Wales were beaten in three of their four Rugby World Cup warm-up matches, but this, a pool game against Australia, was different.

The expectation had been building for some time, with the winners almost certain to top Pool D and therefore avoid a daunting path through the tournament that would likely include England in the quarter-finals and New Zealand in the semis.

"If Wales can win [against Australia] then I expect them to do good things," former captain Sam Warburton told Omnisport.

And just as at the Six Nations, where they celebrated a stunning Grand Slam triumph, Wales stepped up when it mattered most and just about got the job done against regular World Cup foes.

Wales had been beaten by the Wallabies at three consecutive World Cups but ended that run in battling fashion, having also scraped through in the same fixture last November for their first victory over Australia in almost 10 years.

Warren Gatland's side have become the men for the big occasion over the past 12 months and yet may not now have to play an elite side again until the semi-finals.

Perhaps this result says more about Australia, who attempted a brave fightback but won just four Tests in 2018. Michael Cheika's side did not lack for courage but some basic errors at key times meant their World Cup chances took a major hit.

If Wales are to become just the second team - after England in 2003 - to follow up a Six Nations or Rugby Championship success by becoming world champions, it was vital to end their Australia hoodoo listed below.
 

2007: Wales 20-32 AUSTRALIA (pool stage)

After consecutive quarter-final appearances in the prior two finals, Wales would have expected to progress from their pool in 2007. But they were hit by a setback when Australia tore through them in a brutal first-half showing.

The Welsh were 25-3 down at the break and left to tussle with Fiji for second place. A painful late defeat to the Flying Fijians in their final pool match resulted in an early exit.


2011: Wales 18-21 AUSTRALIA (bronze final)

Wales got revenge over Fiji four years later with a pool-stage thrashing but they could not get one over Australia. They avoided the Wallabies in a run to the semi-finals, but the sides' respective defeats to France and New Zealand set up a bronze final meeting.

The Welsh attack could not fire as it had earlier in the tournament and Australia eased to victory, with Leigh Halfpenny's try rescoring some balance to the scoreline but coming far too late.


2015: AUSTRALIA 15-6 Wales (pool stage)

Neither Australia nor Wales were the big-name casualties in a packed Pool A, as England fell at the first hurdle on home turf, but a Twickenham clash to close their pool campaigns would decide who topped the group.

There was not a single try but Bernard Foley's boot proved the difference as the Wallabies defended doggedly, avoiding South Africa in the last eight and enjoying a run all the way to the final. The Springboks dumped out Wales, who could understandably be sick of the sight of Australia by this stage.


2019: Australia 25-29 WALES (pool stage)

Coming into their second pool match as Six Nations Grand Slam champions and having beaten Australia less than 12 months previously, Wales were finally ready to best the Wallabies on the big stage, with the boots of Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell this time crucial.

Wales had to withstand second-half pressure but got the job done and might now be able to target a serious push for the title...

Wales took a huge step towards topping Pool D at the Rugby World Cup with a nail-biting 29-25 win over a fast-finishing over Australia in Tokyo.

First-half tries from Hadleigh Parks and the outstanding Gareth Davies made the Wallabies pay for a slow start and set up a result which should see Wales avoid a quarter-final date with England.

Warren Gatland's men did have their 15-point half-time lead trimmed to one during the second period but held firm with help from Rhys Patchell's vital third three-pointer.

The Scarlets fly-half only came on after Dan Biggar was forced off due to concussion, the lone setback for Wales on Alun Wyn Jones' 130th cap, a national record.

Wales made a fast start in their tournament-opening win over Georgia and did the same on Sunday as a Biggar drop goal punished Australia's turnover from the kick-off.

Fly-half Biggar was involved again for the first try of the match when Parkes rose high to claim an intelligent kick and extend the margin to 10 points in almost as many minutes.

Australia's nerves eventually started to settle and the recalled Adam Ashley-Cooper got his team on the board by meeting Bernard Foley's cross-field kick.

Foley missed the conversion but made amends with a three-pointer prior to the half-hour mark.

