Pool-by-pool guide to all the pitch battles ahead

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The Independent Online

POOL A | Australia, Argentina, Ireland, Romania, Namibia

Impact player

Mat Rogers (Australia) Treasured League capture, this will either make or break him.

The first thing to note about this genuinely exciting pool is that Argentina are seeded above Ireland. Why? The infamous play-off match in Lens, France, at the last World Cup in 1999, that's why. Then, the Pumas upset the Irish 28-24 to reach the quarter-finals. And a measure of the two sides' fortunes since is that it would not be a shock if the result were to be repeated at the Adelaide Oval on 26 October. The Pumas have discovered a cutting edge in their counter-attacking full-back, Juan Martin Hernandez. On the flipside, when Argentina lost 16-9 in Dublin last November, the Irish privately reported afterwards that the South Americans' much-vaunted forwards are no longer all they are cracked up to be. Australia, meanwhile, will break new ground in being able to defend the World Cup on home soil. They need to extract every advantage they can get, for the Wallabies have lost their bounce. In a search for new blood in the back line, they plundered rugby league for Lote Tuqiri, Mat Rogers and Wendell Sailor, and seemed to sacrifice the instinctive genius that was the legacy of Mark Ella, David Campese and company. Matilda's waltz will become a stagger if the Pumas shock the watching world and win the opening match. Namibia's prospects are bleak, but Romania will expect to beat the Africans and put up a good show against at least one of the fancied teams.

POOL C | South Africa, England, Samoa, Uruguay, Georgia

Impact player

Will Greenwood (England) Midfield organiser in meanest backline of all. Irreplaceable.

As with Pool A, the seedings here tell a tale: Paris, October 1999, Jannie de Beer, five drop goals, say no more. England, for the second World Cup running, were bounced out of the '99 tournament by 40-odd points at the hands of southern-hemisphere opponents (in case any one has forgotten, it was Jonah Lomu and the All Blacks in '95). A lot has changed in the last four years, and it seems inconceivable that Phil Larder's defensive system could be leaky to the same extent. Equally unlikely, given the Springboks' 53-3 capitulation at Twickenham last November, is that the green-and-gold brethren could possibly put the skids under Johnson, Wilkinson and company in the rematch in Perth on 18 October. The Boks have been rocked by the Geo Cronje scandal, seen a team's-worth of talent disappear overseas to boost their bank balances, and only narrowly beat Scotland in a home series in June. It may be brutal, but England must prevail. Samoa are several players short of full strength, yet dangerous and committed, while Georgia, the tournament's only new boys, have a few sturdy forwards schooled in France and strongly fancy themselves to beat Uruguay, who moseyed around Scotland to no great effect in '99. The pool winners avoid New Zealand in the quarter-finals. That alone should ensure England, the richest of all the World Cup nations, will be bang on the money.

POOL B | France, Scotland, Fiji, Japan, United States

Impact player

Imanol Harinordoquy (Fr) Big, strong, young, quick, smart. A No 8 out to prove he's No 1.

Scotland's hothouse training at Edinburgh's Royal Botanical Gardens was not born of a sudden interest in exotic flora. The Scots want to be on their mettle when they face Japan in subtropical Townsville, and certainly against Fiji in Sydney, or they risk an upset similar to those which befell Wales at the hands of Samoa in 1991 and 1999. Admittedly, Fiji's chances would be better if scrum-half Jacob Rauluni and second-row Simon Raiwalui were on board. Instead, these experienced campaigners are turning out in the Zurich Premiership. Rotherham and Watford over the Gold Coast? You work it out. Sevens maestro Waisale Serevi will be in Oz, however, probably playing cameo roles from the bench. Fiji also possess the exciting sevens-nurtured wings Vilimoni Delasau and Rupeni Caucaunibuca. This pair alone could snaffle a couple of try-scoring bonus points against Japan and the US Eagles. France have painful memories of a close-run thing at home to the Fijians in 1999, since when coach Bernard Laporte has relentlessly mixed and matched his squad. Influential prop Pieter de Villiers literally dropped out of contention when he fell off a mountain bike in training, but the French must expect to win this lightweight pool. The USA walloped Japan earlier this year in the Super Powers Cup - an economic rather than sporting nomenclature. Apart from these two, the pool seedings ought to hold true.

POOL D | New Zealand, Wales, Italy, Canada, Tonga

Impact player

Keven Mealamu (NZ) 220 pounds of Samoan beef, a hooker with attitude - and skill.

New Zealand missed out on co-hosting the tournament - a cock-up which might cost them during the knockout stages - but they have been well looked after in the pool stage. The Kiwis claimed that mass food poisoning did for Lomu and friends before the '95 final in South Africa, but it is Wales and the rest in this pool who will be suffering the Black Plague. The Welsh, perhaps on the "if you can't beat them..." philosophy, replaced one Kiwi coach with another when Steve Hansen took over from Graham Henry in February last year. But results have gone from bad to worse. The only consolation for the puffed-out dragon is that Italy are in even greater disarray. Another New Zealander, John Kirwan, dropped a twin bombshell by jettisoning his assistant, Leicester Rutledge, a fortnight ago and omitting Ramiro Pez, Italy's regular fly-half in recent times (Pez is now at Leicester; must be something about the name). What with Tonga deprived of their human tornado Epi Taione, and Canada a shadow of their quarter-finalist selves (circa 1991), this is the group of hard times. Expect All Black flyers Doug Howlett and Joe Rokocoko to fill their boots with tries, if that's not a mixed metaphor, and Wales to edge the Tongans for the joyous prize of a quarter-final against England.

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