Predicting the 2015 World Cup
The eighth Rugby World Cup kicks off in 653 days when England host an as yet unknown opponent on 18 September at Twickenham.
There are seven places still be to be filled across the four pools as qualifying rumbles on for the lower tier nations.
But as far as the big guns are concerned, there are some mouthwatering clashes in store, none more so than in England's Pool A, where the hosts will have to get past both Australia and Wales if they are to emerge unscathed.
The route to the final could throw up some intriguing grudge matches once we enter the knockout phase, so with the tea leaves read, the crystal ball analysed and the form guide studied, let's see how the 2015 Rugby World Cup could pan out.
The Pool Stages
- South Africa
- New Zealand
Wales miss out on a place in the knockout stages after losing to both England and Australia. In the battle for top spot, Australia overcome England at Twickenham to progress as group winners.
The Springboks should have little trouble winning a group containing Scotland and Samoa. Samoa have bloodied Celtic noses before at the World Cup, but this time Scotland will have too much for them in front of a partisan crowd who will flood over the border to fill St James’ Park.
The All Blacks will enjoy a favourable draw to comfortably win this section, while Argentina must be favourites to get the better of a physical Tongan side to finish second.
Ireland sent a shockwave through the last tournament when they beat Australia to top their pool, and they can do it again in 2015. They face France in Cardiff and Italy at the Olympic Stadium, and if those venues aren’t turned green by the Irish supporters it would be a surprise. Italy will sense a chance to upset one of these, but the occasionally fragile French will see them off for second spot.
New Zealand bt France
In a replica of that famous 2007 quarter-final, the All Blacks will face France at the Millennium Stadium. On that occasion, France shocked the world, coming back from 13-0 down to dump the favourites out of the tournament. The All Blacks are made of tougher mental stuff these days, and they will have their vengeance.
England bt South Africa
England would have been desperate to avoid the harder path to the final, but defeat to Australia in the pool will send them down a route also occupied by South Africa and the All Blacks. Home support and a tight game plan will help them edge past the Boks at Twickenham to reach the last four.
Ireland bt Argentina
Another fixture soaked in World Cup history. Argentina knocked Ireland out of the 1999 tournament in a raw-boned 28-24 win. Then they sent them packing from the 2007 edition when their star-studded lineup dismantled an out of sorts Irish side at the Parc des Princes. Joe Schmidt’s side will strike back in Cardiff to reach the last four for the first time.
Australia bt Scotland
The Wallabies will have too much attacking thrust to be denied by Scotland, reaching yet another semi-final.
New Zealand bt England
The last time these two met in the World Cup, Jonah Lomu was patrolling the left wing at Twickenham and scored a trademark try to inflict pool stage defeat. In 2015, an All Black side with a far wider variety of threats will be too good for Stuart Lancaster’s men, whose dream will die at All Black hands.
Australia bt Ireland
Australia took Ireland to the cleaners this autumn which means they will have the psychological edge over the men in green, and their greater composure will see them prevail to reach the final.
New Zealand bt Australia
No side has ever won back-to-back World Cups, but New Zealand are good enough to make it happen.
These two have never met in a World Cup final, and this would be the first between two Southern Hemisphere sides since 1995.
It is hard to back against All Black fire power after the year they have just had.