The wait is finally over. The 2019 Rugby World Cup gets underway today, with hosts Japan taking on Russia in the tournament opener in Tokyo (kick-off 11.45am Irish time). This year's edition is widely considered to be the most open in history, with at least six sides harbouring legitimate hopes of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup on Sunday November 3rd. Among those teams are Ireland, currently ranked the world's number one nation, and Gerry Thornley believes their claims are justified. From Yokohama, he writes: "They have world class operators in Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, plenty of quality around them, a smart coaching ticket and improved strength in depth. Admittedly, a prospective quarter-final meeting with New Zealand or South Africa is as tough a draw as possible." However, he suggests that despite the tournament being up for grabs - Ireland, England, the Springboks, Australia and Wales all look potential winners - one side still look like they'll take all the beating. "The All Blacks have come back to the back, and the peleton have closed the ground on them. But they're still the team to beat."
Ireland get their tournament underway on Sunday against Scotland in Yokohama, with the winners putting themselves in pole position to top Pool A. Joe Schmidt has revealed his starting XV for his side's opener this morning, with Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway named at fullback and on the wing respectively, in the absence of Rob Kearney and Keith Earls. There is also no place in the matchday squad for Joey Carbery, with the Munster outhalf being given an extra week to regain full fitness ahead of the second Pool A clash against Japan. Kearney's absence will be a blow, especially given the wet conditions expected on Sunday, and it leaves Ireland with relatively inexperienced back three. Gerry Thornley writes: "Between them they have started 36 Tests, with the 23-year-old Stockdale by some distance the most experience having started 21 of them. As a back three, this trio have only ever started one game together before, namely in that win over Italy in Chicago in November last year when Larmour scored three tries in a 54-7 win." Meanwhile in his column this morning Liam Toland has suggested the RWC schedule gives Ireland a "50-50" chance of reaching the semi-finals, with Joe Schmidt having the chance to rest key players for the final two pool fixtures - providing they can negotiate a route past Scotland and Japan first.
This morning's opening fixture sees tournament hosts and Ireland's Pool A rivals Japan take on Russia at the Tokyo Stadium. Jamie Joseph's side head into the fixture as clear favourites but are under pressure to avoid an upset and light the blue touch paper in the process. Keith Duggan writes from Tokyo: "Everyone remembers Japan's most recent dream match, that fabulous 34-32 win over the Springboks in Brighton four years ago for the limitless adventure of the underdogs. Their task here is trickier: to keep Russia's heavier and less mobile side chasing shadows while delivering the win that would increase local interest in both the team and the tournament." That fixture, along with the opening ceremony, is being broadcast on RTÉ 2 (10am) and Eir Sport (10.15am) - however you can also follow it via the Irish Times liveblog from 10.30am onwards.
Away from Japan, Manchester United crept to a 1-0 win over Kazakhstan's Astana in the Europa League at Old Trafford last night, with 17-year-old Mason Greenwood's fine second half strike proving the difference. Elsewhere a youthful Arsenal side won 3-0 away at Eintracht Frankfurt while Celtic drew 1-1 at Rennes.
And there are five League of Ireland fixtures tonight, with champions Dundalk travelling to play Waterford and second place Shamrock Rovers welcoming St Patrick's Athletic to Tallaght. Six points from their next two fixtures will see Vinny Perth's side secure another title, with Rovers travelling to Oriel Park on Monday night.