The influential Biggar failed a head injury assessment following a try-saving tackle on Samu Kerevi, yet his absence did nothing to hinder Wales.

His replacement, Patchell, nailed a pair of penalties and extended the lead to 23-8 at half-time after Davies made a second interception, this time from Will Genia, and raced clean through, albeit from a seemingly offside position.

Patchell's successful drop goal in the early stages of the second half prompted Michael Cheika to swap Foley for Matt Toomua and it was the latter's break that ended with Dane Haylett-Petty diving over on the right.

Australia grabbed the momentum and reduced the deficit to four points 20 minutes from the end, Michael Hooper squirming over following a sustained period of pressure.

Toomua made both conversions and then put the Wallabies within one point with a successful penalty, but Patchell responded to give a tiring Wales breathing space in the closing moments.


Wales shed Wallabies hoodoo

Gatland's men beat the Wallabies 9-6 in Cardiff in November 2018 but had lost the past five World Cup meetings between the nations.

Ending that run and avenging the 15-6 pool match defeat to Australia four years ago could provide the impetus for a run deep into the tournament.


Cheika's big call backfires

Australia coach Cheika turned to experience to combat Wales, making four changes to the backline that helped secure a 39-21 win over Fiji.

He might be regretting that decision. Foley and Genia were drafted into the halves and, for experienced players accustomed to this stage, were prone to basic errors that invited pressure.


What's next?

The Wallabies have work to do ahead of Saturday's game against a Uruguay side boosted by a surprise win over Fiji, who are Wales' next opponents on October 9.

Reece Hodge and Australia have accepted the wing's three-match ban but insisted his dangerous tackle on Peceli Yato was "an obvious accident".

Hodge was cited for his hit on Fiji's Yato in Australia's opening Rugby World Cup win and then handed a three-week ban that will keep him out of the Wallabies' remaining pool fixtures.

Australia opted not to appeal the decision but Hodge posted on Instagram: "There was never any malice in the contact and any suggestions to that effect are simply false."

He was also irked by criticism of himself, coaches and Rugby Australia in relation to the "high tackle decision making framework".

"From my point of view, the high tackle decision-making framework was designed for administrators, and actually has little to no bearing on my decision-making on the field when approaching contact," Hodge said in a statement.

"We do lots of 'homework' as rugby players and are constantly adapting to changes in the game.

"Those that have played rugby would know that we don't think about the numbered elements of a decision-making tree for referees and TMOs in the split second before a tackle.

"The way I read it, it's a tool used to determine the appropriate sanctions after the contact has occurred."

He added: "Numerous articles suggesting I admitted to not knowing the 'new tackle techniques' are an utter fabrication.

"During the judiciary hearing, I was asked of my knowledge of the framework specifically, not of any 'new tackling techniques' or whether I knew tackling high was going to be penalised. 

"With that said, it was an obvious accident and I will pay a heavy price.

"The only sort of disciplinary action I've ever had was a yellow card for a 'deliberate knockdown' so it feels really weird to be on the sidelines, but I will be doing all I can to help the team prepare for Wales and for the rest of the pool stage."

A fired-up Michael Cheika insists Reece Hodge's three-game suspension will not "derail" Australia as they prepare for a blockbuster Rugby World Cup clash against Wales.

Winger Hodge was retrospectively punished for a high tackle on Peceli Yato in the Wallabies' opening 39-21 win over Fiji in Pool D after the on-field officials took no action.

At his hearing, Hodge said he had not been trained on the new tackling framework and the Australian media reacted with fury to the ban.

Head coach Cheika did not hold back in his criticism before Sunday's encounter in Tokyo.

"I wanted to say something at the start about some chat around the framework not being spoken to the players," he said.

"It came out in the judgement, the judge put a bit in there. I want to make a couple of points: the framework is for referees, not the players, to decide whether there are red or yellow cards in a game.

"The guy's [Hodge] already nervous enough as it is. When people are asking you questions and you have done nothing wrong you are nervous and may not have answers to all the questions on the tip of your tongue.

"People are making a point about us so we thought we would make one back - a bit of tennis.

