Rugby World Cup preview: The contenders

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It's only a matter of weeks until the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Australia. Rob McKinlay cracks open a tinny and picks out the main contenders.Just...

It's only a matter of weeks until the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Australia. Rob McKinlay cracks open a tinny and picks out the main contenders.

Just when you thought you'd never have to get up and open the pub at 7am again, along comes another international sporting extravaganza from the other side of the world.

Yes, beer is on the breakfast menu again, but this time it's rugby on the big screen instead of football. Fans said "sionara" to Japan last summer, but another sporting fix comes this October with more of a "G'day, mine's a Foster's" - the Rugby World Cup is going Down Under.

Twenty teams from the far reaches of the globe will converge to do battle for nearly two months in this, the showpiece event of the rugby calendar. All the home nations are represented and what could be better for a rugby fan than donning your colours, getting down the boozer and watching them go toe-to-toe with the likes of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and France?

What's more, if you're still in a state of depression following England's failure in football's equivalent last year, this could be just the tonic. Martin Johnson's England will start as a favourite for the spoils and actually have a genuine chance of going all the way. As for the Scots, Irish and Welsh, quarter-final places beckon at the very least if they all play to their potential. The pre-work trips to the local could continue well into November!

How does it work?

It's very simple. The draw sees the teams divided into four groups of five, with the top two sides from each pool going straight through to the quarter-finals.

The winners of each group will play the second-placed team from another in the last eight, and vice-versa. From then on it's straight knock-out, with the grand finale eventually taking place in Sydney on November 22.

We examine the chances of the home nations as well as the main contenders from further afield...

EnglandCoach: Clive Woodward. Captain: Martin Johnson

England, in most non-New Zealanders' eyes, are favourites. Only one loss this year - to France in a recent friendly while fielding a second-string team - shows what awesome form Clive Woodward's players are in. On their summer tour to the southern hemisphere they turned over reigning World Champions Australia away from home for the first time ever, and also defeated the mighty All-Blacks in New Zealand for the first time in 30 years. A potential France semi-final looms and assuming they get through that, New Zealand should be waiting in what could be an epic final. England have the raw power in the forwards, the immaculate left boot of Jonny Wilkinson, the inspirational leadership of Martin Johnson and the experience and strength-in-depth to go all the way.

Player to watch:​ Josh LewseyHow far will they go?​ World Champions

IrelandCoach: Eddie O'Sullivan. Captain: Keith Wood

Ireland are starting to hit form at exactly the right time. Three consecutive wins - albeit over Wales, Italy and Scotland - may not be quite enough to get the pulses racing but they are a team on a roll and they traditionally thrive on this kind of confidence. The loss of Geordan Murphy with a broken leg is a blow but the return of captain invincible Keith Wood has given their preparation a timely boost and the men from the Emerald Isle certainly have the talent to cause an upset or two. Wood and mercurial centre Brian O'Driscoll will be key, and if the forwards can provide a strong platform to attack from they might be genuine contenders instead of also-rans. A winnable tie against France awaits in the last eight if they can get through a tough group boasting Australia and dark horses Argentina.

Player to watch:​ Denis HickieHow far will they go?​ Quarter-finals

ScotlandCoach: Ian McGeechan. Captain: Bryan Redpath.

Mixed fortunes this year for the Scots. A mediocre Six Nations was followed by a character-building tour to South Africa where they were unlucky to come away with two narrow defeats to the Springboks. On their return to home shores, the Murrayfield men had an impressive win over Italy put firmly into perspective with ensuing losses to Wales and Ireland. The forward pack is efficient and can retain possession effectively but the backs may not be able to capitalise. On paper a quarter-final clash against hosts Australia would appear to be the end of the road but should the Scots play out of their skins and the Wallabies severely under-perform, who knows?

Player to watch:​ Simon TaylorHow far will they go?​ Quarter-finals

WalesCoach: Steve Hansen. Captain: Colin Charvis

Proud rugby nation Wales have enjoyed more success with the round ball than the oval one in recent times and coach Steve Hansen, the man entrusted with bringing back the glory days, seems to be living on borrowed time. A dismal Six Nations was followed by a tough tour to Australia and New Zealand, then heavy defeats against Ireland and England. What the country still doesn't lack, though, is passion and the players possess talent. A good World Cup campaign may be the catalyst for revitalisation. A quarter-final against England, however, is likely to produce the same result as when a fiery but highly over-confident dragon took on St George.

Player to watch:​ Iestyn HarrisHow far will they go?​ Quarter-finals

AustraliaCoach: Eddie Jones. Captain: George Gregan.

Host nation Australia are being written off by most pundits after some indifferent recent performances, including losses to New Zealand, South Africa and England. However, with partisan home support, Waltzing Matilda ringing out from the stands and an uncanny ability to raise their game when it matters, the reigning World Champions should not be discounted. If the Wallabies can successfully negotiate a tough group, a titanic semi-final clash with the old enemy New Zealand looks a certainty.

Player to watch:​ Mat RogersHow far will they go?​ Semi-finals

FranceCoach: Bernard laporte. Captain: Fabien Galthié

Adjectives like unpredictable, mercurial and, very occassionally, unstoppable are usually uttered when talking about the French. If they play to their potential and utilise the abundance of talent their players possess throughout the World Cup, they could win it. But that's not usually how it works. Bernard Laporte's squad must string together at least three "unstoppable" performances in a row for ultimate glory and, like the last World Cup in 1999, that may prove to be a match too far.

Player to watch:​ Aurelien RougerieHow far will they go?​ Semi-finals

New ZealandCoach: John Mitchell. Captain: Reuben Thorne.

There's always an air of mystique surrounding the All-Blacks. The most famous rugby nation in the world lives and breathes the game, and the public "expect" victory every time their heroes take the field. New Zealand have not won the World Cup since the inaugural one in 1987 but this could be their year. The Tri-nations champions have a young, exciting, fast squad of players who have the talent to take the trophy back to the land of the long white cloud. They will probably have to beat arch-enemies Australia and then England for it to happen and only the latter may be able to stop them.

Player to watch:​ Aaron MaugerHow far will they go?​ Runners-up

South AfricaCoach: Rudolf Strauli,

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