The wait is almost over. The 2011 Rugby World Cup will kick off in just five days' time and the 20 best teams from around the world will battle to be crowned world champions. For some, it's a mission of revenge, while for others it's to cause an upset; for one team, the only goal is to defend what has been theirs for the past four years.
There have been countless in-depth previews for this tournament over the past month, and no doubt there are still plenty to come.
So to avoid repeating the words of so many others, I'll try to keep mine to the point, but enough to give a general overview of how this writer expects the tournament to pan out.
The hosts, New Zealand, will go untouched through pool play, racking up plenty of tries and conceding few along the way.
France should claim the second spot in this pool, but will face tough challenges from Tonga and Japan, both of whom will be the strongest they've ever been at a World Cup. Knowing France's tendency to be inconsistent, it wouldn't be foolish at all to say Tonga are a chance at upsetting them. However one would expect France to go through.
Canada will be competitive with Tonga and Japan but may struggle to find a win in this pool.
Pool B provides a more interesting outlook, with three teams who have legitimate chances of going through. England will be favoured to win and will most likely go through unbeaten. This leaves Scotland and Argentina to scrap for second position.
Scotland have been indifferent over the past decade but seem to have picked up their form over the last year. They have a handful of good players, a strong tight five as well as some level heads in the 9 and 10 jerseys.
Argentina were the surprise package of the 2007 tournament finishing third, but having lost many of their stars from four years ago, they won't be the same force. They're lacking in the flair that gave opponents so much trouble. They will still be strong up front, but they will do well to go through the group this time around.
Georgia, meanwhile, are the big improved team of world rugby and while they will most likely lose to all three team above, they will be worthy opposition and will cause teams some problems with their strong forward pack.
The once-proud rugby nation of Romania are no longer the team they were 40 years ago and will be the easy-beats of Pool B.
Australia will dominate Pool C, much in the same way the All Blacks will dominate Pool A. They have developed a useful forward pack that will give them a good platform and allow their skilful backs to cut through opponents.
Ireland should go through second, despite their inconsistent form at times. They have an experienced team and some genuine game-breakers.
Italy boast a dominant forward pack but are lacking in the backs department. They'll push Ireland close and will make the Wallabies work, but ultimately, their lack of a backline will stop them going further.
The USA and Russia will both struggle against the other three teams, but will have a competitive game with each other, one which the USA will be favoured to win.
The most interesting and unpredictable of the four pools, here in Pool D are four teams with legitimate chances of going through and remains the most likely pool where an upset will occur.
South Africa will enter favourites, playing the same conservative style they have become known for. This could work both for and against them.
True, they have good players to execute this game plan, and it is risky straying away from your natural game. But at the same time, Samoa and Fiji linger, two teams who won't lie down for them. Both these teams are known for their expansive style of play and their are few more dangerous with ball in hand. Kicking or giving them the ball to attack with is a risky strategy and could be the Springboks' downfall if they're not careful.
Wales also find themselves in this pool and will most likely enter as favourites to claim the second spot. Will they though? They've lost three out of three games to Samoa and Fiji in World Cup play, and with the Pacific Island teams both coming off some encouraging performances against Australia and New Zealand, it wouldn't surprise at all if one of these two progressed.
So Who Will Win?
With the pool matches out of the way we progress onto the real matches, the ones that will determine who will walk away world champions. To do this, a team needs to be capable of winning three games in a row. This means consistency is imperative and that only a handful of teams are really in the running to win the tournament.
If they qualify, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Argentina will all struggle to progress any further than the quarterfinal stage. All will struggle against Tri-Nations sides, whom they will most likely succumb to.
Samoa, Fiji and, at a pinch, Tonga, are all capable of upsets, as was seen with Samoa's win over Australia earlier this year. But in all honesty, to win they will have to do this three times as well as having to work hard to get out of their pool. This isn't going to happen. Even if they did the unthinkable and tip over Australia in the quarterfinals, it would be too big an ask for them to go on to beat the All Blacks the following week.
France remain an outside chance, but given their tendency to go from brilliant to terrible in the shortest space of times, it seems unlikely they will win, as shown by their inability to win in the past six tournaments, despite knocking out the pre-tournament favourites in three of these. With their unique "French flair" they possess the ability to cause a massive upset, but it would be a huge surprise if they came through and won they whole tournament.
This leaves four legitimate contenders. England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
England are a young team, boasting a strong forward pack and a couple of good backs. Jonny Wilkinson returns for his fourth World Cup, but it remains how much of a role he will play as Martin Johnson has opted for Toby Flood in the No. 10 jersey in more recent times.
In Chris Ashton, they have their most dangerous outside back since Jason Robinson and who will provide the spark that this side has so often lacked.
But reality is, this team is likely four years off as they will retain most of their team for the next World Cup. They remain the Northern Hemisphere's best chance and are capable of winning, but will do well to beat two Tri-Nations teams in two weeks as they will need to if they are to walk away with the silverware.
The defending champion Springboks will fancy their chances as they head to New Zealand, despite some indifferent form over the past two years. They will bring their controversial kick-and-chase game plan that they have adopted in recent times, which will no doubt pressure some sides, but against the All Blacks and Wallabies, could prove to be the downfall. Certainly in the past two years it has been that way, having become the worst of the Tri-Nations teams over the past two years, after an outstanding year in 2009.
They boast the best lineout in the world, with Victor Matfield central to this, and will play a hard physical game. Out wide they have some dangerous backs, but whether they choose to use them or not will determine how effective they are.
They will most likely meet the All Blacks in the semifinals, should they make it. While they are a definite chance at winning, they will enter as underdogs and going by recent results, it would take a huge effort for them to reach the Final.
The current Tri-Nations champions will enter the World Cup full of confidence after their upset win over the All Blacks two weeks ago.
They will play an expansive game, making use of their dangerous backline. They have some flyers out wide in Kurtley Beale and Digby Ioane who will no doubt feature heavily if they are used right. Will Genia at halfback is key with his organisation and sniping runs around the base. Much of the Wallabies' chances rests with him.
Their forwards have improved dramatically and showed just how good they can be in their last game against the All Blacks.
In Quade Cooper they have a playmaker who has the potential to be both brilliant and terrible. His play may well determine the outcome of the Wallabies campaign.
They avoid the All Blacks until the final, meaning they will be favoured up until this point. And from there, who knows? They have shown that in one-off games they are capable of getting up for big ones. Maybe they'll pull something out of the bag and claim their third world championship.
They are favourites, as always. Unfortunately for the All Blacks, the favourite has never won the World Cup. Nevertheless, they will still like their chances.
They have the best all-around team in the world, known for their physicality up front and their flair out wide. Their loose forwards are the best anywhere, while they also have the best 10-12-13 combination in the world in Daniel Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
Much has been made of what will happen if Carter or captain Richie McCaw succumb to injury. While each would no doubt be a huge loss, neither have been playing quite to the best of their abilities this year, and while still the best in the world at their positions, neither are irreplaceable.
In the third Bledisloe Cup test last year, the All Blacks beat the Wallabies in Australia without Carter, so clearly they are capable of beating anyone if the unthinkable does happen and it will be a psychological block that would serve as the biggest problem.
But even so, why should either of these men get injured?
There is an enormous amount of pressure on these men and but a victory will satisfy the New Zealand public.
They enter favourites and going by recent form at home, the cup should be theirs.
But as we have seen time and time again, anything can happen at the Rugby World Cup.
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