"We are not going to let it derail us. We will suck it up and get focused on what is important - the match on Sunday."

Experienced duo Bernard Foley and Will Genia have been drafted in as two of four changes for Australia against a Wales side they have beaten in 13 of their previous 14 Tests.

However, it was Warren Gatland's men celebrating victory the last time the teams met in November 2018 and the New Zealander is well aware of the psychological boost that can give Wales.

"Losing games in the last minute in half a dozen contests can be quite demoralising but we really focused on last autumn's campaign and it was really important to us with two big games against Australia and South Africa," said Gatland, whose side beat Georgia 43-14 in their opening match.

"Australia was definitely one we went in trying to right the wrongs and coming away with a win it was a typical old-fashioned Test match."

Captain Alun Wyn Jones is set to make a record-breaking 130th appearance for an unchanged Wales side in a game where victory could potentially provide a more favourable quarter-final tie.

But Gatland is focused purely on the here and now.

"We have not really looked too far ahead. If you do get out of the group all quarter-finals are going to be pretty tough," he added.

"It is about taking one game at a time and trying to build and create momentum."


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Australia – Bernard Foley

Cheika's decision to drop Kurtley Beale from the starting XV certainly raised a few eyebrows and means they lose the full-back's attacking skill from deep. The onus will be on Foley to dictate the Wallabies' tempo from fly-half and, with 70 Tests and 619 points to his name, he has the experience to do so.

Wales – Gareth Davies

The scrum-half was influential against Georgia, creating the first and third tries and playing a key role in the second. To unlock the Aussie defence, Wales will need their number nine at his brilliant best.


KEY OPTA FACTS

- Wales have not won consecutive Tests against the Wallabies since a three-match span from 1969 to 1975. 

- This will be the seventh meeting between Australia and Wales at the World Cup, making it the joint-most played fixture in tournament history, along with New Zealand versus France. 

- Wales won their first World Cup encounter with Australia in 1987 (22-21) however the Wallabies have secured victory in each the five meetings since then at the tournament. 

- Wales have won seven of their last eight pool stage games at the World Cup (L1), their only defeat in that span coming against Australia (15-6) in 2015. 

- George North has scored five tries in 13 Tests against Australia (including for the British and Irish Lions); only two European players have scored as many against the Wallabies (Shane Williams – 6, Serge Blanco – 5).

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.

Wales can start dreaming of reaching their first Rugby World Cup final if they beat Australia on Sunday, according to Sam Warburton.

Two-time semi-finalists Wales started their 2019 campaign with a comprehensive 43-14 triumph over Georgia in Pool D but a stiffer test lies in wait in Tokyo on Sunday when they face Australia.

Warren Gatland's side ended a 13-match winless run against the Wallabies last year with a 9-6 success and Warburton sees the latest encounter as critical to Wales' hopes of going further than they ever have before in the tournament, with the winners of Pool D likely avoiding reigning champions New Zealand or England until the final.

"It's the most open World Cup we've ever had," Warburton, who won 74 caps for Wales, told Omnisport.

"They [Australia] are clear front-runners. Australia will be really competitive and if Wales can win against Australia and get out of the group first, I think it will give them the confidence and a slightly easier route - they're probably going to dodge England and New Zealand to the final.

"I think [for] Wales then it will be a really good springboard to get to a World Cup final.

"If they lose then they are going to have to do it the tough way and beat England and beat New Zealand and probably someone like South Africa in the final.

"That Australia game is massive, both teams realise how big that's going to be. If Wales can win that then I expect them to do good things."

Australia had a rotten 2018, with that defeat against Wales one of nine Tests they lost in the year.

They have fared better in 2019, though, and Warburton took notice of their impressive 47-26 victory over New Zealand in August.

"They've got the ability to beat New Zealand without David Pocock," the former British and Irish Lions captain added.

"If you can add David Pocock - and I know they've played them since and lost pretty badly - but it shows that that's in there. Like, it's there somewhere, they've still got it.

"So with Pocock fully fit added to that team, it wouldn't surprise me if they made last four."

