Game time — the pick of this weekend’s must-see Rugby World cup encounters

Game time — the pick of this weekend’s must-see Rugby World cup encounters
Jeremy Loughman of Ireland is tackled by Ardian Motoc of Romania during their Rugby World Cup encounter on 9 September 9, 2023 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo: Hans van der Valk/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Although South African eyes will be watching the Springboks against Romania with keen interest, there are several other tantalising games at RWC 2023 this weekend.

Ireland vs Tonga – Pool B

Head coach Andy Farrell has selected a near-first-choice side for Ireland’s Group B encounter against Tonga, making four changes to the line-up that thrashed Romania 82-8. 

Farrell has picked 108-cap veteran Conor Murray at scrumhalf, the Munsterman replacing Jamison Gibson-Park who drops out of the matchday 23. Mack Hansen, a late addition to the squad that beat Romania, replaces Keith Earls on the wing.

The return of World Player of the Year Josh van der Flier at openside flank necessitates a shuffle among the forwards, with Peter O’Mahony moving to the blindside while Tadhg Beirne switches to the second row. Ronan Kelleher comes in at hooker at the expense of Rob Herring, while Dan Sheehan remains still sidelined by injury.

Captain Johnny Sexton needs just 10 points to surpass the Ireland points scoring record currently held by Ronan O’Gara. Speaking on Thursday, Sexton was under no illusions that the encounter would be a straightforward one.

“Tonga are a very good team and they’ve got some very good players … we’re expecting a very tough game against top-class opposition with very good coaches, so it’s going to be a tough game,” said Sexton.

After a bye in the first round of fixtures, Tonga coach Toutai Kefu has named four former All Blacks in the starting XV for his side’s World Cup opener. 

Malakai Fekitoa, a World Cup winner in 2015, starts at outside centre, with Charles Salesi Piutau at full-back, and Augustine Pulu at nine. In the forwards, Vaea Fifita packs down at eighthman.

Prop Ben Tameifuna, who weighs in at a tournament-high 151kgs, will skipper the ʻIkale Tahi, with regular captain Sonatane Takulua relegated to the bench.

Australia vs Fiji – Pool C

Australia will be without star tighthead prop Taniela Tupou for Sunday’s key Pool C clash with Fiji in Saint-Etienne.

The 27-year-old misses out due to a hamstring strain and is replaced in Eddie Jones’ starting XV by James Slipper who has recovered from the foot injury that kept him out of Australia’s 35-15 victory over Georgia. Slipper becomes just the third player to represent the Wallabies at four World Cups.

Ben Donaldson

Ben Donaldson of Australia scores against Georgia during the Rugby World Cup on 9 September, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images)

In a second injury-enforced change, Nic White comes in for Tate McDermott at scrumhalf after the Reds nine suffered a concussion against the Lelos. It will be the first time that White has started alongside flyhalf Carter Gordon.

Nick Frost partners Will Skelton in the second row at the expense of Richie Arnold. Skelton heads into the game under an injury cloud after he suffered a calf strain in Thursday’s practice. The Wallaby skipper is set for a scan later on Friday, with Jones telling reporters that “at the moment he’s still in the team”.

“Fiji is the most important match of our Rugby World Cup campaign,” said Jones.

“It’s another big opportunity for our young side to keep getting better and we’ll be ready on Sunday.”

Semi Radradra, Rugby World Cup

Semi Radradra of Fiji runs with the ball iduring the Rugby World Cup match against Wales at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux on 10 September, 2023 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

England vs Japan – Pool D

England are without the suspended Owen Farrell and Tom Curry for Sunday’s Pool D encounter against Japan, but Billy Vunipola returns after missing the tournament opener against Argentina. 

Steve Borthwick’s side are looking to build on their 27-10 victory over the Pumas, a win that was secured despite being reduced to 14 men in just the third minute when Curry was sent off for a dangerous tackle.

Despite a string of red cards in recent fixtures, defence coach Kevin Sinfield has insisted that his side do not have a discipline problem.

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“We’ve got to understand that it’s part of the sport and unfortunately, we’ve had to deal with four in six and not just three in four [red cards],” said Sinfield.

“We understand and we’re getting pretty good at defending with 14 men, but we want to have everybody, our full complement at all times. So we’ll look to improve that area, but it’s tricky to pinpoint exactly what that is.”

The game stands as a stern test for Japan who have won just five matches since the 2019 World Cup, their biggest scalp a 21-16 win over Tonga in July.

Wales vs Portugal – Pool C

Louis Rees-Zammit and Taulupe Faletau are the only survivors of Wales’ 32-26 victory over Fiji, as Warren Gatland opted to make 13 changes for Saturday’s Pool C clash with Portugal.

There are World Cup debuts for Dewi Lake, who captains the side from hooker, Christ Tshiunza at lock, and Johnny Williams and Mason Grady in the centres.

“We’ve made a few changes this week given the six-day turnaround,” said Gatland. “This is an opportunity now for this matchday 23. I’ve said before, but there’s some great competition within the squad, which is what we want to see. There’s a chance now for this group to go out Saturday and to put down their own marker in the tournament.

“We’ve done a thorough debrief of last week’s game and know the areas we need to improve. We have a clear plan of how we want to play on Saturday and it’s about going out there and executing that as we have prepared.”

Portugal have stuck with the bulk of the side that secured World Cup qualification for their tournament opener against Wales.

Head coach Patrice Lagisquet’s matchday 23 includes 19 players who turned out in the 16-16 draw against USA last November. 

It is the first time that Portugal has participated in a World Cup since 2007. Fly-half Jerónimo Portela’s father, Miguel, made three appearances for the European nation at the 2007 edition.

Samoa vs Chile – Pool D

Former Wallaby fly-half Christian Leali’ifano has been named at fly-half for Samoa’s Pool D clash with Chile in Bordeaux.

Head coach Seilala Mapusua has picked the 35-year-old Leali’ifano at the expense of Lima Sopoaga, the 16-capped All Black dropping to the bench. In the only other change to the backline that ran Ireland close last month, Danny Toala replaces Ed Fidow on the right wing.

Captain Michael Alaalatoa returns at tighthead prop in a pack that includes former New Zealand loose forward Steven Luatua.

Chile coach Pablo Lemoine has made four changes to the Los Cóndores starting XV that lost 42-12 to Japan. 

Tomás Dussaillant will make his World Cup debut after being named at hooker, while Santiago Pedrero and Pablo Huete take their place in an all-changed second row. In the only change to the backline, José Ignacio Larenas comes in on the left wing. DM


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