For months we've been examining the possibilities of this World Cup, and the longer we've looked the more difficult it has been to see beyond the big four occupying the semi-final places.
But now it is almost upon us, I get the feeling that maybe one of New Zealand, France, South Africa and Australia will slip up. It's probably wishful thinking, but the outcome may not match what the form book tells us.
Although Australia would be regarded as the underdogs of the top four, I think they would have the best chance against New Zealand. They've played and done well against them so often that they wouldn't be as overawed by them as anyone else. On the other hand, weird as it may seem, Australia may offer the best chance of England or Wales reaching the final stages.
It might be a bit fanciful to imagine that any of the home countries will be capable of getting to the semi-finals – particularly after they've all disappointingly underperformed in the preparation matches. But World Cups have the habit of producing the odd surprise and there is no doubt that once the action starts, teams can develop and grow in confidence. It will need to be a dramatic improvement in the case of our representatives, but they are capable of rising to the occasion.
England and Wales have an easier route to the quarter-finals than Ireland and Scotland, who have much tougher pools to contend with. The Welsh and English also have a gleam of hope in that it is Australia who lie in their path. Wales play them in Cardiff in the pool stage, and beating them represents their best chance of reaching the semis. If they beat the Wallabies they would then be likely to play England in the quarter-finals. If they lose, they will meet South Africa, and there are no prizes for guessing who they would prefer.
If Australia beat Wales they will head the pool and face England, and that challenge may suit the English if they can get their act together by then. Australia's strong points are rooted in their devastating runners more than in their set-piece play, so a powerful English pack could cause them bother.
But once you get to the semi-finals, the final outcome will depend on who has the most cast-iron defence and the most reliable kicker. With these key ingredients you needn't expect a try-fest when the last four meet.
So many of the big games in the football World Cup are decided on penalty shoot-outs these days, and it is likely to be the same in the rugby version. The difference in rugby is that we have our penalty shoot-outs during the game.
Both New Zealand and France seem to have adjusted their styles to ensure that they match up to these requirements. In the last Tri-Nations tournament it was noticeable that the All Blacks were curbing their natural attacking instincts in favour of kicking for field position. By kicking more and generally playing the percentage game they deny the opposition a chance to thrive.
France have been displaying a similar change of attitude. Their recent games against England and Wales revealed a far less cavalier approach than we have been used to. Not only are they more disciplined and less prone to error, they are more powerful, especially in defence. With home advantage a big factor they are suddenly lookingformidable.
Having been the red-hot favourites for at least two years, New Zealand will be feeling the pressure now that the tournament is here at last and they have to fulfil their awesome potential.Reuse content