 

Open Side by Sam Warburton (HarperCollins) is out now.

Australia wing Reece Hodge will miss the rest of the Rugby World Cup pool stage after being handed a three-match suspension for a dangerous tackle on Fiji's Peceli Yato.

Hodge was cited for his hit on flanker Yato during the 25th minute of the Wallabies' 39-21 comeback win last Saturday.

Fiji were ahead in the contest at the time and Yato, who impressed during his time on the field, was forced to withdraw due to concussion.

Australia head coach Michael Cheika criticised Fiji's move to refer the incident as being contrary to the "spirit" of the game.

On Wednesday in Tokyo, Hodge appeared before an independent disciplinary committee and was deemed to have committed an act of foul play that merited a red card.

In its ruling the committee stated Hodge's tackle was "reckless, rather than deliberate" and deemed there to have been "a high degree of danger".

Acknowledging Hodge's previous clean disciplinary record and good character, the six-match entry point for such an offence was halved.

Hodge has 48 hours to appeal the decision, which rules him out of Sunday's Pool D showdown against Wales and subsequent matches with Uruguay and Georgia.

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, Wallabies utility back Kurtley Beale told reporters he expects a tough examination against a superb Welsh defence.

"I feel like their defence has gone up another level, and I think over the tournament all teams are focusing on their defence," Beale said.

"It's going to be a little bit harder to crack and I think it places more importance on holding onto the ball, building pressure that way and hopefully matching them with fitness.

"It's always going to go down to the wire, we know that, and we're prepared for that."

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."

Israel Folau will return to Rugby League to play for Tonga after he was sacked by Rugby Australia for posts on social media.

Folau had his contract terminated by Rugby Australia in April, with the 30-year-old - a devout Christian - having expressed views which breached the team's code of conduct on his official social media channels.

He posted "hell awaits... drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters".

The Wallabies and club side New South Wales Waratahs sacked Folau in May.

However, Folau - who in July opened court proceedings against his former employers - has now announced his return to rugby, albeit in a cross-code switch to League, the sport in which he made his name with NRL sides Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos.

Folau, if fit, will be in Tonga's squad for Tests against the Great Britain Lions in Hamilton on October 26 and the November 2 against Australia in the Oceania Cup.

"I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to represent God, my family, my heritage and the people of Tonga," said Folau in a statement released by the Tongan National Rugby League.

"I don't want to bring any of my personal matters into this and I am grateful that the RLIF [Rugby League International Federation] have endorsed my availability.

"What I will do now is focus on playing great rugby league and do my talking on the field."

Tonga have also confirmed Folau's brother John - who quit Super Rugby side the Waratahs earlier this year - has been called up.

Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika criticised Fiji for referring an incident involving Reece Hodge that could see the wing suspended.

Hodge has been cited for a tackle that saw Peceli Yato concussed during the first half of Australia's 39-21 win at the Rugby World Cup on Saturday.

Fiji referred the incident to see Hodge cited, with the 25-year-old set to face a hearing in Tokyo.

Cheika questioned Fiji over their approach, saying he was upset about their decision to refer Hodge.

"Probably the most disappointing thing was the Fijians," he told a news conference on Monday.

"I think after the game we had a lot of friendly discussion with myself and the coach, he talked to our other coaches. There was no mention of anything and then to get a referral from them in the way it was referred, that was really disappointing.

"I don't find that the way they brought that in the spirit of the game at all, which is something you know from Fiji. So, the coaching staff I was really quite surprised with the way they brought their own referral post-match. That would've been a little disappointing to me from the spirit of rugby point of view.

"I'd prefer they come up to me and get upset with me if they were really upset about it, not to talk to me in that nice sort of friendly chitty chat way and then go behind your back and put in a referral. I don't think I've ever referred anyone."

However, Cheika is confident Hodge will be cleared based on meetings coaches had with the referees' boss, citing commissioners' boss and judiciary committee boss last week.

"I think it was pretty clear that all the officials dealt with it on the day and I think if you've seen form the conjecture around the majority of footballers, rugby players from the past have said it's not an illegal tackle," he said.

