LONDON, Sept 4 (Reuters) - The relatively short history of the Rugby World Cup is so littered with surprises that, even though there are only a handful of teams in with a realistic chance of winning it, picking the champions from among them is the roll of a dice.
Holders and world number one side New Zealand start favourites but they have never triumphed beyond their own shores and have some extremely painful memories of their previous European campaigns, particularly in 1999 and 2007 when they were twice stunned by France.
The sides could meet again at the quarter-final stage at the Millennium Stadium, where France triumphed against all the odds eight years ago on the only occasion the All Blacks have failed to reach the semi-finals.
At their best, New Zealand are unbeatable and the current side ooze class, pace and power in every area as they seek to become the first team to lift the Webb Ellis Cup three times.
They will be led by 2011-winning captain Richie McCaw, the most-capped player in rugby history, while flyhalf Dan Carter, the game’s highest points scorer, will hope for an upbeat finale to his international career after injury cut short his involvement in his country’s glorious campaign four years ago.
Even that triumph, however, turned into a nail-biter as they held on desperately to beat France 8-7 after the unbearable pressure of expectation ground the world’s best team almost into pillars of salt.
While New Zealand rarely have to get out of first gear in the pool stage, something that some analysts feel contributes to their occasional knockout stage setbacks, hosts England will have to hit the ground running after being lumped with Australia and Wales in the toughest-ever World Cup pool.
One of those big guns will be going home early and if it is England or Wales missing out on knockout games in London or Cardiff, those at World Rugby who decided to make the draw three years ago when Wales briefly slipped out of the top eight will have some sleepless nights.
England, who open the tournament against Fiji on Sept. 18, will hope that home advantage gives them the edge and that their powerful pack, albeit seemingly off the pace in their warm-ups, can stifle the adventurous backline play of their two main rivals.
Australia, as ever, appear to be peaking just at the right time and both their World Cup wins have come in Europe.
They ended a four year barren run against New Zealand last month to win the Rugby Championship while their much-maligned pack has suddenly started to look like a unit to be reckoned with.
Wales, who went so agonisingly close to the final four years ago despite playing much of their semi-final against France with 14 men, look to be the pool outsiders but have a really settled team quite capable of beating anyone when they click.
It would appear that winning Pool A is essential for a realistic shot at the title as the runners-up are likely to have to get past South Africa and New Zealand just to make the final. No team has ever lost a World Cup pool game and gone on to win the tournament.
The Springboks come into the tournament in a relatively poor state after an unimpressive Rugby Championship when, hard-hit by injuries, they lost to Argentina for the first time.
However, they are still fiercely competitive at the breakdown and their backline, including inexperienced trio flyhalf Handre Pollard and centres Damien de Allende and Jesse Kriel, looks impressive in their ability to unlock opposition defences with sleight of hand and excellent running angles.
South Africa too have a tournament record to be reckoned with.
It is the opposite situation for Ireland, along with Italy the only teams in the “big 10” never to have reached the semi-finals, but they will surely never have a better opportunity of doing something special.
Back-to-back Six Nations champions and riding high at third in the rankings after beating Australia and South Africa last November, they have local opposition in the form of France and Italy in their pool and should they top it, a winnable last-eight meeting with Argentina is on the cards.
With Scotland vying with Samoa to go through with South Africa from Pool B it is hard to see any of the other sides making more than a one-off impact.
The outsiders, will, however, get a far fairer ride this time after organisers altered the previously outrageous fixture programme to give the smaller teams similar rest periods to the big guns.
Editing by Rex Gowar