Around the Cup: Japan 2019 officially declared open

Rugby World Cup
by RUGBY.com.au staff

The Rugby World Cup is ramping up and there is news coming from all corners of the rugby world in Japan.

RUGBY.com.au will aim to keep you updated with the news of the day from each team as the tournament goes through.

To catch up with all the team lineups and matches as they happen, click here.

FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 20

The Rugby World Cup was officially declared open on Friday night. Photo: Getty ImagesWe're wrapping up this week one news hub with just one small thing - the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony.

The tournament was officially opened on Friday night by Japan's Crown Prince Akishino, with former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw returning the William Webb Ellis trophy back to neutral territory.

It was a spectacular performance of light and song and dance, leading into the opening clash between Japan and Russia.

WORLD RUGBY

Two Englishmen completed an epic cycle journey from London to Tokyo this week, bringing with them the match whistle for the opening game of the Rugby World Cup.

The pair began their journey back in February and arrived at their final destination on Thursday, raising more than $20,000 along the way.

One of the cyclists, Ron Rutland, said the trip was a memorable one.

“You can see my arms are shaking, words don’t begin to describe it. James and I have been the ones lucky enough to get to ride from London," he said.

"If there was ever a team effort (this was it). DHL, World Rugby, ChildFund and, importantly, the thousands and thousands of people we met on the route.

"They have invited us into their homes, their mosques, churches, police stations; they were the kindest of people. And the welcome we received just cycling from Osaka in Japan.

"James and I have been looking forward to the World Cup, obviously, a very, very long time. We just got a taste the past few days of what visitors to Japan can expect. We're looking forward to parking the bikes and enjoying six weeks in this wonderful country.”

THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 19

Three teams have already been announced for the first round of matches but plenty more will be flowing in today.

Keep up with all the lineups here.

GEORGIA

The mayor of Nagoya wins the prize for most enthusiastic welcome speech, for Georgia today.

Fair to say there's plenty of love for rugby around Japan right now.

JAPAN

Japan halfback Yutaka Nagare admitted that he and some of the other Brave Blossoms players are feeling the nerves ahead of the opening match of the Rugby World Cup against Russia.

As the team went through their final paces at Tokyo Stadium on Thursday, the excitement and tension was palpable as four years of planning for Jamie Joseph's side reaches its final stage.

Friday's match, to open the first tournament held outside the game's traditional heartlands, is expected to draw a record domestic television audience for a Rugby World Cup fixture.

The pressure is on for Japan as hosts even though they are heavy favourites for the clash against lowly-ranked Russia.

"So many media have come today - it's going to be a match that's going to get a lot of attention," said Nagare, who was selected ahead of Fumiaki Tanaka, a hero of Japan's win over South Africa four years ago.

"I'll be nervous but this is a dream match so I hope to enjoy and play with confidence."

With Japan keen to play a high-tempo match to take the game to Russia, who will prefer to battle it out in the forwards, Nagare's role as tone-setter for the Brave Blossoms will be crucial.

"On the actual day, I think I'll be nervous but I hope to communicate as best I can with the other players ... so that we can bond well and so that I can control the match," he said.

Joseph, who earned 20 caps for New Zealand before also playing for Japan at the 1999 World Cup, knows the experience within his coaching staff will be key to keeping a lid on the players' nerves.

He can call upon former Highlanders head coach Tony Brown, currently with Japan as attack coach, as well as a swathe of experienced players in the squad.

"It's always a challenge (to manage nerves)," Brown said.

"We have got quite an experienced group around our leadership with Leitchy (captain Michael Leitch), Luke Thompson, Fumiaki Tanaka ... so those guys have got the team under control around nerves and they understand what they have to do."

NEW ZEALAND

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen warned South Africa's Rassie Erasmus to lay off referee Jerome Garces as the war of words escalated on Thursday ahead of their crunch World Cup Pool B clash.

Hansen accused Erasmus of "trying to put pressure on the referee" after the Springbok coach led what appeared to be an orchestrated South African campaign targeting the match official.

