Commentary

All Blacks, Les Bleus and Wallabies are the favorites

Will the Wallabies or the All Blacks scrum away with this year's Rugby World Cup? Or will the host Bleus take it? Peter Lion provides answers in a complete tournament primer.

Updated: September 6, 2007, 3:37 PM ET
By Peter Lion | ESPN.com

Every four years rugby fans the world over focus on the Rugby World Cup, which this year will be held from Sept. 7 to Oct. 20 in France. Here's a quick look at what you need to know about this year's tournament.

The tournament

Twenty teams of 30 men each have qualified to play in the RWC. The eight teams that reached the quarterfinals in the last Rugby World Cup, in 2003 in Australia, automatically qualified this year (England, Australia, New Zealand, France, South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, Wales). The remaining 12 slots were filled through international play and qualifying games by Argentina, Canada, Fiji, Georgia, Italy, Japan, Namibia, Portugal, Romania, Samoa, Tonga and the U.S.

RWC Logo
Teams will play in four round-robin pools; four points will be awarded for a win, two points for a draw. Further, teams will get one point for scoring four or more tries and one point for a loss by seven points or less. The top two teams in each pool will move on to the quarterfinals, which is also known as the knockout round.

When the dust clears, don't be surprised to see favorite New Zealand in the scrum with host France in the finals, with Les Bleus finally hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup.

Team breakdowns

Listed by International Rugby Board world ranking

1. New Zealand
The All Blacks have been favored to win the tournament almost since the last World Cup. Big, fast, physical and with a deep bench, New Zealand has shown few weaknesses in its play in the run-up to the tournament. However, Australia was able to penetrate the All Blacks' seemingly invincible armor with a 20-15 come-from-behind upset win in the Tri-Nations tournament in June. That dramatic win gave the rest of the RWC field a sign of hope even though the All Blacks beat the Aussies a month later in a showdown to claim the Tri-Nations crown. The Haka, the tribal dance based on a Maori warrior challenge that the All Blacks will perform on the pitch before their game with Italy on Sept. 8, is a must-see. The All Blacks will cruise into the knockout round and beyond.
Player to watch: Dan Carter. The 25-year-old fly-half scored 29 points against Canada in June, an individual single-match record for an All Black against Canada.

All Blacks
APThe All Blacks perform the traditional Haka dance before their games.
2. Australia
Coming off a strong showing in the Tri-Nations tournament, a precursor to the RWC, the Wallabies are the only team to twice win the RWC (1991, 1999) and have never lost a RWC pool match to three of their Pool B rivals: Canada, Wales and Japan. Fiji, a team they've never met in the opening round of the RWC, proved no match for Wallabies in a June match in Perth, losing 49-0. Look for the Aussies to come out on top of their pool to reach the quarters.
Player to watch: George Gregan. The ever-present scrum half is making his fourth RWC appearance but will call an end to his international career after the tournament.

3. France
Les Bleus staked a claim to win the World Cup in March by retaining their Six Nations Tournament title, albeit narrowly, thanks to a mental breakdown by Ireland that allowed a game-clinching try in the closing seconds of their match. Still, France has the speed and toughness to match up well with strong Pool D partners Ireland and Argentina. France is the only team in the pool to have twice reached the finals, and with home-field advantage throughout the tournament, Les Bleus will be a devastating force as they ride the emotional wave into the quarters.
Player to watch: Sébastien Chabal. With his tangle of long hair and beard, "The Caveman" will be one of the most recognizable faces in the RWC. At 6-foot-2 and 253 pounds, No. 8 is an intimidating presence.

World Cup pools
Pool A
England, South Africa, Samoa, U.S., Tonga
Pool B
Australia, Wales, Fiji, Canada, Japan
Pool C
New Zealand, Scotland, Italy, Romania, Portugal
Pool D
France, Ireland, Argentina, Georgia, Namibia

4. South Africa
The Springboks are touted as favorites second only to New Zealand. Their Pool A draw has them in relatively still waters, save for their Sept. 14 showdown with England, the defending RWC champions. However, since the 2003 RWC, South Africa twice has managed to score more than 50 points against England. The Springboks' physical play, quickness and world-class ballhandling give them the potential to break games wide open. Expect South Africa to come out on top of its pool and easily advance into the knockout round.
Player to watch: Bryan Habana. The 5-foot-9, 198-pound winger/center is 24 years old and arguably the most exciting and lethal player in the game … if not the fastest. He once raced a cheetah, the world's fastest land mammal, in a charity event (the cheetah won).

5. Ireland
Always a strong team with a loaded bench, Ireland put together an impressive Six Nations showing to earn the Triple Crown and serious contender status. After drawing into Pool D with two other top-six IRB-ranked teams, Ireland will need to hit the pitch running with physical and focused play for the first 30 minutes of its matches, a trouble spot of late. Even so, Ireland is on top of its game and playing some of its best rugby as it zeroes in on the quarters and possibly the semifinals, where it has yet to venture. Ireland's RWC ride will come down to a Sept. 30 pool-wrapping, must-win game against Argentina.
Player to watch: Ronan O'Gara. The San Diego native is one of the best fly-halves in the game. He was once offered a four-year, $12 million deal to kick for the Miami Dolphins but opted to play in the 2003 RWC instead.

