Rugby World Cup news: France all set for All Blacks, England 'written off', big team selection picks ahead of opening matches

France coach Fabien Galthie looks on during the captain's run ahead of facing New Zealand. (Photo: Warren Little)
France coach Fabien Galthie looks on during the captain's run ahead of facing New Zealand. (Photo: Warren Little)

The tournament gets under way with a mouth-watering clash between hosts France and New Zealand, while there have been team announcements from some of the home nations. We wrap up the main headlines ahead of the big kick-off:

France ready for ‘wonderful’ World Cup opener with All Blacks

France head coach Fabien Galthie has described Friday’s opening match against New Zealand in Paris as “a wonderful celebration”. Galthie, who has transformed Les Bleus into genuine contenders since taking on the role in 2020, said he could not have picked a better opponent than the All Blacks for the hosts in their first match. The former France scrum-half said: “What could be better than New Zealand? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this is a team that hasn’t lost a match in the qualifying (pool) phase since the World Cup began. Ever. 31 wins. This is a team that has three World Cup titles to its name, a team that has just won the last competition it took part in, the Four Nations (Rugby Championship). We’re so happy to be playing them that Friday’s match is a celebration, a joy, a great joy for us. It’s wonderful.”

All Blacks head coach Ian Foster, who insisted camp morale remained high, said: “We have had a good preparation and a great Rugby Championship. If you look at the performances against Australia and South Africa, suddenly we are World Cup favourites. Then we don’t do very well at Twickenham and we are the worst All Blacks side ever. This French team have been playing some great rugby over the last two years, everyone can see them building. We have also seen them put under pressure and have to deal with expectation and the crowd. Part of World Cups is the mental side, about having the confidence and courage to play the game you need to play at the right time. It is only when it all starts we will see where people are at.”

Borthwick says England written off ‘too early’ ahead of World Cup

Steve Borthwick insists England are ready to defy gloomy predictions for their World Cup by delivering a reaction against Argentina in Saturday’s pivotal opener. The Pumas are in the rare position of being assigned favourites for the main event of Pool D, based on a strong year under the guidance of Michael Cheika and their 30-29 victory at Twickenham in November. England, meanwhile, have gone into freefall following a run of five defeats in six Tests that no longer makes qualification for the knockout phase appear to be the formality it once was. Borthwick, who has named Alex Mitchell at scrum-half and Tom Curry at openside for the Marseille showdown, insists the low expectations have sent ripples of indignation through the squad.

“I sense there is a feeling among the players they’ve been written off too early. People have called time on them a bit too early,” England’s head coach said. “I sense the frustration about what people have been saying about them and right now I have an expectation that they will go and perform with the quality that they have. I sense from them that there’s a real determination to go and put their best performances on the park. There is a lot of class in this squad. The players have a hell of a lot more to go. They can’t wait to get stuck in on Saturday night. Our job is put in a performance that this team is capable of and I know these players are capable of. I know these players are determined to deliver on Saturday night. That’s our job now.”

England team: F Steward (Leicester); J May (Gloucester), J Marchant (Stade Francais), M Tuilagi (Sale), E Daly (Saracens); G Ford (Sale), A Mitchell (Northampton); E Genge (Bristol), J George (Saracens), D Cole (Leicester), M Itoje (Saracens), O Chessum (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton, capt), T Curry (Sale), B Earl (Saracens). Replacements: T Dan (Saracens), J Marler (Harlequins), W Stuart (Bath), G Martin (Leicester), L Ludlam (Northampton), D Care (Harlequins), M Smith (Harlequins), O Lawrence (Bath).

Returning Sexton ready to hit ground running in Ireland opener

Captain Johnny Sexton insists there will be “no excuses” if he fails to perform in Ireland’s World Cup opener against Romania as he prepares to make his first competitive appearance in almost six months. Fly-half Sexton missed his country’s three warm-up matches through suspension, having not played since injuring a groin in helping clinch the Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam against England on March 18. The 38-year-old will make his long-awaited comeback as a starter on Saturday afternoon in Bordeaux and has been targeting the fixture since being hit with his ban in mid-July.

“I’m delighted to be back,” said Sexton. “Playing for Ireland is always special, it’s extra special when it comes to the World Cup, so I’m very, very happy to be back in the team and really looking forward to it. Hopefully I can go out and play well and have a good performance. I expect that of myself. There are no excuses in that regard. Once I got over the injury obviously came the three games off and once I knew that was there I’ve just been focused on this game for the last couple of months. Looking forward to it now and finally getting back out on the pitch.”

Ireland team: H Keenan (Leinster); K Earls (Munster), G Ringrose (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Lowe (Leinster); J Sexton (Leinster, capt), J Gibson-Park (Leinster); A Porter (Leinster), R Herring (Ulster), T Furlong (Leinster), J McCarthy (Leinster), J Ryan (Leinster), T Beirne (Munster), P O’Mahony (Munster), C Doris (Leinster). Replacements: R Kelleher (Leinster), J Loughman (Munster), T O’Toole (Ulster), I Henderson (Ulster), J Van der Flier (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), J Crowley (Munster), R Henshaw (Leinster).

Gatland says Wales ‘looking sharp’ ahead of Fiji clash

Warren Gatland says that Wales are “in a good place” as they prepare to launch their Rugby World Cup challenge against Fiji. Gatland, taking charge of his fourth World Cup as Wales head coach, has been boosted by the return to fitness of 100-cap number eight Taulupe Faletau. He will make his first Wales appearance since last season’s Six Nations after recovering from a calf muscle problem that sidelined him for Wales’ three-Test warm-up schedule. Faletau goes straight into the starting line-up, packing down alongside back-row colleagues Aaron Wainwright and skipper Jac Morgan.

“We’ve had some good clarity about what we want to achieve and the way we want to play on the weekend,” Gatland said. The boys are looking sharp, there is a great environment in this group – players working for each other, enjoying each other’s company. We are in a good place and can’t wait to get out there and get our Rugby World Cup campaign under way.”

Wales team: L Williams (Kubota Spears); L Rees-Zammit (Gloucester), G North (Ospreys), N Tompkins (Saracens), J Adams (Cardiff); D Biggar (Toulon), G Davies (Scarlets); G Thomas (Ospreys), R Elias (Scarlets), T Francis (Provence), W Rowlands (Racing 92), A Beard (Ospreys), A Wainwright (Dragons), J Morgan (Ospreys, capt), T Faletau (Cardiff). Replacements: E Dee (Dragons), C Domachowski (Cardiff), D Lewis (Harlequins), D Jenkins (Exeter), T Reffell (Leicester), T Williams (Cardiff), S Costelow (Scarlets), R Dyer (Dragons).