But Hansen said it wouldn't work, adding the referees "are not stupid people".

Erasmus claimed the All Blacks received special consideration and it was a "well known fact" that tight decisions often go their way, while his assistant coach Mzwandile Stick called for "equal treatment" from Garces.

Garces has refereed five Springboks-All Blacks Tests, with New Zealand winning each one including a narrow 20-18 victory in the 2015 World Cup semi-finals.

Two years later the All Blacks scraped home 25-24 after Garces red-carded Springbok centre Damian de Allende.

"It's pretty obvious what they're trying to do and whilst I've got a lot of respect for South Africa and particularly Rassie, I think he's a great coach, I don't agree with what he's doing," Hansen said.

"He's trying to put pressure on the referee externally and they're under enough pressure already. They don't need us coaches to be doing what he's doing."

Garces is no favourite in New Zealand either, having been involved in red cards for two All Blacks in recent years, but Hansen said there was no choice other than to accept the rulings.

"It doesn't matter who's your ref, as a coach or a team you can always find things after the game that they didn't do," Hansen said.

"At the end of the day, they go out to do the very best they can do, and yes they don't get it right all the time and we've suffered from that just like other teams have.

"It's a big game, we just need to let the ref get on with it and prepare for it himself."

Scott Barrett, named to start at lock on Saturday in his first Test in six weeks since been red-carded by Garces against Australia, said he harboured no ill-feeling towards the referee.

"There's obviously a fine line and I've learned from that and am keen to move on," Barrett said.

"The laws are there for a reason to protect players and player welfare and I've been working hard and keen to address that.

"We've had the (referee's) briefing and we're well aware how they'll be reffing high shots and foul play."

WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 18

WALES

The biggest story of the World Cup so far broke overnight, with Wales assistant Rob Howley sent home amid a betting investigation.

SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa stepped up pressure on referee Jerome Garces ahead of their blockbuster World Cup clash with the All Blacks, saying it was a "well known fact" that tight decisions often go New Zealand's way.

Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus said the match was too close to call after the two sides were separated by no more than two points in their past four clashes.

But he added that referees had so much respect for the All Blacks, the three-times world champions, that 50-50 decisions often fell in their favour.

His message to the French whistleblower came just two days after his assistant coach Mzwandile Stick appealed for "equal treatment" from Garces, and three days ahead of Saturday's showdown in Yokohama, the most anticipated game of the pool stage.

Erasmus, who named his strongest possible combination on Thursday, with the return of a fit-again Siya Kolisi the only change to the side that drew 16-16 with New Zealand two months ago, said the teams were evenly matched.

"The thing that makes it special is if you asked anyone right now who is going to win this Test match I don't think anyone will bet on any of the two teams," he said.

"If you ask our boys they think we've got a really good chance. If you ask their team they think they've got a really good chance and hopefully the referee is not too sure."

Garces, who has red-carded two All Blacks and a Springbok, has handled three matches between the two sides in recent years, all of them won by New Zealand.

They won narrowly won 20-18 in the 2015 World Cup semi-finals and 25-24 two years later when Springbok centre Damian de Allende was sent off.

In between, Garces oversaw the 2016 blowout when the All Blacks triumphed 57-15.

Although the All Blacks have slipped behind Ireland in the world rankings, Erasmus said their dominance over the past decade had earned them credit with match officials.

"Referees buy into that respect because you are playing so well," he said.

"It was a well-known fact that when it was really tough and teams were under the pump some of the 50-50 decisions just went (New Zealand's) way because they deserved that for being number one so long."

IRELAND

Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell is optimistic about the fitness of winger Keith Ealrs and fullback Rob Kearney but says they won't take any undue risks on the pair ahead in their first match this weekend.

The Irish have been one of the worst hit teams in terms of injury in the lead-up to the World Cup with centre Robbie Henshaw already out of the Scotland game and a host of other players causing concern.

