flourish from Wales in Warren Gatland's final home match could not quite complete a comeback.

Ireland's improvement was evident from the off and Jack Carty kicked the game's first points after nine minutes, although Jarrod Evans - making his first Test start - levelled the scores for Wales with a penalty in front of the posts.

Opportunities in open play were initially few and far between until a glorious weaving run from Andrew Conway created the opening try.

The winger raced away from three challenges and then unselfishly passed to Stockdale on the left to dash through.

And Stockdale had his second before the break as he preyed on a loose Wales pass and toed the ball clear of the recovering red shirts to dart across the line.

Wales enjoyed a better spell immediately after half-time but were soon on the back foot again and saw Leon Brown sent to the sin bin following a collapsed scrum as Ireland piled on the pressure.

A blatant forward pass denied Conway a try on the right, yet there was no let-up and Rory Best helped drive Wales back to secure a penalty try following a series of re-set scrums.

The home side belatedly got a breakthrough try with some lovely footwork from Owen Lane, with Ireland then suddenly hanging on as Elliot Dee lunged just short of the try-line.

Bundee Aki's challenge on an airborne James Davies meant Garry Ringrose's counter-attacking score was struck off, and Rhys Patchell's impressive late try could not rescue a Welsh result.

France gave coach Jacques Brunel plenty of food for thought ahead of the Rugby World Cup as they thumped Italy 47-19 in Paris on Friday.

A seven-try show from the home side masked disappointing spells in the game for France, who do not yet look like a side that could challenge for glory at the global tournament in Japan.

Brunel's starting XV for the Stade de France clash showed nine changes in personnel from the side beaten in their previous game by Scotland, as they chased an eighth straight win in their rivalry with Italy.

Maxime Medard fed Yoann Huget to score France's opening try in just the third minute, but Les Bleus put themselves in trouble when they lost their early composure and had both Louis Picamoles and Rabah Slimani sin-binned in quick succession.

Mattia Bellini crossed as Italy took advantage, and Tommaso Allan added the extras to put the visitors in front, albeit still early in the contest.

Italy were the next to be penalised, with Bellini yellow-carded for hauling down Huget off the ball. France were handed a penalty try, and it was briefly a game of 13 players against 14.

Camille Chat grounded the ball for another France try shortly after the half-hour mark, and they led 19-7 at half-time.

Scrum-half Antoine Dupont was next to cross, threading his way through to the line, and France were rampant early in the second half as Arthur Iturria barrelled over for another, his first for the team.

Jake Polledri replied for Italy only for Wenceslas Lauret to counter for France as the tries kept coming, the hosts going 40-14 up by the hour.

Bellini narrowed the gap, but it was France's night and their seventh and final try arrived when Thomas Ramos spotted a gap and darted through from a central position before diving over in the left corner.

France begin their World Cup campaign with a tricky test against Argentina on September 21. Italy, meanwhile, start against Namibia a day later.

Wales' Josh Navidi has vowed to embrace the captaincy role against Ireland on Saturday having been handed the chance to lead his country for the first time.

Ireland visit the Principality Stadium for Wales' final match on home soil before the Rugby World Cup, with head coach Warren Gatland ringing the changes.

He announced 14 alterations to his starting XV following the victory over England, with Navidi one of those coming into the team.

It caps a fine rise for the Cardiff Blues back-rower, who has only played 17 times for his country.

"It is a massive honour. I've had loads of messages from people, which is nice. My family are ecstatic as well, and it will be nice to lead the team out," Navidi said on Friday.

"Gats [Gatland] came up to me after a units session and asked me would I like to lead the team. It's something you can't turn down, really.

"I will try and keep the emotions down. It's another game of rugby, but obviously nice to lead the team out, embrace the moment and then get into it.

"I am not much of a talker, to be honest. Hopefully, I can lead from the front, and everyone else will follow.

"As a youngster I captained Bridgend Athletic, and my school. I have done it a bit with the Blues over the years too.

"Alun Wyn [Jones], I have played quite a lot with him recently, and obviously Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees at the Blues, and it's little things you pick up on through them. It just brings your game forward, and hopefully I can pass it on to others.

"But to be honest, I have never thought about it [being captain], with the leaders in the group with Wales.

"You have got Alun Wyn, Ken Owens and Jonathan Davies, who are massive figures in the team, and it's something that I've never thought I would come across - I thought just getting the red jersey is enough - so it will be nice."

Wales will face Ireland again on September 7 in Dublin for their final pre-World Cup warm-up.

Their campaign begins 16 days later, against Georgia in Toyota City.

South Africa wing Aphiwe Dyantyi is facing a long-term suspension after being formally charged with a doping violation.

