BEZIERS: A place where men are men and the wearing of a gumshield automatically raises questions of sexual inclination, Beziers has what might be called a history. The capital of the Languedoc and the birthplace of the Resistance hero Jean Moulin, it was sacked by Simon de Montfort in 1209 and has been fighting back ever since, generally on the rugby pitch that, along with the bullring, stands as a centrepiece of this sports-mad Mediterranean city. For a wild west taste of the World Cup, be there when France and Canada get it on this Saturday.
CULLEN: In a tournament crammed full with diamonds, Christian Cullen could be the most carat-laden gem of them all. New Zealand might play him at full-back, from where he shreds the most cohesive opposition defence quicker than Richard Nixon disposed of his dodgy paperwork. On the other hand, they might play him on the wing, a position he made his own during the last Tri-Nations series. And then there is the centre option. Heaven help those midfielders charged with keeping the "Paekakariki Express" under wraps at close quarters.
DEFENCE: Smart-alec attacking formations do not win World Cups. Barricades do. The three previous champions all possessed the meanest defences in the game. None of them conceded as much as a single try per game and the Wallabies leaked just three in becoming the only side to cross the equator to win a title. The great defensive practitioners tend not to dominate the colummn inches, but whoever makes it to Cardiff in the first week of November will have their own Allan Whettons and Japie Mulders.
EAGLES: America is meant to be rugby's Next Big Thing, a mass market waiting to be wowed by a sport with the physical dimension of Gridiron plus a little bit extra in the brain department. According to Jack Clark, the US Eagles coach, union boasts secure strongholds in the major cities on both coasts and, crucially, serious television interest as well. But America being America, the public will not buy into anything that smacks of failure. For all their futures, the Eagles badly need to make a mark on this tournament by beating Romania and at least pushing Ireland close.
FITNESS: Rugby is a game of recent revolutions: the professional revolution, the mass media revolution, the law-makers' revolution. Most revolutionary of all, however, has been the quantum improvement in physical conditioning. The first World Cup in 1987 was won by an All Black side so immeasurably fitter than their rivals that the sport was transformed overnight. Now we have an England squad working to an 18-month programme planned by the test-tube brigade at Loughborough University. They still drink a pint after training, but it is a pint of vitamin-fuelled isotonic mouthwash rather than a pint of bitter dash.
GREAT REDEEMER: G is also for Graham Henry, but no one in Wales now bothers with the national coach's proper name. Henry's arrival from Auckland last year stimulated a Red Dragon renaissance of Florentine proportions, and while he takes no pleasure in the biblical worship bestowed upon him - he is also known as The Messiah - he will not prevent the locals writing Gospels about him if he leads Wales to the promised land.
HAKA: The All Blacks put it this way: "Ka Mate, Ka Mate, Ka Ora, Ka Ora; Ka Mate, Ka Mate, Ka Ora, Ka Ora; Tenei Te Tangata, Puhuru Huru, Nana E Tiki Whaka Whiti Te Ra; Aue Upane! Aue Kaupane! Aue Upane, Kaupane, Whiti Te Ra." In other words: "You've got it coming, you ?!*?*!&*!" Charming.
INTERNATIONAL BOARD: The delegates used to get together once a year, see off a bucket of gin, sanction the odd international tour itinerary and then head back to the bar. That was then. The IB is now a full-blown world governing body with delusions of Olympian grandeur; indeed, its chairman, Vernon Pugh QC, is keen to see rugby take its place in the 2004 Games. First, though, the clubbable chaps on the executive need to tidy up their shop window. Some financial transparency would do for starters. It would take an Indiana Jones to get his hands on previous World Cup accounts.
JONAH: Jonah Lomu's annihilation of England four years ago remains the greatest individual performance in rugby history and the big bruiser from the wrong side of the Auckland tracks is back for more. Far from certain of an All Black starting place - Tana Umaga, a scaled-down Lomu with dreadlocks, tends to get the nod these days - he will be off the replacements' bench as soon as the New Zealanders hit trouble. His size and speed, mixed with a gentle, almost Quakerish, passivity off the field, makes him the most compelling attraction of all.
KICKERS: Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh, Joel Stransky. In so far as any one player makes the difference in a team game, golden-booted marksmen are usually the head honchos. It is fair to suggest that the '87 All Blacks would have won the inaugural World Cup without Fox, but the goals kicked by Lynagh and Stransky in '91 and '95 were worth their weight in whatever currency you care to name. The meanest narrow-eyed gunslinger this time will be Neil Jenkins, the carrot-topped Welshman from Pontypridd. He doesn't miss.
LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO: He's been through the mill, has Lawrence, but the News of the Screws experience filled him with enough righteous anger to sink a tabloid battleship. That anger is in evidence every time he plays; his one-man spectaculars were the most arresting feature of England's four-match World Cup rehearsal programme and he is planning more of the same when the red roses meet Italy, the land of his father, on Saturday evening.
MILLENNIUM Stadium: Welsh intimidation was once rooted in flesh and blood: the mention of Gareth, Barry and the Viet Gwent scared the living daylights out of opposition teams to the extent that Wales could have played their international matches on a sheep farm and still kicked off with a 10-point lead. The current team is nowhere near as terrifying, but the new Arms Park reduces grown men to jibbering wrecks. It is an absolute bearpit of a stadium: close, threatening, ridiculously noisy. It is also the finest rugby arena in the world and a venue worthy of the hopes and dreams invested in it.
