A look ahead to the Rugby World Cup as 19 nations look to knock New Zealand off their perch as world champions

The eighth Rugby World Cup gets underway on Friday 18 September at the home of rugby as second-favourites England take on Fiji at Twickenham.

With defending champions New Zealand overwhelming favourites to retain their crown, England – along with the rest of the home nations – will hope that the support of the crowd will roar them on to success in a bid to upset the odds.

Usual suspects South Africa and Australia will also be in the mix, while France and Argentina cannot be ruled out of the running given their pedigree in the international game. With each World Cup, more is being expected of the Pacific Islands as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga continue to improve, and with Fiji in the so-called ‘Pool of Death’ along with England, Wales, Australia and Uruguay, they have the means to spoil the party and give one of the three leading nations something serious to worry about.

So what can we expect to see during the next six weeks of rugby action across England and Wales?

Talk of New Zealand’s ‘retiring six’

Despite heading into the tournament as favourites to win a second consecutive World Cup, New Zealand’s squad looks to be nearing the end of its cycle. The likes of Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and the sublime Richie McCaw will play their final game in the All Blacks jersey at some point during the World Cup, while Conrad Smith, Kevin Mealamu and Tony Woodcock will also be playing for their country for the last time.

While the Kiwis have a number of talented players elsewhere in the squad that will have a huge say in where the Webb Ellis Cup ends up, all eyes will be on these six players in their attempts to bow out on a high. Before their 2011 success on home soil, New Zealand had developed a reputation of coking on the biggest stage. Quarter-finalists in 2007, semi-finalists in 1991, 1999 and 2003 and runners-up to South Africa in 1995, it appeared that their wait for a second world crown following the 1987 victory would never come. Australia and France have knocked the All Blacks out twice each, and it’s worth noting that should the pool stages go as planned, New Zealand will meet France at the Millennium Stadium in the quarter-finals – the scene of their memorable 2007 encounter that saw Les Blues knock out the tournament favourites.

Australia’s talented back line

There have always been lingering questions over Australia’s pack, but one thing they have been able to boast since the dawn of time is flair and eye-catching talent in the back line. With veterans Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell returning to the affray following a well-timed tweak to the Wallabies’ selection rules, the will join the likes of Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper in what has already been tipped to be the most potent back line of the tournament.

If Australia can produce a front-eight that is capable of getting on the front foot – as has been demonstrated in recent weeks – the 1991 and 1999 world champions simply cannot be ruled out of the equation.Australia full-back Israel Folau

Australia full-back Israel Folau

England under pressure

It’s easy to say that the host nation is under pressure. Just ask Graham Henry, the man who was tasked with leading the All Blacks to a first World Cup success in 24 years with the added impact of the tournament being held in the Land of the Long White Cloud. So for Stuart Lancaster’s England side, the pressure on them heading into the tournament will be nothing short of crushing.

Lancaster made the bold call of including rugby league convert Sam Burgess, as well as axing Manu Tuilagi and Dylan Hartley for disciplinary reasons. If England don’t deliver a better performance than the quarter-final exit experienced in 2011 – albeit under the leadership of Martin Johnson – then the tournament will go down as a huge failure to deliver on home soil.England head coach Stuart LancasterEngland head coach Stuart Lancaster

Wales missing the impact of Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb

The Welsh squad is one of immense talent, but even the All Blacks would be tested by losing two of their key players less than a fortnight before the start of a World Cup. No offence to Mike Phillips and Eli Walker, but they are not of the calibre of Rhys Webb and the mercurial Leigh Halfpenny, Wales’ goal-kicking points machine for the past half a decade.

Wales could go a long way to banishing the pain of losing the pair to injury by putting in impressive, match-winning performances, but should they suffer defeat to any of their Pool A rivals, expect talk to immediately turn to the absence of Webb and Halfpenny and ‘what could’ve been.Leigh Halfpenny will miss the World Cup due to an anterior cruciate ligament injuryLeigh Halfpenny will miss the World Cup due to an anterior cruciate ligament injury

Is this finally Ireland’s year?

Ireland have never gone into a World Cup with such a strong squad or a favourable route to the semi-finals. For tournament after tournament, the Irish could expect to be drawn in the ‘Pool of Death’ that normally hosts three of top-eight ranked nations. But this time they have been placed in Pool D along with France, Italy, Canada and Romania, and anything less than top spot will be below expectations on the Emerald Isle.

Should they progress as Pool D winners, an expected quarter-final against either Argentina or Tonga is likely to be their reward, and again the Irish would be confident of coming through such ties. Should Paul O’Connell’s side come through this, they will be just one game away from a first World Cup final, and that’s not a bad position to be in at all.Ireland captain Paul O’ConnellIreland captain Paul O’Connell

One of the Pacific Islands to upset the odds

All eyes will be on Fiji when the curtain rises at Twickenham, and so they should be. The talk of Pool A has been of England, Australia and Wales, but Fiji will have a major say in the top two that progress to the quarter-finals. While the Pacific Islanders will be pushed to reach the last-eight, they can severely dent the hopes of one of their rivals. Having enjoyed a three month World Cup training camp that the nation has never been afforded in the past, poor preparation will not be to blame if Fiji fail to show up this autumn, and the squad impressed in their 47-18 demolition of Canada last week.

Fiji scrum-half Nikola MatawaluFiji scrum-half Nikola MatawaluSamoa find themselves in a different position. With South Africa the clear favourites in Pool B, Samoa, Scotland, Japan and the United States will duke it out to join the Springboks in the knockout stages. With their sheer physicality both in attack and defence able to pose problems for the very best, an on-form Samoan side stands a very strong chance of progressing form the pool stages.

Tonga, perhaps the weakest of the three Pacific Islands, can’t be ruled out either New Zealand will have to have a disastrous campaign not to clinch top spot in Pool C, but Tonga will likely threaten Argentina the most in the battle for the runners-up spot. While progression is unlikely, we’ve seen stranger things happen at the World Cup.

Which France will turn up?

It’s the age old question that haunts Les Blues. Dreadful in the Six Nations, a coaching staff that appears to be in disarray and a playing squad that more often than not appears to misfire, the French have maintained a tendency to save their best for the World Cup. Having never failed to progress to the quarter-finals, three time finalists France have a certain pedigree when it comes to the big stage, and you wouldn’t bet against them to do the same once again.

France captain Thierry DusautoirFrance captain Thierry DusautoirAs mentioned above, a possible chance to knock out the defending champions in the quarter-finals at the Millennium Stadium may just be the remedy to get French rugby back to where it belongs.

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