Dyantyi, who last week denied taking any prohibited substances, was provisionally banned after returning an adverse finding in a test at a Springboks training on July 2 and requested for his B-sample to be tested.

The South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS) said on Friday the B-sample indicated the presence of the same three banned anabolic steroids and metabolites: metandienone, methyltestosterone and LGD-4033.

The 25-year-old has the right to contest the charge in front of an independent disciplinary panel.

If found to have breached anti-doping regulations, the 2018 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year could receive a four-year ban.

Speaking last week, Dyantyi maintained his innocence after being made aware of the initial test results.

"I want to deny ever taking any prohibited substance, intentionally or negligently, to enhance my performance on the field. I believe in hard work and fair play," he said in a statement.

"I have never cheated and never will. The presence of this prohibited substance in my body has come as a massive shock to me and together with my management team and experts appointed by them, we are doing everything we can to get to the source of this and to prove my innocence."

Dyantyi has played 13 Tests for South Africa since making his debut against England at Ellis Park in June 2018 but was not included in the Rugby World Cup squad.

Warren Gatland has urged his Wales players to prove their Rugby World Cup credentials against Ireland and highlighted a shoot-out for the fly-half position.

Wales have made 14 changes for their warm-up fixture against Ireland at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, with Jarrod Evans getting the nod at number 10 and Rhys Patchell among the replacements.

Owen Lane and Rhys Carre will make their Test debuts as Josh Navidi captains the side in their final match before Gatland names his 31-man squad for the tournament in Japan.

James Davies is the only survivor from the team that beat England 13-6 on August 17, while Ireland come into the game following a 57-15 thrashing at the hands of Eddie Jones' side at Twickenham on Saturday.

"There are a number of positions still up for grabs. Players are well aware of how important this game is and the opportunity they have," said Gatland.

"They're under pressure after last week's performance so it's a great challenge for us.

"They're coming here knowing they've been criticised, they'll be hurting. I couldn't ask for a better game for this group of players."

On the race to compete with Dan Biggar for the fly-half position at the World Cup, Gatland added: "Jarrod gets an opportunity. We know a little bit more about Rhys Patchell, so the pressure is on him [Evans] and he understands that fully.

"It's about coming out, starting a game and controlling a game. Rhys will get the second half and it's about him coming on and making an impression.

"The two of them are aware they'll get the chance and it's probably a shoot-out between the two of them."

Ireland boss Joe Schmidt has also rung the changes for the meeting in Cardiff, with Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony, Jacob Stockdale and Bundee Aki the only players to retain their spot.

Niall Scannell comes in for captain Rory Best, who is named among the replacements, while Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw miss out again.

 

Wales: Hallam Amos, Owen Lane, Scott Williams, Owen Watkin, Steff Evans, Jarrod Evans, Aled Davies; Rhys Carre, Ryan Elias, Samson Lee, Adam Beard, Bradley Davies, Aaron Shingler, James Davies, Josh Navidi.

Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rob Evans, Leon Brown, Jake Ball, Ross Moriarty, Tomos Williams, Rhys Patchell, Jonah Holmes.

Ireland: Will Addison, Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O'Mahony, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Rory Best, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Jordi Murphy, Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose, Dave Kearney.

Rugby World Cup hosts Japan have named their squad for the tournament, with veteran Hiroshi Yamashita missing out but uncapped Takuya Kitade included.

Jamie Joseph announced his 31-man group for the finals on Thursday and included a number of stars of the 2015 World Cup under former boss Eddie Jones, though Yamashita was not among them.

The 33-year-old prop was one of 10 players cut from a 41-man training squad.

Yamashita went to the last World Cup in England, although he did not make it off the bench to take part in Japan's historic defeat of South Africa.

There are several familiar faces in Joseph's final list, though, with Michael Leitch again captaining the side.

Hooker Kitade is also selected, along with Pieter Labuschagne and James Moore, who are both relatively new to the squad having secured eligibility in June.

Japan play Russia in the opening game of this year's edition of the competition, on September 20. Ireland, Scotland and Samoa make up the rest of Pool A.

 

Japan's 31-man Rugby World Cup squad in full:

Forwards: Keita Inagaki, Yusuke Kizu, Jiwon Koo, Isileli Nakajima, Asaeli Ai Valu, Takuya Kitade, Atsushi Sakate, Shota Horie, Luke Thompson, Wimpie van der Walt, Uwe Helu, James Moore, Hendrik Tui, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Michael Leitch, Pieter Labuschagne, Kazuki Himeno, Amanaki Lelei Mafi.

Backs: Kaito Shigeno, Fumiaki Tanaka, Yutaka Nagare, Yu Tamura, Rikiya Matsuda, Kenki Fukuoka, Ataata Moeakiola, Lomano Lava Lemeki, William Tupou, Ryoto Nakamura, Timothy Lafaele, Kotaro Matsushima, Ryohei Yamanaka.

