By Laurie Fitzgerald
Starting today, Shouts from the stands will be doing a weekly blog that will look at the main talking points in Rugby Union.
We will look at the biggest talking points in domestic, European and International rugby – and what better place to start than the biggest rugby show of them all – a preview of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, which starts this Friday:
Four years on after South Africa overcame England in a bruising final in Paris, the twenty best teams on the planet have arrived in New Zealand ready to compete in what is set to be the most fiercely contested World Cup yet.
In the past, the group stages of the tournament have picked out obvious quarter-finalists with the rest making up the numbers with the exception of a few surprises, such as Fiji in 2007 and Samoa in 1991.
Not so this time around, with at least two of the pools difficult to call and the established nations needing to get going right from the start.
Pool A: If there is one great mystery within sport, it is the astonishing fact that New Zealand have not won a World Cup since the inaugral tournament held in the country way back in 1987.
Always the favourites, the All Blacks have somehow managed to squander every opportunity to claim the Webb Ellis Cup in the past 24 years, often being labelled as ‘chokers’ in the rugby world.
However, this time around there should be no excuse; home advantage, but more importantly a team that is safely regarded as the best in the game.
They will be led by the inspirational duo of skipper Richie McCaw and the irreplaceable Dan Carter.
McCaw is the epitome of the modern-day player; the back-row forward’s reading of the game, strength, pace and incredible work-rate only helps guide those that go into battle with him.
Carter is the leading points scorer in the history of test rugby, and the 29 year-old can do no wrong; brilliant with the ball in hand, a faultless kicker out of hand and off the tee, and always finding a gap that’s never there. His genius cannot be questioned.
But if there’s one team that seems to have the indian sign over the Kiwis, it’s France.
The most mercurial team in world rugby – one day they can destroy anyone with their gallic flair and wonderful running rugby, another day they can be conquered by just about anyone.
Their wins over New Zealand in 1999 and 2007 will not have been forgotten by the hosts, but this is a French squad whose inconsistencies have reached new levels even by their standards.
Coach Marc Lievremont has overseen some real twists and turns over the past 12 months.
Last Autumn saw them beat South Africa only to then be hammered by Australia. Then in the Six Nations, they win in Ireland and follow it up with defeat in Italy.
It has already been announced that Lievremont will leave his post after the tournament, but his swansong is capable of being impressive with the squad he has.
Having chopped and changed throughout his four years in charge, his 30-man squad possesses plenty of attacking threat in the likes of Maxim Medard and Vincent Clerc, and if they can get Fabien Barcella fully fit then their pack is a match for anyone.
The competition in Pool A will be provided by Canada, who have participated in every World Cup since its inception, and two teams in Tonga and Japan that made great strides in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup to finish above both Samoa and Fiji.
Despite this, both the All Blacks and the French should have more than enough to get through it.
Pool B: While many will say that Pool D is the toughest of the group stages, no-one will argue that a Pool containing two home nations and the team that finished third at the last World Cup will be difficult to predict.
England will be seen as the favourites to progress having started to find progression under Martin Johnson in the last 18 months.
Victory over Australia both home and away last year was followed by their first Six Nations title in eight years.
But a resounding defeat in Dublin in the last game of the championship with a grand slam at stake showed that this young squad still has a lot to learn.
However, if England were to make the last eight as Pool winners then they could have a real chance of making the final with France and Australia potentially awaiting them.
They have a strong set-piece in the scrum and lineout: the big question is whether or not England can find rhythm in their backs.
There’s no doubt they have the players to hurt teams in Chris Ashton, Delon Armitage and Ben Foden, while 20 year-old centre Manu Tuilagi could be the breakthrough player of the tournament.
However, there is still a debate at fly-half, and whether they go for the experienced Jonny Wilkinson or the younger but less proven Toby Flood, whose managing of a game has been criticised, especially after the defeat to Wales in the World Cup warm-up game in Cardiff.
Whoever gets the nod at 10 will need to use all their nous with some real battles ahead in both Scotland and Argentina.
Andy Robinson’s men will feel they can maintain a proud WC record that has seen them reach the quarter-finals or better of every tournament so far.
The Scots have an excellent second-row in skipper Alastair Kellock and outstanding youngster Richie Gray, and real strength in depth in the back row, providedby Kelly Brown, John Barclay, Richie Vernon and Alasdair Strokosch.
The issue for Robinson is whether they can find cohesion in the backline, with the side struggling to find tries over the past couple of years.
In a group that is set to be tight, securing bonus point wins over the two qualifiers in the Pool will be more important than ever.
That’s because Argentina are looking to build on their stunning efforts in the 2007 tournament, where they beat France (twice) and knocked out Ireland to reach the semi-finals.
The current Argentinian squad has lost a lot of experience since then, and the injury to star player Juan Martin Hernandez is a massive blow to their chances.
But they still have genuine class in the likes of Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe that gives them a realistic chance of the quarters.
The two remaining sides in Romania and Georgia will find the going tough in Pool B, but their hugely physical nature will ensure there will be no easy games for the established trio.
It could come down to who gets the most losing bonus points in the battle between the big three in the pool, but I feel England and Scotland will just have enough to edge out Argentina to qualify.
Pool C: This Pool contains the side that will pose the greatest threat to stop the All Blacks ending their World Cup hoodoo.
Australia go into the tournament on the back of their first Tri-Nations title in a decade after defeating New Zealand 25-20 in a classic encounter two weeks ago in Sydney.
That win underlined what many have believed for a long time; that is the Wallabies contain the most fearsome and explosive backline in World Rugby.
It’s difficult to find a better scrum-half on current form than Will Genia, while Quade Cooper is the bettered only by Carter in the fly-half department.
