The 8th Rugby World Cup will kick off at Twickenham tomorrow, Friday 18, with England away to Fiji: yes, even though England are playing at Twickenham, they will occupy the visitors' dressing room following the pre-tournament draw - that's why Ireland got to occupy the home dressing room in Twickenham for the first time in their recent pre-tournament friendly.
Who will eventually win and hold aloft the Webb Ellis Cup, which the All Blacks did 4 years ago in New Zealand, and South Africa did 8 years ago at the Stade de France in Paris? To find out we will just have to go along for the ride and experience the thrills and spills, the tackles, mauls, line-outs, scrums, penalties, tries, conversions and high drama. And that's only the action ON the pitch...
Yes, there will be a few cricket-score one-side matches, but this is the one chance that players from less-fancied sides have to play against the top teams in the world. After all, it is the World Cup and, unlike cricket, is not preserved for the elite few, with a comprehensive qualification process culminating with the 20 teams split into 4 pools of 4 teams each, with the top 2 from each qualifying for the knock-out stages.
There will be 48 games in all, mostly played at week-ends, with the final scheduled for Saturday 31 October, back at Twickenham where the opening match takes place on Friday evening. In between, another dozen venues are being used, including the Brighton Community Stadium, Elland Road (Leeds), Kingsholm Stadium (Gloucester), Leicester City Stadium, Manchester City Stadium, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Stadium, the MK Dons stadium, villa Park (Birmingham), Sandy Park (Exeter), St James' Park (Newcastle) and Wembley Stadium. Many of these are traditional football (Soccer) venues and will enable the tournament to raise awareness of the sport to many new followers.
Pool A: Two into three won't go - one of Australia, Wales and England will not make the knock-out stages. Interestingly, the Australia - Wales games is not being played in Cardiff
- Australia: 12 months ago they were a poor team, comparatively speaking, under Paul Deans. The arrival of Michael Cheika has seen a turnaround in their fortunes which culminated in their beating the mighty All Blacks and winning this year's Rugby Championship
- England: with the youngest squad in the tournament, will lack of experience be compensated by home advantage? Their forwards' power is complemented by the speed and agility of wing May and full-back Brown. A weak link at fly-half may prove to be their undoing
- Wales: although Wales has a slow start to the 6 Nations this year and did not play well in the warm-up games, they do have the "Gatland effect" with their New Zealand coach a winning Lions coach and hugely respected. However, the will rue the loos of Leigh Halfpenny to injury before the tournament
- Fiji: one of the best rugby 7s nations; large and fast; knocked Wales out of the competition 8 years ago; hoping for an upset in the opening game against England
- Uruguay: the last team to qualify for the competition with their best chance against Fiji
Pool B: The South African Springboks should qualify comfortably with Samoa and the USA being Scotland's biggest threat to reaching the quarter-finals
- South Africa: twice winners of the Rugby World Cup, it would be a surprise if they did not make the last 4
- Samoa: big bruising players who bring the game to the opposition and could be a treat to Scotland on their day
- Japan: eager, but unlikely, to make an impression as they will host the 2019 tournament
- Scotland: a poor record in recent 6 Nations championships and who have not played well under coach Vern Cotter; this tournament could be where this all changes. The game against South Africa is being played in Newcastle, so Scotland should have significant support for this. Possible quarter-finalists.
- USA: spirited team who will feel the biggest chance of an upset will be against Scotland
Pool C: Probably the most straight-forward pool to call with the finishing order likely to replicate the starting order.
- New Zealand: consistently the favourites and the team everyone wants to beat. Not many teams or players can boast having defeated the All Blacks. However, their average player age is higher than most and they have the tendency to trip up in the knock-out rounds, with a 1999 defeat to France in Twickenham still clear in many people's minds
- Argentina: a first win over South Africa in this year's Rugby Championship. Finished 3rd eight years ago. Their destiny will be based on their first game on Sunday, against New Zealand
- Tonga: the 3rd Pacific Islands team and capable of an upset on their day but not expected to progress
- Georgia: many of their players play for French teams. Very good scrum, especially front rows. Gave Ireland a fright 8 years ago.
- Namibia: the "poor cousin" of South Africa, with game against Georgia their best chance of a win
Pool D: the winners of the France-Ireland game, the last in the group, should avoid the All Blacks in the quarter-finals
- France: have not won against Ireland in the last 4 years, with 2 wins and 2 draws in the 6 Nations. Under coach Philippe Saint-André they have underperformed, partly due to inconsistent team selections. However, France traditionally rise to the occasion of the Rugby World Cup
- Ireland: have traditionally underperformed at Rugby World cups, particularly 8 years ago in France when Brian O'Driscoll was in his prime. 4 Years ago they defeated Australia to top the group before succumbing to Wales in the quarter-finals. This year they have arguably the best coach in the world, Joe Schmidt, and are looking for a first ever appearance in the semi-finals.
- Italy: have defeated both Ireland and France in 6 Nations matches, but are not expected to mount a serious challenge
- Canada: similar to the US, they will be aiming for to defeat Italy
- Romania: not expected to test any of the teams in this group.
With Pool A impossible to call, I predict the winner of the first semi-final between South Africa - New Zealand to play the winner of the second semi-final between Ireland and Pool A winners, in the final. At this stage of the competition, it's bets off and down to the 30 players on the pitch. Oh, and the interpretation of the rules by the referees...
Thanks to Luxair's support for getting in and out of LondonCity airport quickly and easily for all 2015 Rugby World Cup week-ends!