"Rob and Keith ran well today (Wednesday), and trained well," Farrell said.

"They are available, but we wouldn’t take risks unnecessarily.

" We've got to act according to what is put in front of us by the medics and make a decision on the back of that.

"We've got a good squad. Even if they weren't fit we would be strong for the weekend."

Rookie Jordan Larmour who only made his Test debut in 2018, and Andrew Conway shape as the pair competing to replace Kearney should he be wrapped in cotton wool.

"They're certainly putting their best foot forward to contribute," Farrell said.

"Jordan's a young man but where he's come from in the last couple of years is remarkable.

"They don't see themselves as part of the squad, they see themselves as team members that are hopefully building for something special at the weekend."

USA

USA coach Gary Gold says England's squad has a "ridiculous" amount of talent, ahead of their opening clash in the second week of the tournament.

England plays Tonga on Sunday evening in Sapporo, with the USA having to wait until later in the week to have their first taste of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

"They're such an outstanding group of players, aren’t they? Their strength in depth is ridiculous," he said.

"They could pick any one of two teams out of their 31 and they would be very powerful. It's going to be interesting to see how they go."

Asked his prediction on the massive New Zealand-South Africa clash on Saturday night, Gold was confident in the Springboks' chances.

"It's going to go down to the wire. I think the Springboks are going to edge it, only because so many Springboks have spent time in Japan. They’ve been here a little bit longer, they’re more used to the conditions, they’ve already played a game here in Japan.

"I think coming off the Rugby Championship they're in slightly better form. But in saying that, anybody who writes off the All Blacks does so at their peril.

"I think it’s going to be a humdinger, a great game of rugby. I'm very happy we're going to be watching it in the comfort of our hotel."

CANADA

Canada's Rugby World Cup tournament doesn't get started straight away, not playing Italy until Thursday September 26, but coach Kingsley Jones is happy with the way his side's schedule is laid out.

"I don't think it could be set up better if I asked for those fixtures myself," he said.

"We're building into our first game against a team that is a Six Nations team (Italy). They've done so well. For us to be in a position where we've got everything to gain and nothing to lose, we look forward to that game. It's a real good build-up for us.

While for many of the top nations, a quarter-final berth is the opportunity at stake, for many of the smaller rugby nations the carrot of automatic 2023 qualification for two pool game wins is just as big.

Jones said the chance to have a full cycle of preparation with the knowledge his team would be participating in France in 2023 would be a major boost for Canada.

"It's an extra incentive for any team - the probability if you win two pool games, you qualify for the next one automatically," he said.

"Any team wants to be in that position. To have four years to prepare for a World Cup is what you need really. We've been in a position where we had 11 months. That's not ideal."

Jones predicted Italy to be gunning for the miracle upset in their group.

"Let's be realistic. With the pool we have, we have to be real," he said.

"italy will fancy their chances of upsetting the apple cart (disturbing the status quo). They'll be targeting one of those big teams.

"They'll be targeting ourselves and Namibia, for sure. They want to qualify.

"They want to qualify for the quarter-finals, I'm sure, and for the All Blacks and South Africa, that goes without saying.

"Namibia will be looking to get wins and they'll be looking at us as well so we've got to be realistic within that. But if we play to the best of our ability, who knows?"

WORLD RUGBY

World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper didn't rule out the potential of expanding Rugby World Cup squad sizes when asked at the official opening press conference on Tuesday night.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt criticised the current 310-man count earlier this week, saying it was too small to maintain adequate player safety through the tournament.

The Irish have been one of the teams hit worst by injury concerns in the week leading into the tournament.

Gosper said World Rugby would review squad sizes but that those complaints had come "late in the day".

"We are never entrenched in one particular position. That position has come pretty late in the day," he said.

"Moving forward we might look at that (increasing the squad sizes). It does have cost implications.”

TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 17

FIJI

Fiji coach John McKee says his team needs to nail its chances against the Wallabies on Saturday afternoon in Sapporo.