NAMIBIA: A hard rugby country, where the old problems refuse to go away. In 1976, when Namibia was still South West Africa, its greatest player, Jan Ellis, offered the following explanation for refusing to lead a multi- racial Invitation XV against the All Blacks: "Multi-racial sport anywhere else in the world is okay. When in Rome, you do as the Romans tell you. Here in South Africa, the same thing holds - and I am a white South African." More than two decades on, the racial question continues to bite; at one stage this year, Namibia's participation in the tournament was threatened by a serious row over non-white quotas in provincial teams.
OFFICIALS: In a perfect world, referees would not be counted among the central figures in the cast. But rugby is an imperfect science in which cheats can prosper at will; ball-killing and orchestrated offside are among the blights of the modern game. Referees like Ed Morrison of Bristol can sort it: they speak the players' language and recognise the law of the jungle as well as the law of the rulebook. Others are more whistle happy; they blow with such virtuosity that a big match can turn into a sonata. The men in suits are promising consistency of interpretation throughout the tournament. They had better deliver.
PACIFIC ISLANDERS: It is a continuing scandal that Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa are awarded so few Test matches on home soil: the All Blacks, who have only to roll out of bed to find themselves in Apia or Nuku'alofa, have never played a full international match in the islands, despite the immense Pacific contribution to their own Test history. The islanders badly need a breakthrough in this tournament - Western Samoa, with their bristling spine of Premiership talent, may reach a third successive quarter- final, but either they or the Fijians need to make the last four to blast a hole in the world order.
QUARTER-FINAL play-offs: A new departure. The political horse-trading that ensured the success of the Welsh bid for this tournament also resulted in five groups rather than four. The solution? A round of sudden death matches designed to produce the last three quarter-finalists. There could be the odd humdinger amongst the play-offs: Scotland v Wales in Edinburgh, for instance, or Canada v Ireland in Lens. Even England v France at Twickenham is a runner. Only this is certain. The big guns will be desperate to win their groups and save themselves the physical demands of an extra game.
RIGA: That's right, Riga in Latvia. This World Cup actually kicked off on 28 September, 1996, when Latvia beat Norway 44-6 at the University Stadium (capacity 4,500) in the opening European qualifier. They chalked up a nice away win over Moldova in Chisinau, too, but found the Croats far too hot to handle in Split and failed to make it to the second stage. Other intriguing qualifying venues included Port of Spain, Nassau, Asuncion and Port Moresby. Truly, we live in an oval world.
SKINSTAD: The golden boy of Springbok rugby, Bobby Skinstad could hardly have arrived with more advance publicity if Max Clifford had replaced Nick Mallett as South African coach. There are those in Cape Town who consider Skinstad the most gifted loose forward in Bokke history: no mean claim in the land of Strachan, Muller, Bedford, Greyling, Du Plessis and Pienaar.
TRICOLORES: Where are they coming from? Where are they going to? What planet are they on? There are lots of questions about the current French team, none of which were answered during a desperate Five Nations campaign and subsequent botch-ups in New Zealand and Wales. Still, they remain fantastically gifted. For all their perceived faults and the lack of a decent scrum-half, the semi-finals beckon once again.
URUGUAY: They have the oldest player in the tournament - Diego Ormaechea, a No 8 from the Carrasco Polo club, is beginning World Cup life at 40 - and they are further armed with the element of surprise. Uruguay are a rugby mystery, just as Western Samoa were a mystery in 1991. If they hit as hard, they will leave a serious mark. And if they play their rugby as they play their football, the game with Spain at Galashiels should be a hoot.
VEITAYAKI: It is about time a sevens-worshipping Fijian made a genuine impact on the 15-a-side game and while most observers will be thinking in terms of Waisale Serevi, the real force may turn out to be Joeli Veitayaki. As a 20-stone prop with New Zealand provincial experience, Fat Joe seems the man most likely to steady the Fijians up front and win some ball for the glitterati outside.
WEBB ELLIS CUP: We all see the William Webb Ellis myth for the nonsense it is: rugby was not invented by a cheating public schoolboy from the Midlands, any more than air travel was invented by Richard Branson. But when it came to sticking a moniker on the World Cup, the G and T types on the International Board were understandably unmoved by the Harpastum Trophy or the Cnapan Bowl. Somehow, those ancient and peasant-ridden forerunners of rugby failed to trip off the middle class tongue. Webb Ellis? Now there was a boy with breeding.
X-RATED: At some point over the next five weeks, the tournament will blow. It always does: New Zealand-Wales in '87, France-England in '91, South Africa-Canada in '95. Citings, match commissioners and video evidence have all been introduced with a view to keeping the lid on the pot, but passions run extremely high in World Cups. The betting is on France and Canada to provide the early shenanigans, but New Zealand and Tonga on the first Sunday could be equally hairy.
YESTERDAY'S HEROES: And today's heroes, too. Canada's Gareth Rees, the grand old man of World Cup rugby, is in his fourth tournament out of four: the only player to claim a full house. But there are equally venerable figures elsewhere - Mark Williams, the 38-year-old American stand-off, and Walter Cristofoletto, the 35-year-old Italian lock, come to mind. Somehow, the 34-year-old Allan Bateman seems like a spring chicken.
ZAMBIA: No, they are not a late addition. Their epic away victory in Botswana was not enough to mend the damage caused by a narrow qualifying reverse at the hands of the Gulf in Luanshya. But the Africans are proudly represented by one George Gregan, the brilliant Wallaby scrum-half who may well be one of the players of the tournament. Gregan was born in Zambia and spent his first year there before emigrating. Which leads us, in circular fashion, back to A for Australia.