"It's not clear and obvious even in that point of view so I was surprised that it was cited. Like I said after the game, I personally didn't even notice it, I didn't even see it in the game, I thought 'Hodgey' was actually lucky to get up, he got slammed.

"I'm confident that, especially after listening to the boss of the judiciaries, I think we'll get a very fair hearing, hopefully we'll get it as quickly as possible so we can get our preparations right for this week and that Reece will be free to play."

The Wallabies face Wales in a blockbuster clash in Chofu on Sunday.

Joe Root will captain England's Test side regardless of their new head coach, Ashley Giles has confirmed.

Test skipper Root came under pressure in the recent Ashes series as England were held to a 2-2 draw, seeing Australia retain the urn as tourists for the first time since 2001.

The uncertainty around the coaching position added to speculation regarding the Yorkshireman's future, with Trevor Bayliss leaving his role following the series.

But Giles, the managing director of England men's cricket, has confirmed Root will continue to lead the side going forward.

"There have been no questions asked [about Root's future] by me," Giles told Sky Sports News. "I would hope that is the most important thing for now.

"One of the most important things for Joe is that we now redress that balance between red and white-ball cricket and we have more focus on Test match cricket.

"And when the new coach arrives, Joe gets a choice to sit down with him and really plan and decide a way forward - with me as well - our DNA around Test cricket going forward.

"If I were Joe, and we've had these discussions, we need to start planning towards winning the Ashes back in Australia in just over two years."

England will have one coach across all formats when they replace Bayliss, with Giles adding: "It's an exciting process because it's my first big appointment and we need to get it right."

The team's central contracts for the 2019-20 season were confirmed on Friday, with Eoin Morgan, England's white-ball captain, also set to continue in his role after winning the Cricket World Cup.

He has been given a limited-overs contract again, with Jofra Archer awarded an all-format deal.

The paceman starred in his first international campaign, playing key roles as England won the Cricket World Cup and drew the Ashes.

Rory Burns has been handed a Test contract following his performances against Australia, although Joe Denly got a white-ball deal.

Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, previously contracted across all three formats, received limited-overs agreements, while Alex Hales, Liam Plunkett and David Willey missed out completely.

Jack Leach and Sam Curran were granted incremental deals.

Wallabies and Rebels wing Marika Koroibete has re-signed with Rugby Australia until the end of 2021.

Koroibete signed a two-year extension in a huge boost for the Wallabies ahead of their Rugby World Cup campaign starting against Fiji on Saturday.

The 27-year-old made his Test debut in 2017 and has amassed 24 appearances, scoring nine tries.

"I am really enjoying my rugby, so it was an easy decision to stay with a club [the Rebels] that gave me a chance to play the game," the Fiji-born Koroibete said in a statement on Friday.

"My family and I are very happy in Melbourne and we have support at the Rebels that is not taken for granted.

"I still have a lot that I want to achieve in rugby and after the World Cup I am excited to get back to the Rebels and do our best to play Super Rugby finals in 2020."

A former NRL star, Koroibete made the switch to union by leaving Melbourne Storm for the Rebels ahead of the 2017 season.

He has made 41 Super Rugby appearances for the Rebels, scoring 16 tries.

The Wallabies are in Pool D at the Rugby World Cup and will face Wales, Uruguay and Georgia after their clash against Fiji.

It may not prove to be the case in the long run, but New Zealand feel a little vulnerable going into the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Having failed to win this year's shortened version of the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks are no longer the top-ranked side prior to the tournament in Japan.

Admittedly, they have not suffered a World Cup defeat since 2007, when they were stunned by France in a quarter-final in Cardiff. Their pedigree, plus their strength in depth, means Steve Hansen's side deserve to be considered the favourites.

Still, there is a glimmer of hope for the rest of the rugby heavyweights. The question is: who is best placed to dethrone the champions? 

