The seventh World Cup, to be played on the same patch of silver-ferned earth where New Zealand ran away with the first World Cup without breaking sweat almost a quarter of a century ago, is still 36 days away, but the journey starts here in the old country this weekend with warm-up games featuring all four home nations. The decision to scrap southern hemisphere tours in years when the Webb Ellis Trophy is up for grabs means the elite European sides will be playing their first matches for almost five months. There is a lot to be done, and precious little time in which to do it.
Preparatory fixtures count for something. They are full-cap internationals and they supply managers and coaches with the evidence they need to finalise their 30-man squads. The first 24 or 25 players tend to pick themselves, leaving the selectors to fret over five or six either-or choices. These games also provide clear indicators of fortunes ahead. Shortly before the last tournament in 2007, England put 60 points on Wales. The winners went on to reach the global final, albeit in a weird and wonderful way, while the losers failed to make it out of their pool.
Manager Martin Johnson
Captain Lewis Moody
Wales (Twickenham, 6 August);
Wales (Millennium Stadium, 13 August);
Ireland (Lansdowne Road, 27 August).
Four years ago, the head coach, Brian Ashton, was still firefighting on the selection front. Are Johnson and company further along the road?
They certainly should be, having had the benefit of full player access under the agreement between the governing body and the Premiership clubs. The squad were together for more than two months over the Six Nations and have been in World Cup camp since mid-June. Certain people – the centre Shontayne Hape, for instance – felt able to time minor operations to suit England's purposes, at the expense of club commitments. This was unheard of back in 2007.
Johnson has all his ducks in a row then?
Er... not quite. The manager says he knows his first-choice side for the opening World Cup game with Argentina and there is no reason to disbelieve him, but precious few England supporters would bet more than tuppence on the make-up of his midfield or the precise formation of the front-row or back-row units at this stage. The good news is the absence of serious injury hassle: Chris Ashton, Mark Cueto and Ben Youngs joined Hape under the knife recently while Courtney Lawes was in a neck brace this time last week, but all are back between the shafts.
Head coach Andy Robinson
Captain Alastair Kellock
Ireland (Murrayfield, 6 August);
Italy (Murrayfield, 20 August).
Just the two warm-ups for Scotland. Does this make more sense than the Irish approach?
Probably. The Scots are dependable World Cup performers: they have the best record of any Celtic nation, having never failed to reach the knockout stage, and are past masters at managing their limited resources under tournament conditions. Robinson, architect of the outstanding England pack that laid the foundations for victory in 2003, understands one thing above all: that his side cannot absorb injuries. Hence the decision to go light on the August outings. Indeed, he is wrapping his key personnel – the breakaway specialist John Barclay and captain Kellock, for instance – in cotton wool even now.
Are we saying McRobbo and his charges pose a serious threat to England next month?
For sure. If Scotland reach the final pool game with the Auld Enemy in Auckland on 1 October with three wins in the bag and a clean bill of health, there could be real fun and games. Much depends on the important players playing their way back from injury. The No 8 Johnnie Beattie and the centre Graeme Morrison have both had a rough time of it. If they cut it against Ireland this weekend, the collective spirit will soar.
Head coach Declan Kidney
Captain Brian O'Driscoll
Scotland (Murrayfield, 6 August);
France (Bordeaux, 13 August);
France (Lansdowne Road, 20 August);
England (Lansdowne Road, 27 August).
Which Ireland can we expect to see over the next couple of months? The Ireland that smeared England all over Dublin last time out, or the Ireland who embarrassed themselves in the 2007 tournament?
If the most recent evidence always carries most weight, Ireland are sitting pretty. The World Cup pool draw has been relatively kind to them – even if they finish second to Australia and meet the Springboks in the last eight, they will fancy their chances – and their confidence is high, having finished the Six Nations strongly and brought home the bacon at Heineken Cup and Celtic League levels. We are talking about a rugby nation on top of their game.
There must be a downside somewhere, surely?
There are injury issues hanging around: the great Brian O'Driscoll has niggles here and there, his midfield partner Gordon D'Arcy is way short of fitness and Stephen Ferris, the brilliant blind-side flanker, can barely go a week without suffering some sort of orthopaedic calamity and is currently struggling with knee trouble. By committing themselves to a full month of competitive activity, they are playing with fire. As they rarely perform well in these August hit-outs anyway, it seems an oddly masochistic strategy.
Head coach Warren Gatland
Captain Matthew Rees
England (Twickenham, 6 August);
England (Millennium Stadium, 13 August);
Argentina (Millennium Stadium, 20 August).
Wales lost 43-9 to England at home before the 2003 tournament and 62-5 at Twickers before the last one. They must be really looking forward to the next two weekends. Not.
Fair point. The Red Dragonhood are good at confusing warm-ups with cool-downs, as recent pre-tournament history shows, and if they turn up half-cock in London this weekend, they might find themselves on the wrong end of another shellacking. And that would do very little indeed for their prospects, given that their pool is as tough as it gets. They have been training hard in spartan, sub-zero surroundings in Poland, and Gatland believes his players are mentally stronger than at any point in this World Cup cycle. However, a heavy defeat tomorrow will resurrect all the old concerns.
Is it really all about Gavin Henson finding some of that fabled form of his, or is there more to it?
It's about the tight forwards, stupid. A fit, firing, focused Henson would be a bonus, but more pressing by far is the ball-winning aspect. Will Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones stay fit – or in Rees's case, get fit? Will Bradley Davies and Alun Wyn Jones make their presence felt?