TOKYO (AP) — The New Zealand All Blacks will kick off their Rugby World Cup title defense against South Africa in a contest between two of the sport's heavyweights.
Rugby World Cup organizers announced the match schedule for the Sept. 20-Nov. 2 tournament on Thursday, exactly two years out from the tournament final in Yokohama.
The two-time defending champion All Blacks have never lost a pool game in the World Cup, but that record will be tested when they face the Springboks in a Pool B match on Sept. 21. It will be the first time the teams have met in the pool stage.
New Zealand has won three World Cup titles — in 1987, 2011 and '15. South Africa has won the sport's showcase tournament twice, including a famous 15-12 win over New Zealand in Johannesburg in 1995.
The winner of the match at Yokohama would likely play Scotland or Japan in the quarterfinals.
Two-time champion Australia, which lost the 2015 final to the All Blacks in England, will kick off its campaign against Fiji in Sapporo in Pool D, then faces Wales on Sept. 29 in Tokyo.
The 2019 tournament will be the first held outside the traditional rugby-playing countries as the game seeks to broaden its global reach.
Host Japan will open the tournament against a qualifier from Europe on Sept. 20, 2019.
After the South Africa clash, the All Blacks will have 10 days to recover before a run of three matches in 10 days - against qualifiers on Oct. 2 and Oct. 6 before wrapping up the pool stage against Italy on Oct. 12.
England opens its campaign in a difficult Pool C on Sept. 22 against Tonga in Sapporo, then faces the United States on Sept. 26 in Kobe, Argentina on Oct. 5 in Tokyo and France in Yokohama on Oct. 12. France, a three-time finalist, will face Argentina in their opening match in what could be a decisive match for group standings.
The Pool C winner faces a quarterfinal against the runner-up from pool D, involving Australia, Wales, Georgia, Fiji and an American qualifier.
World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said with the schedule unveiled, "the tournament comes to life for the players and fans."
"The announcement of the match schedule and ticketing program will generate excitement as we look ahead to a tournament that will break new ground as the first in Asia," he said.
About 1.8 million tickets will be on sale for World Cup matches, with a "phased ballot" beginning Jan. 19.
Already 15 teams have qualified for the tournament, with a further five to be determined via regional qualifiers or repecharges.
Rugby has a long history in Japan, where it was first played in 1866 in Yokohama, but the country has only recently become consistently competitive internationally against the more established rugby countries. Japan's biggest win to date was against South Africa in the group stage of the 2015 World Cup when it was coached by Eddie Jones, an Australian who has since taken over as England's head coach.
World Cup matches will be played at 12 venues in Japan, from the northern city of Hokkaido where Australia and Fiji will meet on Sept. 21. Kamaishi City in Iwate prefecture has been awarded two games as it continues its recovery from the devastating earthquake and tsunami on March. 11, 2011.