6. Argentina
The Pumas' only quarterfinal appearance came in 1999, when they were summarily dispatched by France, 47-26. Ireland dashed their 2003 RWC hopes with a heartbreaking 16-15 loss in the pool round. Argentina is looking to avenge those losses and will be fielding one of its best teams with the right combination of speed, muscle and explosive playmaking. If Argentina can minimize its turnovers while capitalizing on its opponents', the Pumas could be back in the elite eight.
Players to watch: Felipe and Manuel Contepomi. The twin backs will be making their third RWC appearance for the Pumas.

7. England
England is not the same team it was when it won in 2003. Caught somewhere between maintaining the old guard while nurturing the new, the Red Rose is still looking for consistent play from a squad that's been slow to jell. That doesn't mean anyone should take England for granted. The team will take to the pitch determined to silence naysayers and prove it is capable of world-class play. England's opening match against an overmatched U.S. team will help bolster confidence, and the team will advance to the quarterfinals behind South Africa, where hopes of repeating as champions will come to an end.
Player to watch: Lawrence Dallaglio. Former captain and member of the 2003 RWC championship team, the 35-year-old was out of international play for 18 months before fighting to make the 2007 team. Despite knee surgery in May, the 6-4, 246-pound flanker was determined to make the cut, saying, "There's no point in holding anything back now."

8. Wales
Wales is now a much stronger team than the one that lost a two-test series to pool partner and favorite Australia in June. It will need to establish its game against Canada in its opening match and hope that momentum carries through to the next match, against the Wallabies, when Wales hopes to avenge June's losses. The Dragons finish with games against Japan and Fiji, to whom Wales has twice lost in past RWC play. If it plays to its potential, Wales should advance to the quarters.
Player to watch: Gareth Thomas. Making his fourth RWC appearance; he's the team captain who is also Wales' most capped player and the team's leading try scorer.

9. Italy
The Azzurri have the unenviable task of beginning their run with an opening match against powerhouse favorites New Zealand. Italy will then face beatable pool partners Romania and Portugal before wrapping the opening round with Scotland, a team it abused in the Six Nations Tournament, 37-17, in a road win at Murrayfield Stadium. The Azzurri impressed many with the much-improved play of their forwards in a disciplined team marbled with youth and experience. Look for the surging Azzurri to make it into the knockout round.
Player to watch: Alessandro Troncon. The 34-year-old scrum-half, with his precision kicking and ability to find gaps, will be playing in his fourth RWC.

Webb Ellis Cup
APRugby World Cup teams have their eyes on the Webb Ellis Cup, named after the man who invented the game.
10. Samoa
What the Samoans lack in depth they make up for in physicality. Possessing a powerful running game and a bone-jarring defense, Samoa has twice made it to the quarterfinals. As they were in 2003, the Samoans are in a pool with South Africa and England, whom they nearly upset in their pool match before they were sent packing. They'll be looking for some payback and should not be underestimated. Worth watching: Brian Lima. The 35-year-old center/winger will make history by playing in his fifth RWC tournament, having played in all 16 RWC games for Samoa since its debut victory against Wales in 1991.
Player to watch: Brian Lima. Nicknamed "The Chiropractor" for his trademark bone-crushing hits, the 35-year-old center/winger (6-0, 213 pounds) is about to set a record by becoming the first player to play in five World Cups.

11. Scotland
The Scots' dismal Six Nations Tournament showing -- their only win came against Wales -- left them at the bottom of that table, with many questions to be answered. Still, Scotland has always played tough in the RWC, having reached the elite eight in every appearance. It will look to keep that streak alive again this year with must-win opening matches against pool fillers Portugal and Romania that should have the Scots well-seasoned for pool-round closing battles with New Zealand and Italy. The Scots' knockout-round hopes will rest on their final pool game with the Azzurri.
Player to watch: Bryan Redpath. At 32, the scrum half and team captain brings veteran RWC experience to the pitch along with crisp passing and an ability to read and react to the flow of the game.

12. Fiji
Focusing their training camp on shoring up the scrum, an area where they've been outlasted, Fiji is hoping to see more competitive play out of its big forwards. Its pool matches kick off with games against Japan and Canada before running into more powerful opponents Australia and Wales. Fiji's bid to end its 20-year quarterfinal drought will come down to the match against Wales.
Player to watch: Nicky Little. The veteran fly-half is the most capped player on the squad, with 60.

