Rugby World Cup Pool D: Check out Ireland's pool stage opposition

Rugby World Cup Pool D: Check out Ireland's pool stage opposition

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has overseen two successive RBS 6 Nations title charges, and we now sit second in the world standings for the first time.

Our talismanic captain Paul O’Connell will bring down his Test career after the World Cup, and swap home province Munster for superstar French Riviera outfit Toulon. All Ireland demands a fitting swansong.

Hopes are higher than ever that Ireland can reach a maiden World Cup semi-final, but who stand between us and that goal in the pool stage?

FRANCE

Form

Les Bleus have had an abysmal time under coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who will be replaced by Toulouse stalwart Guy Noves after the World Cup. Two successive fourth-placed Six Nations finishes underline France’s travails, with Saint-Andre lambasted for unpatriotic pragmatism. A stirring performance in a 25-20 World Cup warm-up victory over England in Paris did however stir echoes of France’s classic, swashbuckling style.

Captain: Thierry Dusautoir

The gritty flanker takes the armband despite carrying a knee injury into the tournament, such is the depth of his influence. The 33-year-old approaches his third World Cup, and when fit remains as much a breakdown menace as ever.

Star player: Wesley Fofana

As with Jonathan Joseph for England, so Fofana for France is the midfield antidote to a game cluttered with giants. The Clermont centre’s guile and wit offers a vital foil to the juggernaut antics of usual partner Mathieu Bastareaud.

World Cup history

Whatever the approaching shambles, France always pull it together for the World Cup. Three finals, three semi-finals and a quarter-final speak volumes on France’s ability to shine under the greatest spotlight. Hosts New Zealand edged out the French four years ago even after another messy build-up. Always a threat.

ITALY

Form

Narrowly avoided the Wooden Spoon in this year’s Six Nations and will view that as a solid overall effort. Still battling for parity with the top European powers, and will in truth be hard pushed to progress from this group.

Captain: Sergio Parisse

Rugby World Cup Pool D: Check out Ireland's pool stage opposition

The peerless number eight just keeps on churning out sublime performances, even when surrounded by mediocrity. The Stade Francais star is now 31 but has excelled in the Test arena for more than a decade.

Star player: Sergio Parisse

Repetition is discouraged in such bite-size guides, but Parisse is simply so much better than his Azzurri peers there can be no other stand-out choice. The skill-set of a Test centre with the street-smarts of a seasoned back row.

World Cup history

The Azzurri have never progressed beyond the pool stages in the seven tournaments to date, though have won two games at the last three competitions.

CANADA

Form

Canada lost all four matches at the recent Pacific Nations Cup and have not won since a 17-13 win over Namibia in November. Only Uruguay and Namibia are ranked lower than the Canadians among the 20 World Cup competitors.

Captain: Tyler Ardron

The back-rower has been included in Canada’s squad despite carrying a knee injury through the Pacific Nations Cup. The Ospreys loose-forward should recover comfortably in time for group-stage action however.

Star player: Jamie Cudmore

Rugby World Cup Pool D: Check out Ireland's pool stage opposition

Veteran lock Cudmore is still turning screws for Clermont Auvergne, almost 20 years after a stint in a Canadian youth detention centre courtesy of acting as muscle for a drug dealer.

World Cup history

Just once in World Cup history have Canada escaped the pool stages. Their reward? A 1991 meeting with New Zealand. The All Blacks eased home 29-13 just as expected. Canada have since failed to live up to their showing in the second World Cup, and may struggle again.

ROMANIA

Form

The world’s 17th-ranked side have never beaten any of their Pool D rivals at a World Cup, and face a tall order to alter that statistic. Romania regained the World Rugby Nations Cup title this year, but know full well the global showpiece battle is an entirely different proposition.

Captain: Mihai Macovei

Flanker Macovei plies his trade at French club Colomiers and has eight years’ Test rugby experience under his belt. The 28-year-old will not lack for physicality, but may fall prey to the superior tactical nous of the French and Irish.

Star player: Ovidiu Tonita

Tonita has won World Cup selection for the fifth time running, and is set for action in his fourth consecutive tournament. The 35-year-old former Perpignan and Carcassonne back-rower has joined Aix en Provence this summer, and has been playing in France since 2001.

World Cup history

Seven-straight pool stage eliminations indicate the size of the challenge that faces Romania when it comes to taking on the world’s best. The Romanians were unable to post any victories in 2011, just their second winless tournament, to add to their miserable 1995.

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