McKee told RUGBY.com.au ahead of the tournament that his goal was to knock off a "big boy" in the tournament and the Wallabies are their first crack.

"We're really looking forward to it and we have high ambitions in this World Cup," he told reporters in Abashiri.

"We know we have big challenges with big teams in our pool (Pool D) but it's a great first match for us.

"A lot of Test match rugby is run in the close quarters and it's going to be a big game for both teams at the gain line and in both attack and defence.

"For us it'll be a game of limited opportunities and we have to make sure that we nail opportunities and turn them into points."

McKee said he expected the Wallabies to target their lineout in Sapporo.

"The set-piece is always a big area," he said.

"Our scrum has been quite good but our lineout has probably been... We saw against Tonga they used the lineout more against us and we probably expect Australia to attack in that area, too, so we've been doing some work in that area."

FRANCE

France's Antoine Dupont admits Les Bleus should be concerned about their first World Cup match against Argentina.

Whoever loses Saturday afternoon's clash will face an uphill battle to make it out of the pool stages and Dupont said the Pumas shouldn't be underestimated despite a lean Test winter.

"It’s obvious we should be worried. Even though they went through difficult times lately, Argentina remains a very dangerous team," he said.

"The Jaguares performed very well this season. They almost have the same roster as Argentina’s. They have a strong tactical chemistry, they know each other very well and they already managed to pull off some monster performances.

"During the latest (Rugby) Championship, circumstances were not in their favour; they played the first match only one week after the Super Rugby final. It was difficult for them to be in good shape."

Flanker Wenceslas Lauret said the match could be a "turning point" for the side.

"It's a turning point. It's the first game. All French people, but also the whole world, will have their eyes riveted on this game," he said.

"We have to start this competition the best way possible and it starts with the Argentinians. We should not look at what others do, we need to look at what we can do and at the results."

GEORGIA

Georgia coach Milton Haig says his team is expecting a far tougher World Cup challenge this time around as compared to 2015.

"It'll be a lot harder here," he told reporters on Monday night.

"When I spoke to the Tongan boys in 2015 after that first match (which Georgia won 17-10), they really weren't looking at us.

"So what we've achieved, automatic qualification, and some of our performances over the last four years, we won't be able to fly under the radar this time."

One of the big talking points in the Georgian squad has been the return of Mamuka "Gorgodzilla" Gorgodze to the squad.

Gorgodze came out of international retirement to be part of the World Cup and Haig expects him to be as powerful as ever.

"I don’t think you'll see much difference really," he said.

"What Mamuka is really good at is what he's always been good at. Apart from his experience and his leadership, he'll also bring that physicality that Georgians are known for.

"That's what we'll expect out of him and I'm sure that's what he'll give us."

Georgia takes on Wales in their first World Cup match, nearly two years after a 13-6 loss to the Welsh in 2017, and Haig said he felt they had evolved since then.

"They’ll be different because it's a World Cup and everyone wants to perform on this stage," he said.

"But we think we've got some strengths in terms of what we had last time. In terms of our scrum we still think that's a weapon for us against them, and our lineout went pretty well against them as well as did our defence."

TONGA

England and Tonga will observe a minute's silence ahead of their Rugby World Cup clash on Sunday in rememberance of the recently passed Tongan Prime Minister Samuela 'Akilisi Pohiva.

The teams will observe the silence before Tonga's traditional Sipi Tau.

IRELAND

Ireland's injury worries continued to mount Tuesday, five days out from their World Cup opener against Scotland, with a cloud over fullback Rob Kearney.

The 92-Test veteran's calf strain, picked up in training, is the latest in a series of problems for coach Joe Schmidt.

With Ireland now the world's number one-ranked side, Schmidt is keen to make a statement by fielding his top side in their tournament opener in Yokohama on Sunday.

But the question mark over the 33-year-old Kearney follows the hamstring injury that has already ruled centre Robbie Henshaw out of the first round Pool A fixture.

Winger Keith Earls has also been struggling with a knee problem.

