With the Rugby World Cup now just over two weeks away, several of the leading contenders to take the trophy in England will get their final chance for some fine tuning in a series of friendlies played on Saturday. While holders and favorites New Zealand won’t be in action, most of those looking to take their crown over the six-week long tournament will be.
Here’s a look at the game to look out for.
England vs Ireland (Saturday, 9:30 a.m. EDT, live stream on beIN Sports Connect)
The World Cup hosts could badly do with a convincing performance with which to head into their attempts to lift the trophy next month. Last week there will have been plenty to concern coach Stuart Lancaster in seeing a strong lineup dealt a convincing defeat by a previously unfancied France team in Paris. The feeling persists that Lancaster is not yet sure of his best lineup, a conclusion given weight by the fact he has selected Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph together in midfield for the first time to take on Ireland at Twickenham. Ireland tasted victory over England en route to winning the Six Nations earlier this year, but they also come in to the fixture on the back of a defeat after going down to Wales in Cardiff last week.
Wales vs. Italy (noon EDT)
Wales will also have home advantage for some matches at the World Cup and they will look to keep momentum going in front of their own fans when welcoming Italy to the Millennium Stadium. Coach Warren Gatland has claimed his side are more settled than fellow hosts England, and his ranks should be boosted against Italy with the probable return from injury of captain Sam Warburton. The flanker has recovered from a shoulder injury suffered in training that initially raised fears over his prospects of making the World Cup. Certainly Wales will be confident going up against an Italy that they dismantled 61-20 in the Six Nations earlier this year and which were also beaten by 41 points against Scotland last week.
France vs. Scotland (3 p.m. EDT, live stream on beIN Sports Connect )
That 48-7 victory over Italy was a record win for Scotland and helped to erase the memory of a galling loss to the same opponents at the 2015 Six Nations. Yet even after that win, coach Vern Cotter threw a number of curveballs with his World Cup squad selection earlier this week. Despite not even being with the squad for the warmup matches, lock forward Tim Swinson has been included in the 31-man party. Also in the final squad is John Hardie, a New Zealand-born flanker who only arrived in Scotland five weeks ago. Those selected will have their work cut out in Paris against a France side that has raised expectations with their two recent performances. Narrowly beaten by England in an encouraging performance at Twickenham, France came back to win handily in Paris last week to suggest they could be more of a threat at the World Cup than they appeared when finishing fourth in the Six Nations.
USA vs. Australia (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, on NBCSN with a live stream on NBC Sports Live Extra)
The United States don't have high expectations heading into the World Cup, but they have their own ambitions, namely to win more than one match in the pool phase for the first time. And the aim is that matches like the one at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Saturday will help the team to continue to improve. Still, so close to the World Cup, coach Mike Tolkin will want to avoid a similarly heavy defeat to the 74-6 loss they suffered at the same venue against New Zealand last year. Yet Australia, too, have recent experience of being on the end of a demoralizing loss to the All Blacks. Just last month, the Wallabies were beaten 41-13 in the Bledisloe Cup in Auckland. Drawn into by far the toughest of the World Cup groups, also containing England and Wales, Australia will be keen to put on a positive show