 

1. SOUTH AFRICA

Could the Springboks be peaking at just the right time? They won the Rugby Championship for the fourth time this year and, after a shocking start against Japan, came as close as any nation to ending New Zealand's march towards a second straight World Cup in 2015. An early crack at the All Blacks in their Pool B opener will give them the chance to land a potentially telling blow. Also, the Boks ruled the world in 1995 and 2007. Now, 12 years on from their previous success, will the trend be repeated? They deserve to be viewed as the main contenders to the defending champions.

2. ENGLAND

It cannot possibly go any worse than four years ago, right? Eddie Jones – who was in charge of the Japan team that upset the Boks in Brighton in 2015 – is at the helm and the schedule has aided their campaign, as they have Tonga and the United States in their opening two fixtures in Pool C, giving them a chance to iron out any issues before they round out the stage by facing Argentina and France. The talismanic Owen Farrell is the key – and not just because of his outstanding kicking off the tee.

3. WALES

Warren Gatland could finish his spell in charge by doing a Six Nations Grand Slam and World Cup double. The Kiwi reached the semi-finals in 2011 and then the quarters four years ago. The reason they are not rated higher, however, is the list of absentees. Flanker Taulupe Faletau and fly-half Gareth Anscombe are missing due to injuries, scrum-half Rhys Webb is unavailable due to selection rules and attack coach Rob Howley has returned home over an alleged betting breach.

4. IRELAND

Like several of his counterparts, Joe Schmidt's tenure comes to an end with the World Cup. His final Six Nations did not go quite to plan, but Ireland top the world rankings, defeated New Zealand less than a year ago (in a game where the mighty All Blacks failed to score a try) and have plenty of experience in their squad. Much will depend on the form and fitness of fly-half Johnny Sexton - can he help the team recapture the form they displayed in 2018? While Pool A looks to be plain sailing, they face the prospect of New Zealand or South Africa in the last eight.

5. AUSTRALIA

The beaten finalists from four years ago will be relying on experience to go one better than 2015. Michael Cheika has often seemed on the brink as their head coach, but he raised hopes by beating New Zealand 47-26 in Perth in August. Still, they lost the rematch 36-0 on the road and are minus their leading strike weapon in Israel Folau, who is locked in a legal dispute with the Australia Rugby Union following his sacking for comments on social media. Without him, they will be more workmanlike than eye-catching in attack. 

6. SCOTLAND

Scotland are in a pool that, apart from Ireland, looks softer than some of the alternative options. They will not take hosts Japan for granted in their final round-robin fixture and, if they do progress, will have to cause an upset against either New Zealand or South Africa in the next round. Gregor Townsend has plenty of World Cup experience from his playing days, but this is his first in charge of the national team - expect the Scots to be in some highly entertaining contests but the last four looks a long shot.

7. ARGENTINA

Los Pumas languish outside the top 10 in the rankings but have made the semi-finals at two of the last three World Cups. The reason they are listed so low here, though, is their group. Only two can progress and having been drawn alongside England and France, Argentina face a challenge to make the quarters. Mario Ledesma's squad is dominated by players from Jaguares, who reached the Super Rugby final for the first time this year, but will lean on the Stade Francais' Nicolas Sanchez to provide control.

8. FRANCE

There was a time when France were the team you wanted to avoid in the knockout stages (just ask New Zealand 12 years ago, while they only won the 2011 final 8-7 against Les Bleus). Yet this current bunch are not living up to previous versions, with a distinct lack of flair put down to a domestic game now dominated by big-name overseas recruits occupying key positions. Sure, France have turned it on for the big occasion in the past, but the 2019 squad should concentrate first on making it out of their pool.

AND THE REST...

Japan have improved since 2015. Italy? Not so much. The hosts can justifiably think a quarter-final slot is within reach, but the Azzurri look doomed in Pool B alongside the All Blacks and the Boks. Currently placed inside the world's top 10, Fiji will likely have to beat one of Australia or Wales just to make it out of their group. The other nations will hope for damage limitation against the big boys and aim to take points off each other in their remaining fixtures. 

Michael Cheika insists he is not feeling any great pressure heading into the Rugby World Cup as Australia prepare for their opener against Fiji.