A team spokesman said Kearney was receiving ice treatment and his recovery was being closely monitored with no training scheduled for Tuesday or Thursday.

"There was a flurry last night about Rob Kearney, he's got a bit of tightness in his calf," the spokesman said.

"The plan is hopefully he will do a bit of running tomorrow (Wednesday) and it will ease up. If not Wednesday he'll have a run Friday. It just depends."

The outlook for Earls taking the field in Yokohama was brighter with the Munster flyer able to resume running this week.

If Kearney is ruled out, the Leinster fullback Jordan Larmour would be the likely replacement, while Joey Carbery, who is also returning from injury, has previously worn the 15 jersey.

MONDAY SEPTEMBER 16

SAMOA

Samoa skipper Jack Lam told media at the team's welcome ceremony on Monday that he is tracking well in his return from an eye injury suffered against the Wallabies last weekend.

Lam went off early in the match after getting a knock to the eye from a teammate but said it was improving slowly.

"It's not too bad. It was a bit closed last week, but it's a lot better now," he said.

"I was seeing about 30 different Wallabies players at the time (due to affected vision) so I was a bit of a liability to my team. So I had to make a call and come off the field."

Samoa still have plenty of time before their first match, with their opening clash, against Russia, not until September 24.

IRELAND

Some positive news for Ireland back Robbie Henshaw, who was ruled out of his team's opener against Scotland.

Henshaw is still being monitored but is not set to be sent home because of the injury.

NEW ZEALAND

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is staying cool and calm ahead of his side's opener against South Africa, saying it wouldn't "be the end of the world" if they lost first-up to their fierce rivals.

WALES

The Welsh clearly have some fans in Japan, with close to 15,000 turning up to their open training session on Monday in Kitakyushu.

Today is a public holiday in Japan - Respect for the Aged Day - giving fans the opportunity to flock to see the Welsh side train.

Winger George North posted this video of fans queuing to get into the stadium three hours before kick-off.

Seems like the Rugby World Cup buzz might just be growing.

EARLIER

The official welcomes have been rolling in thick and fast, signalling the World Cup matches are getting ever closer.

New Zealand, South Africa and hosts Japan are among those who have been officially welcomed in recent days.

Take a look at some of the pics below.

Michael Leitch poses with a traditional Japanese tumbler doll, Daruma, as Japan is officially welcomed into the World Cup. Photo: Getty Images

Codie Taylor on the drums at the All Blacks' official welcome in Tokyo. Photo: Getty Images

SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 15

AUSTRALIA

Check out our Wallabies coverage here:

SAMOA CHALLENGE A TIMELY SPUR FOR WALLABIES SCRUM AHEAD OF WORLD CUP: TUPOU 

SIMPLE SECRET TO WORLD CUP SUCCESS, SAYS BYRNE 

FOUR YEARS OF PLANNING LEADS WALLABIES TO WORLD CUP TEST WEEK

"THEY HAD SEATS ON THE PLANE TO JAPAN BEFORE I DID": FAMILY BEHIND SALAKAIA-LOTO'S WORLD CUP DRIVE

POCOCK A WORLD CUP WEAPON BUT BENEFITS TO BE FOUND IN ALL WALLABIES BACK ROW COMBOS: HOOPER

WALLABIES "FEELING THE LOVE" IN ODAWARA AS WORLD CUP PERIOD OFFICIALLY BEGINS

"EXCITEMENT MACHINES" BEALE AND KOROIBETE TO MAKE WORLD CUP MARK: HODGE

NEW ZEALAND

Ian Foster and Beauden Barrett address media in Japan. Photo: Getty ImagesAll Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster was quick to dismiss suggestions that star centre Sonny Bill Williams was on the verge of returning home from the World Cup with injury.

Meanwhile All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett said he felt more responsibility this time around, as an established member of the All Blacks in contrast to being somewhat of an unknown back in 2015.

"Certainly, it's different,": he said.