13. Canada
The Canucks' only advance to the knockout round came in 1991. In 2003, they mustered one win in the pool round, against Tonga. This year, a much-improved squad with added speed and depth will take to the pitch; however the deck is stacked against it with opening-round matches against Wales and Fiji. A winnable game against Japan follows, and then the door-slamming match against Australia will end the Canucks' tournament.
Player to watch: Jon Thiel. The prop's third RWC will continue his remarkable return from open-heart surgery little more than a year ago.

World Cup playoffs

Bronze match
Friday, Oct. 19
France vs. Argentina, 3 p.m. ET
Final
Saturday, Oct. 20
England vs. South Africa, 3 p.m. ET
Stade de France, St. Denis, France

14. Tonga
The renowned physical play of Tonga hasn't been enough to take it beyond the pool rounds -- the team has lost its last five Rugby World Cup matches, including a 101-10 pummeling by England. The tournament starts against the U.S. on Sept. 12, followed four days later with a game against Samoa, to which Tonga has lost nine straight matches.
Player to watch: Inoke Afeaki. The 6-5 flanker is playing in his second RWC, having also played in 1995.

15. United States
The Eagles enter their fifth RWC as overpowered underdogs. With only two RWC wins under their belts (both against Japan), it will be an uphill fight. However, the Eagles have pieced together one of their best RWC teams to date and are hungry to prove themselves against the big guns. Their opening pool-round match against England will test their resolve. Tough battles will come against Tonga and Samoa, before a pool-round closing match against South Africa. If the Eagles can grind out two victories and secure third place in their pool, they'll have done well.
Player to watch: Mike Hercus. At 31, the fly-half captain has scored the most points in national team history, with 361.

16. Romania
The overmatched Oaks are the whipping boys of Pool C. Romania will look to newbie Portugal as its best chance of scratching out a win. However, that test comes after an opening game against the more powerful Italy and then Scotland. The Oaks' tour will end with their loss to the All Blacks.
Player to watch: Romeo Gontineac. Captain of the 2003 squad, the center will become the first Romanian to play in four Rugby World Cups.

17. Georgia
In Pool D with powerhouse teams France, Ireland and Argentina, the Lelos will target their Sept. 26 match against fellow cellar dwellers Namibia as their sole shot at victory. Sporting a strong defense, Georgia beat Namibia 26-18 in the IRB Nations Cup in June. Neither Georgia nor Namibia has recorded a win in RWC play.
Player to watch: Ilia Zedginidze. One of 13 veterans of their debut 2003 RWC team, Zedginidze returns as the team captain.

18. Japan
The Cherry Blossoms can boast of one RWC victory, which came back in 1991 in a 52-8 drumming of Zimbabwe. Since then Japan has lost its last 10 matches. An opening game against the imposing Wallabies will prepare Japan for battles against Canada and Fiji, its only two chances of tasting victory.
Player to watch: Kosuke Endo. With star-player Daisuke Ohata out for the tourney with a rupture Achilles tendon, the Cherry Blossoms will look to this unusually large winger to step up in his first RWC.

More RWC coverage

For more Rugby World Cup coverage, drop by Scrum.com.

Preview of the final: Can England win?
19. Portugal
The Lobos are making their first RWC trip and are the first all-amateur team to do so. Their best hope for notching a win will be against Romania, to which they've lost their last three matches. Take lots of pictures for the scrapbook, fellas.
Player to watch: Goncalo Uva. One of the few Portuguese players with professional rugby experience, the center will have to shoulder much of the load for the team along with his brother and captain, Vasco.

20. Namibia
This is the third RWC appearance for the Welwitschias, who have the dubious honor of holding the record for the worst loss in tournament history when they were crushed by Australia 142-0 in 2003. They have one shot at a win, and that will be in their meeting with Georgia. Enjoy the crepes.
Player to watch: Kees Lensing. The team captain and prop brings needed experience to the team and will be his usual force in the scrum.

Tidbits

• Eighty-six nations from five continents competed in 191 matches over three years to qualify for the Rugby World Cup.
• An estimated 2.4 million spectators will watch games at 12 venues in France.
• Six hundred players from 20 teams will play 48 games to determine a champion.
• Four billion fans are expected to watch the televised matches, making the RWC the third-largest worldwide sporting event, behind the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup.
• This year's host country, France, has never failed to reach the elite eight and has twice reached the finals but has yet to win the Rugby World Cup.
• The All Blacks are the only team to reach the semifinals in every World Cup (they last lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 1987).
• In 2003, England became the first Northern Hemisphere nation to win the World Cup.
• Although most of the tournament will be played in France at a dozen venues, Scotland will host two pool matches in Edinburgh; Wales will host three pool matches as well as one quarterfinal match in Cardiff.
• Although most of the RWC will be played in France at a dozen different venues, Wales will host three pool matches as well as one quarterfinal match (Oct. 6) in Cardiff and Scotland will host two pool matches in Edinburgh.
• A new qualifying structure will give the top three finishers of the pool rounds automatic qualification into the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Peter Lion is an ESPN.com rugby contributor and director for "Outside The Lines."

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