The Wallabies reached the 2015 final before losing to New Zealand, but results have not been as impressive as Cheika might have hoped in the intervening four years.

However, hopes were renewed when Australia defeated the All Blacks 47-26 in the Rugby Championship in Perth last month.

New Zealand won a return fixture the following week to retain the Bledisloe Cup, yet it is clear Cheika and the Wallabies have drawn encouragement from their impressive initial victory.

Cheika has named 14 of the players that started that match in his XV to tackle Fiji on Saturday, with only experienced star David Pocock introduced in place of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

And the Australia head coach, who would surely see his job come under threat with poor performances in Japan, is feeling relaxed.

"You should know me well enough now - there is not much pressure," Cheika told reporters in Sapporo. "I love what I do.

"I am prepared to take responsibility and accountability and always have been for everything I do.

"I'm not being judged by anyone as markers [of performance] except myself and you know that I am coming here to win with our team."

Fiji have not beaten Australia since 1954 but have shifted former NRL star Semi Radradra to the left wing in a bid to unsettle the Wallabies.

Vereniki Goneva, the country's record try-scorer, only makes the bench as a result.

Coach John McKee said: "It's been pleasing to see every player put their hand up to earn their spot.

"Every person knows the job they have to do and I'm sure they'll be looking forward with excitement and anticipation to the challenge on Saturday.

"The team have worked hard to this point and, as we wrap up preparations, the captain's run will also be important for our focus on this opening match."


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Australia - Christian Lealiifano

It is remarkable that Lealiifano is in the Australia squad at all, let alone in the XV. He returned to the team in July for the first time since being diagnosed with blood cancer leukaemia and quickly impressed in the Rugby Championship. Lealiifano is moving to Japan permanently after the World Cup, having left the Brumbies, and will be keen to stand out.

Fiji - Semi Radradra

It would make for an incredible story were Radradra able to cause Australia some damage on Saturday. A former Parramatta Eels wing, he played once for the Kangaroos - Australia's national rugby league side - before switching codes. Radradra has largely played at outside centre in union but has the attributes to worry the Wallabies.
 

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Australia are unbeaten in their past 17 games against Fiji (W16, D1), their last defeat in this fixture coming in June 1954 by a margin of just two points.

- This will be the third meeting between Australia and Fiji at the Rugby World Cup. The Wallabies secured victories against Fiji in both the 2007 and 2015 editions.

- The Wallabies lost their most recent Rugby World Cup fixture – the 2015 final – and will therefore be aiming to avoid back-to-back defeats at the Rugby World Cup for the first time since the 1987 tournament where they were beaten in succession by France and Wales.

- Fiji have won five of their most recent six international fixtures, including their past three on the bounce; the last time they won more in succession was a four-game stretch from June to July in 2017.

- Pocock has won 29 turnovers at the Rugby World Cup, more than any other player in the history of the competition.

David Pocock has been named at flanker for the Wallabies' Rugby World Cup opener against Fiji on Saturday.

Australia have opted for almost the same team that crushed the All Blacks 47-26 in the Rugby Championship last month.

Pocock's inclusion in place of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto is the only change to the starting side that faced New Zealand in Perth on August 10.

Rory Arnold is fit to take his place after a hand injury, while Nic White and Christian Lealiifano return in the halves for the Pool D encounter in Sapporo.

"Our goal is to win. I'm sure every team comes to every World Cup believing they can win, and that's what makes it such a great tournament," Wallabies coach Michael Cheika said.

"We want to do two things; to do our best to win the tournament but also to show young people in Australia who are watching, how beautiful the game of rugby can be and inspire them to play rugby back home in the future."

It is the second straight Rugby World Cup at which Australia and Fiji will meet in the pool stage, with the Wallabies winning 28-13 in Cardiff in 2015.

Australia: Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, James O'Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Lealiifano, Nic White; Scott Sio, Tolu Latu, Allan Alaalatoa, Izack Rodda, Rory Arnold, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Isi Naisarani.
Replacements: Jordan Uelese, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Adam Coleman, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Will Genia, Matt To'omua, Dane Haylett-Petty.

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