"Four years on, I’m a lot more experienced, I’ve been around, probably with more responsibility on my shoulders and that's a challenge I really enjoy.

"I was playing more of a role off the bench in 2015, covering two positions. Hopefully, my role this time will be a little bit different and I’m excited for it."

The All Blacks might be among the biggest stars at this World Cup but they're arguably not even the biggest names at their hotel in Tokyo.

Boxer Floyd Mayweather has been staying at the same hotel as the team, but Foster said he wasn't going to let anyone in on what Mayweather had been up to.

"I'm not sure we should actually tell the whole world about what we know about him being here," he said.

"The guys have seen him and that’s all I can tell you. Apparently, he’s quite a good boxer...I’m scared to say anything about him, to be honest, he might come and spank me."

IRELAND

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt arrives with his team ahead of the World Cup. Photo: AFPIreland's World Cup preparations have suffered a blow with centre Robbie Henshaw picking up a hamstring injury likely to keep him out of their opening match against Scotland.

Head coach Joe Schmidt told reporters on Sunday that the 26-year-old Leinster centre would have a scan later in the day.

"We'd be hopeful it's not too bad. Is it likely to rule him out of this week? Yeah, you'd have to say it is likely," admitted Schmidt ahead of Ireland's clash with Scotland next Sunday in Yokohama.

It's a case of deja vu for Henshaw, who also missed the first two games of the 2015 World Cup through injury.

"It could be a cramp. We've travelled a lot. We've tried to be fully rehydrated, fully recovered. But if it is more than that and we do leave him out this week, we do feel we've got good cover," said Schmidt.

Ireland have three other centres to choose from -- Henshaw's Leinster teammate Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell -- but Schmidt revealed he had requested Will Addison be pulled from Ulster's starting XV as cover, but that he was not yet on his way to Japan.

"That was precautionary just to make sure we have fit and able cover should we need a replacement for Robbie," said Schmidt.

Ireland are hoping to put the disappointment of their 2015 campaign behind them, when an injury-ravaged side were pummelled by Argentina in the quarter-finals.

Since then the Irish have registered two historic wins over world champions New Zealand -- in Chicago in 2016 and at home last November.

New Zealander Schmidt's remarkable six-year tenure, that has included wins over all the southern hemisphere nations, a Grand Slam and three Six Nations titles, will end after the World Cup.

Ireland face a tricky pool containing fellow Six Nations team Scotland and hosts Japan who are desperate to make history by reaching the knockout stages for the first time.

"I think it's a tough order. I think Scotland will be very difficult for us and I think just a six-day turnaround to Japan in Shizuoka will be very tough," he said.

"We're trying to take one match at a time, but we've certainly got an eye to the future and the quality that the Japanese team have," added Schmidt.

In the run-up to the tournament, Ireland put an unconvincing 29-10 home win against Italy and a 57-15 hammering by England behind them to register two narrow victories against Six Nations champions Wales which took them top of the World Rugby team rankings ahead of the All Blacks.

"We know we've been less consistent this year but a lot of what we've been targeting is in the coming weeks," he said.

"So that's really where we know we'll judge ourselves and others will judge us for this year."

RUSSIA

Russia have 'tripped' into the Rugby World Cup according to head coach Lyn Jones, leaving them at a disadvantage against hosts Japan who they face in the tournament opener on Friday.

The Bears, ranked 20th in the world, reached the sport's quadrennial showpiece event for a second time after Spain, Belgium and Romania were disqualified in May 2018 for fielding ineligible players.

"We've tripped into this competition through other people's misdemeanours.

We're late into this competition" Jones told AFP.

"We've basically fitted four years' work in one year. It comes with many challenges and inconsistencies but we're learning on the go.

"We've had one year to prepare whilst a team like Japan, who have known about their qualification for some years will have been preparing for around seven or eight years about this," the 55-year-old added.

Russia's preparation for the World Cup has included a heaviest ever Test defeat to Italy, 85-15, and losses at home to English club side Jersey and Irish province Connacht.