Pool A: All Blacks the team to beat while brilliant Carter is pulling the strings

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The Independent Online

New Zealand

Coach Graham Henry

Captain Richie McCaw

twenty-four years ago, the All Blacks approached the first World Cup, held partly on their own soil, as marginal second favourites to their co-hosts Australia. Less than four weeks later, after winning their six matches by an average margin of 49-8 - or if you prefer, 56-9 under modern scoring values - the scrum-half David Kirk hoisted the Webb Ellis Trophy towards the Auckland sky. The strongest rugby nation on the planet has not experienced a moment like it since.

Five times between 1991 and 2007 they started the tournament as the team to beat and on each occasion they found themselves being beaten, twice by the Wallabies, twice by the French and once, on "Mandela Day" in Johannesburg, by the Springboks. Now the competition has returned to silver-ferned soil, this time exclusively, they are the overwhelming favourites, yet two defeats in their last two Tri-Nations outings have left them vulnerable. Add to this the controversy over some of their back-line selections and injuries to two important loose forwards and you can almost smell the paranoia.

There is no obvious weakness in their first-choice side, although they do not possess a scrum-half fit to lace the boots of Sid Going or Dave Loveridge, master craftsmen of the amateur era. They will play at a tempo far too high for all but the very strongest opponents, they have centres - Ma'a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, the brilliant Conrad Smith - capable of ripping up any defence, and they possess a bloke called Carter at outside-half. He is, by a country mile, the best No 10 in the business, but he is not indestructible. New Zealand are one injury away from serious trouble.


Coach Marc Lièvremont Captain Thierry Dusautoir

of all the European nations, France have the best understanding of what it takes to beat the All Blacks; indeed, they have done so in New Zealand, on four occasions. Maybe this explains the tournament draw: if the home nation messes up against Les Bleus this time, they will at least stay in the competition and have a shot at making the final.

Lièvremont has had an interesting four years as national coach, experimenting wildly in selection to the increasing exasperation of the Tricolore populace. Yet he presides over a wickedly dangerous side – a team capable of laying down strong foundations up front, defending passionately and tripping the light fantastic when the forwards produce some front-foot possession.

As ever with the French, the scrum-halves – Morgan Parra and Dimitri Yachvili – will be the game managers, and if both men are on their games, they will be among the tournament's major figures. Much depends on certain injury-prone players, notably the centre Maxime Mermoz and the loose-head prop Fabien Barcella, staying fit.


Coach Isitolo Maka

Captain Finau Maka

the surprise package in France four years ago, Tonga remain a basket-case of a team. The poorest of the three major rugby-playing South Seas nations in sporting terms – in 2007, their preparation was financed by a bookmaking concern – they have it in them to scare the pants off infinitely wealthier rivals. Ask South Africa, who might easily have lost to them during the last tournament. However, their opening match is against the All Blacks at Eden Park, and if Friday's game is as horribly one-sided as many anticipate, whatever confidence they have will not survive the 80 minutes.

While the Fijians routinely produce brilliant outside backs and the Samoans have quality centres and loose forwards coming out of their ears, the Tongans' strength is rooted in the front row. Soane Tonga'uiha, whose Premiership performances have made him a folk hero in Northampton, will lead the charge of the heavy brigade.


Coach John Kirwan

Captain Takashi Kikutani

you might argue that Japan are the most improved side in the international game: certainly, they have moved further up the official rankings – five places – than anyone over the course of this four-year World Cup cycle. What is more, they have a strong incentive to perform at the optimum: in eight years time, this tournament will be played in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

But the "Brave Blossoms" – and hell, they will have to be very brave indeed when they face the All Blacks in cold-hearted Hamilton – are still dependent on foreign players: 10 of their 30 are imports. The coach wants two victories from four games, but he will struggle to get them.


Coach Kieran Crowley Captain Pat Riordani

Below the Japanese in the rankings, if only by a single place, the Canucks are more likely to ask interesting questions of opponents through the pool phase. One of the countries left behind by the shift to professionalism in the mid-1990s, they are slowly rediscovering their sense of direction. Never less than willing and always up for a scrap, they have a flanker in the extravagantly-named Chauncey O'Toole whose skill levels are up there with the best.