New Zealand will start as favorites to retain their Rugby World Cup crown when the tournament kicks off in England on Friday. Having claimed the trophy on home soil four years ago, the All Blacks have remained the team to beat, and have led the World Rugby Rankings for the past six years. Under the charge of their assistant coach from 2011, Steve Hansen, an experienced squad, including 34-year-old captain Richie McCaw, are clearly the team to beat.
Yet, despite always being brimming with talent, they have never won the World Cup away from home -- their only other triumph coming when they co-hosted the tournament with Australia in 1987. And that may help give the 2015 hosts extra belief that they can emerge with the crown. The champions in 2003, England enter the World Cup on the back of an encouraging victory over Ireland, yet a sense of uncertainty remains about their prospects. After a dismal performance in 2011, coach Stuart Lancaster has been charged with delivering the goods at home, but it is asking a lot of a young squad to fulfill their potential and gel under the most intense of pressures.
And England’s chances have not been helped by an unenviable draw. Alongside them in Pool A will be two-time champions Australia, as well as Wales, who will also host eight games at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, and an always dangerous Fiji side. Only two will make it through to the quarterfinals.
Australia looked a long shot to contend for the title just a few months ago, but have raised expectations considerably by winning the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship with wins over both New Zealand and South Africa. In contrast, Wales’ fortunes seem headed in the opposite direction. Hopes were high after wins over Ireland and France in the Six Nations, but their final warm-up match proved massively costly. Already without center Jonathan Davies, full-back Leigh Halfpenny and scrum-half Rhys Webb suffered injuries against Italy that ruled them out of the entire World Cup.
In Pool B, South Africa will be strong favorites to cruise through on top and are always a threat to go far, but their buildup to the tournament has hardly boosted confidence around the team. The Springboks, champions in 1995 and 2007, lost all three matches in the Rugby Championship, including a stunning home defeat to Argentina. As for the Pumas, they will be hopeful of making the knockout phase alongside New Zealand in Pool C.
In the fourth and final Pool, Ireland and France will start as favorites to progress, with Ireland coming in with particularly high expectations. Winners of the Six Nations both this year and last, coach Joe Schmidt is charged with at the very least leading Ireland to the World Cup semifinals for the first time in the country’s history.
There are plenty of minnows who will be looking to make their mark, too. Among them, the United States are better prepared and arguably better equipped than ever before. Having beaten Canada twice and given a solid account of themselves in a 47-10 defeat to Australia in Chicago, Mike Tolkin’s squad will be targeting two wins in the competition for the first time and even a dream scenario of emerging from a group containing South Africa, Scotland, Samoa and Japan.
Prediction: While there are some doubts about New Zealand, chiefly from their previous habit of failing to deliver when it counts, it is difficult to see them not repeating as champions.
Betting odds (via OddsChecker)
New Zealand: 6/5
South Africa: 6/1