Brian O'Driscoll is concerned by Ireland's form a month out from the Rugby World Cup but believes they can swiftly turn their fortunes around.

Ireland were the dominant team in world rugby in 2018, winning the Six Nations Grand Slam and defeating world champions New Zealand.

But this year has been a different story, with a humbling 57-15 reverse to England in Saturday's World Cup warm-up at Twickenham providing cause for concern.

Yet former Ireland star O'Driscoll is backing Joe Schmidt's men to respond, potentially starting with back-to-back fixtures against Wales before the tournament in Japan.

"It's concerning in that you would prefer to be playing with huge confidence," O'Driscoll, a Land Rover ambassador, told Omnisport.

"In the first warm-up games, you have a stuffy victory against Italy and then a resounding defeat to England, who just looked like a completely different level.

"Of course, I'd be concerned that the confidence appears to have taken a dent and you want to go in [to the World Cup] feeling as though you can play your best rugby or you have your best rugby in close parameters to where you're at. That doesn't seem to be the case at the moment.

"But sport can be fickle and it can turn around very, very quickly as well. We saw the All Blacks beaten badly by Australia and coming around the following week and hammering them at home, nilling them. You can turn it around.

"What I'm sure will disappoint Joe Schmidt the most is that the lads just didn't seem like the same accuracy and same levels expected of them were delivered at the weekend.

"But they have a chance this weekend of putting that right. That's the beauty of having a game the following week after a big defeat."

If Ireland can rediscover some confidence, O'Driscoll suggests recent results should not quell optimism ahead of the World Cup.

"It's happened with New Zealand for a number of World Cups, where they've peaked in between and not quite been able to manage it on the biggest stage," he said.

"That's the question with Ireland now, they've not quite delivered at a World Cup level. But that doesn't mean this time [they] can't turn that around.

"It's not ideal preparation so far, but the way the group works, playing Scotland and Japan - they're capable of winning both of those games and also the two other games [against Russia and Samoa].

"Finish top of the group and you have the game of your life against New Zealand or South Africa - win that and you're in a semi-final.

"That really simplifies it, but any team will tell you, get to a semi-final and of course you're capable of winning a World Cup. You're one game away from playing in a World Cup final."

 

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Jamie Heaslip is confident Rory Best is the right man to lead Ireland and will prove his worth as the pressure builds heading into the Rugby World Cup.

Captain Best's role has come under scrutiny this year as Ireland have failed to build on an outstanding 2018 in which they won the Six Nations Grand Slam and then defeated world champions New Zealand.

Joe Schmidt's men finished third in the 2019 Six Nations and then, in last week's World Cup warm-up, crashed to a record loss against England.

But 95-cap former Ireland international Heaslip, who played with Best, is confident the skipper will take the right approach following that reverse, calmly rallying the side as they face Wales in consecutive weeks before travelling to the tournament in Japan.

Best has confirmed he will retire from professional rugby following the World Cup.

"Rory's come in for a lot of criticism, particularly over the last week," Heaslip, a Land Rover ambassador, told Omnisport.

"But you look back at his tenure now – I think it's three years he's been captain – and the success of that team while he's been at the helm.

"Ireland have beaten every Tier 1 nation in the last two years. That type of consistency shows the leadership he's obviously showing day in day out in that camp.

"He would have been disappointed with his own performance last week and will be very eager to get another opportunity – just like every other player in that matchday squad from last week – to showcase what he can do on the field.

"And I would imagine his leadership qualities are coming out in full force this week, in terms of being up against it and the performance not being good enough.

"They were exploited by the other team, the pressure is starting to pile up, and it takes a really calm, level-headed person – just like Rory is – to this week get the players together and focus on the new task.

"He will captain them in that way. That's where Rory will show his real value to the team."

Heaslip is not overly concerned by the team's form either, with the exception of a "one-off" against England, and believes performance levels are not too far from where they were last year.

"I think they're in the exact same position [as in 2018], if I'm honest," he said. "Less than 12 months ago, everyone was saying these guys were going to win the World Cup after beating New Zealand.

"If you actually look at the games, the margin of winning and losing is so fine.

"You look at the first game of 2018, straight out of the gate, they don't score any tries, kick all the points, France score a try against them, and if it wasn't for a 41-phase drop goal effort from the halfway line – you couldn't write this stuff – they don't win the Six Nations, they don't win the Grand Slam.

"In 2019, you could say the same thing where the margin for the opposition to win the game is not that big. The margin for losing at international level is so fine.

"I think Ireland have actually been very consistent over the last 18 months, two years, the past World Cup cycle even. I think they're in exactly the same position. They're a bloody good team."

 

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