The highly anticipated Rugby World Cup begins tonight with the All Blacks taking on Tonga. The round-robin stage sees four groups of five teams face off, with the top two countries from each group advancing to the quarter finals. After a month and a half of rugby, the tournament reaches its climax, with the final at Eden Park set for October 23.
The Wallabies announced a 30-man squad, leaving out the experienced Matt Giteau who vented his disappointment through Twitter. Coach Robbie Deans received a bonus two-year extension to his contract, which eases the pressure on him ahead of the World Cup. But some have questioned the timing of the extension, feeling such a decision should be made after the World Cup campaign.
The lead up to Australia’s World Cup hasn’t been ideal. After two years as skipper, Rocky Elsom was unexpectedly replaced by James Horwill, who captained the Queensland Reds to the Super Rugby title. Also, poster boy, James O’Connor, interrupted the Wallabies’ preparation, failing to turn up to the squad announcement.
On a brighter note, the Wallabies took out the tri-nations series for the first time in 10 years decisively beating New Zealand. Many believe this result will give the Australians a psychological edge, knowing they can dismantle the All Blacks should they meet at the business end of the World Cup.
Hosts New Zealand will deservedly start as favourites in ‘their’ World Cup. They know the favourite tag all too well, and have been branded the perennial chokers, buckling under the weight of expectation. They have only won the ultimate prize in rugby once before – in the 1987 World Cup – and if omens are anything to go by, they were the hosts that year.
Now, that pressure will be amplified ten-fold as the whole of New Zealand becomes immersed in World Cup fever. Anything less than a win will be considered a failure. The All Blacks play the best brand of rugby, but can they handle the weight of expectation?
The Springboks, twice winners of rugby’s Holy Grail, come to New Zealand as reigning champions, having beaten England in the 2007 final. Their previous success came as hosts in 1995, an emotional and symbolic victory following the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of the apartheid.
The South Africans have the capacity to become the first team to win three World Cups. However, they have been inconsistent of late and criticised for resting key players during the tri-nations series. If they get their classic Springbok swagger back, they are definitely a genuine chance of going back-to-back.
Historically, teams from the Southern Hemisphere have been a class above their Northern Hemisphere counterparts. Only once has a team from the Northern Hemisphere won; England in 2003, when Johnny Wilkinson booted a famous drop-goal in extra time to spoil the party against a raucous Australian crowd.
Coming in with momentum, having won the Six Nations championship earlier this year, the English will look to cause more havoc down under.
France will look to the semi-finals as a realistic goal. The French are capable of causing upsets, as was the case in 1999 and 2007 when they defeated the All Blacks.
The remaining teams may be seen to be making up the numbers, but look out for an upset or two as is always the case in any sporting event.
Prediction for the final:
New Zealand to defeat Australia.