The world awaits
On the eve of battle, Thinus Delport assesses the leading contenders for the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Last Updated: 08/09/11 4:10pm
With the kick-off of rugby's premier competition less than a day away it's extremely difficult to contain the enormous amount of excitement that's been building up in the lead up to Friday's first clash.
I can just imagine the atmosphere that's been bubbling down under waiting to erupt when that first whistle goes for the start of the first match.
It's been a great build-up to this year's Rugby World Cup in both Hemispheres. No single team has really dominated any of the competitions and warm-up games leading up to the start.
In the North there was an unexpected win for Wales over England and the Wallabies stung the All Blacks to take their first Tri-Nations title in ten years.
Home Grown Hopes
The All Blacks are carrying a massive amount of pressure on their shoulders at the start of this RWC. They haven't been able to lift the coveted trophy since 1987 although they have started as hot favourites every time.
This year their invincibility tag has been seriously dented by two defeats in the final leg of the Tri-Nations. South Africa showed that you can't expect to turn over another top ranked international side with your second choice players.
Australia gained that vital psychological edge over the All Blacks by wrestling away their dominance over them in the Tri-Nations.
Although the game against Tonga will be very physical from the start, the All Blacks will have too much pace and conditioning to overpower the Pacific Islanders without any trouble. Sonny Bill Williams and Ma'a Nonu make up a formidable midfield combination and with the forward ball they'll get from a dominant All Black pack the Tongans will have to make their big hits count.
Red Hot Aussies
Australia approaches this campaign riding high on confidence after their convincing Tri-Nations triumph over the All-Blacks in Brisbane.
They possess lethal backs that can punish you from anywhere and their forwards have certainly beefed up their physicality in the collision and crucially in the scrum. Robbie Deans have rewarded his victorious group by retaining the team that overcame the All-Blacks and take a huge amount of momentum into their opening fixture against Italy.
The Italians rely on a very strong scrum set-piece and their forwards breaking the gain-line to get their game going. At the back they are lacking the decision-making and penetration to really trouble a strong Australian defence.
The Australian back division should have a field day once their forwards have established a stable platform to attack from.
It will be interesting to see how Argentina does in this year's tournament. They have lost some key members of their previous RWC campaign with the like of Pichot and Hernandez. Los Pumas rely on strong set-piece and their scrumming prowess is world-renowned. They haven't been able to enforce that dominance lately and they were exposed up front by Wales in their warm-up test.
England will be able to match that forward power and with the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Chris Ashton and the very imposing Manu Tuilagi in the back will be able to exploit some of the inexperience in the Argentinian backs.
Warren Gatland fired the first salvo at the Springboks ahead of their opening clash by describing the predictability of the Springbok game-plan which is based around lineout dominance, tactical kicking and defensive pressure.
Wales are very confident they can match the conditioning and physicality of the Springboks and upset the defending World Champions after their impressive showings against England and Argentina in their World Cup build-up games.
The Springboks physical arsenal took a bit of a dent with Bakkies Botha having to withdraw from the opener due to injury. The big advantage the Springboks take into the clash with Wales is the enormous amount of experience they can draw on in their ranks and the confidence of a good record against Wales. The Springboks have shown a good improvement in their match fitness after the majority of the squad was rested in the early stages of the Tri- Nations. Heinrich Brussouw will be crucial for the Springboks in slowing down Welsh ball and not allow Jamie Roberts to get ball on the front foot.
The last couple of matches between the Springboks and Wales have been close with South Africa having the better on every occasion. Sunday's game will again be close, but South Africa will retain their superiority over the Welsh.