Drew Mitchell will be a big loss if he doesn’t fully recover from injury, but they have the excellent Digby Ioane and James O’Connor to fill the spots on the wing. Finally, in Kurtley Beale they have the best full-back in the game.
The team most likely to stop the Wallabies making smooth progress will be Ireland, who will want to right the wrongs of 2007.
Eddie O’Sullivan’s side went to France with genuine aspirations at a push for the trophy in Northern Hemisphere conditions, only to produce an abject showing.
Struggling wins over Namibia and Georgia coupled with being outclassed by both France and Argentina meant that Ireland went home early, and just six months later O’Sullivan lost his job.
Fortunately, since Declan Kidney has taken the helm Ireland have tasted grand slam success and produced a side that on their day can be a match for anyone.
The infinite experience of Munster duo Paul O’Connell and Donnacha O’Callaghan is set to form the basis of the second row, and Ireland have one of the best back rows in the game in Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris and the brilliant young flanker Sean O’Brien, aiding the loss of the influential David Wallace.
The worry for Kidney and his staff is whether or not they will be on their game; there have been too many under-par performances in 2011, and there is a real concern after losing all four of their warm-up matches.
They will have to find their rhythm from the off, especially with the ever-improving Italy hopeful of causing a shock.
Coach Nick Mallett has breathed new life into Italian rugby, and should count themselves unfortunate to have finished bottom of this year’s Six Nations after losing a series of close matches.
But the belief that the South African has instilled in the group of players culminated in a famous triumph over France at the Stadio Flaminio in March.
It still beggars belief that the Italian Rugby Federation decided not to renew Mallett’s contract after the World Cup, a decision that could backfire in the long-term.
The Italians have a indominable pack spearheaded by the brilliant tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni, but it’s captain Sergio Parisse that stands out.
It’s difficult to think of a better number eight than the Stade Francais man, with his incredible work rate and his ball-winning skills at the breakdown allowing him to lead by example every time.
While things went wrong at the last World Cup for Eddie O’Sullivan, he now has a second chance on the global stage with the USA.
It’s been tough getting the whole group of players with many playing for European clubs, but they can provide stern opposition for anyone they face.
Not only that, but in Takudzwa Ngwenya they have one of the most dangerous wingers in the game.
The Biarritz star scored the try of the 2007 tournament when he blitzed past Springbok speed merchant Bryan Habana, and the 26 year-old will be their main threat once again.
Pool C is completed by debutants Russia, where they hope to provide a respectable showing in a sport developing by the day in their homeland, with the sport’s bible Rugby World saying there are over 150 clubs and almost 15,000 registered players.
Their key man will be Vasily Artemiev, who impressed in the recent Churchill Cup and the winger has secured a move to Aviva Premiership side Northampton Saints when he returns from Down Under thanks to his searing pace.
However, while it’s a group that should have some intriguing match-ups, both Australia and Ireland should make it through.
Pool D: The D is a fitting letter for this pool, as this is certainly the pool of death in this year’s World Cup.
Defending champions South Africa were probably hoping for an easier group as a reward for their triumph four years ago.
But the Proteas will still be one of the favourites to go all the way, with 18 of the squad members containing winners medals from their glory in France.
Coach Peter de Villiers has often been a figure of bemusement, with strange team selections and comments throughout his time in charge so far.
He was heavily criticised for resting many players in this years Tri-Nations, while many fans feel he was hasty in naming John Smit as captain when Bismarck du Plessis is probably the best hooker in the world right now.
Despite guiding the team to the 2009 Tri-Nations, the last couple of years have seen a real slump against their Southern Hemisphere rivals.
Thankfully for the Springboks, their experience and physicality makes them one of the toughest teams to beat and should get to at least the semi-finals.
While South Africa are the standout team in the Pool, there are three other sides with genuine claims to reach the last eight with them.
Wales go to New Zealand hoping that injuries do not hamper their potential in the coming weeks.
They have two world-class props in Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, but both have been included with genuine doubts about their fitness.
There is also a concern about the two other Joneses in Stephen and Ryan, having seen utility back Morgan Stoddart and Gavin Henson ruled out through injury.
Although resources are being stretched, coach Warren Gatland knows he has a set of backs with plenty of tries in them.
Led by one of the great wingers of the modern game in Shane Williams, the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Lee Byrne will inhabit the wonderful attacking philosophy instilled into the DNA of Welsh rugby.
This will be orchestrated by the brilliant James Hook, who has the chance to come of age in the number 10 jersey for his country.
Unfortunately, the Welsh will need to front up to what has to be the most physical Pool in World Cup history.
The Pacific Island duo of Fiji and Samoa have a wonderful attacking culture that has won them many admirers around the globe.
For the Fijians, there is the chance to build on their upset over the Welsh four years ago that knocked them out in the group stages.
As for Samoa, they underlined their credentials with one of the great shocks in recent memory, beating the Wallabies in Australia this summer.
With all this in mind, you have to feel for Namibia; not only are they the lowest-ranked nation, but they have also been dealt the toughest hand in their World Cup dream.
Their chances of qualifying are slim, although you can bet with ferocious flanker Jacques Burger leading the troops, the African side will not go down without a fight.
Despite such an intense Pool in store, I’m tipping Wales to join South Africa in the quarter-finals as group runners-up.
Having said that, I can’t see past the All Blacks for the trophy; the best team with home advantage throughout in front of a support whose passion cannot for the game cannot be matched, it’s there for Graham Henry’s side to end their hoodoo.
Whether they will remains to be seen. I for one can’t wait.
Quarter-finalists: Argentina, France, Ireland, Wales
4th Place: England
3rd Place: South Africa
Winners: New Zealand
So what do you think? Will anyone be able to stop the All Blacks on their home patch? How do you think the home nations will fare? Is there going to be a dark horse in the tournament? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.