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All eyes on Japan as Rugby World Cup set to begin

The hosts get the tournament under way on Friday against Russia.

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw lifts the Webb Ellis Trophy after victory in Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham, London.
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw lifts the Webb Ellis Trophy after victory in Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham, London.

By Duncan Bech, PA England Rugby Correspondent

On the eve of the 2019 World Cup all the focus is on a magnificent second day that features a number of pivotal group clashes.

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Japan’s showdown with Russia at Ajinomoto Stadium launches the first global showpiece to be staged in Asia and the hosts will be looking to build on the strides taken under Eddie Jones at England 2015.

But it is 24 hours later when the really tasty matches are played, with Australia facing a banana-skin against Fiji, France locking horns with Argentina and champions New Zealand confronting old foes South Africa.

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Meet the favourites

New Zealand are the only nation to have retained the World Cup and they are looking to make it a hat-trick of crowns in Japan.

The mighty All Blacks enter the tournament as favourites but there is a sense that they are more vulnerable now than at any time in their recent history.

Recent performances have been patchy and while they remain the most ruthless side in the sport, the fact this is viewed as the most open World Cup of all hints at their decline.

The team to beat….

Northern Lights

Wales may be champions of Europe by dint of winning the Grand Slam, but injury and the recent allegations of betting on rugby against their assistant coach Rob Howley have placed them on the rear foot.

And with Ireland appearing to have peaked a year too early, it is England who enter the tournament as the northern hemisphere’s greatest hope of securing only its second global crown.

Eddie Jones’ men bristle with pace, power and intent and have the conditioning to go toe to toe with any rival. Only their ability to implode when ahead can stop them.

Little genius

South Africa have been tipped by many to upstage New Zealand and at the heart of their hopes stands Faf de Klerk.

The little scrum-half is a dynamo of a player, his relentless energy and zip around the pitch matched by astute game management.

In a game dominated by giants, De Klerk demonstrates that guile and speed of thought still have a vital role to play.

PA

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