Rugby World Cup 2007: Team By Team Guide

We provide you with an indispensable guide to the players to watch, the teams that could win it, and those in with a chance of causing an upset



POOL A

ENGLAND

Nickname:
The Red Roses

Coach:
Brian Ashton (England)

Captain:
Phil Vickery

Anthem:
God Save the Queen

What's it about?
A very patriotic anthem that basically asks God to look after our Queen, ensure she lives a long and happy life and reigns over us for many years to come. Not one for the anti-Royal brigade.

First International:
England 1-4 Scotland (March 27, 1871)

Biggest Win:
England 134-0 Romania (November 17, 2001)

Biggest Loss:
England 0-76 Australia (June 6, 1998)

Famous English:
Julie Andrews (the Hills are Alive etc etc), Sir John Gielgud (acting legend), Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Sir Laurence Olivier (actor), John Constable (painter), Sir Richard Branson (entrepreneur), Simon Cowell (the Brit Americans love to hate), Cecil Booth (inventor of the vacuum cleaner), Sir Francis Drake (sailor), Sir Winston Churchill (war-time Prime Minister), The Beatles and Rolling Stones (music legends), Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World-Wide Web).

Pedigree:
Every Englishman will proudly recall the 2003 tournament in Australia when Jonny Wilkinson booted England to victory in the Sydney final. That side - led by the indomitable Martin Johnson - will forever hold a special place in the hearts of English rugby fans. That famous night in 2003 marked the second time England had reached a World Cup final, with the other appearance being a disappointing loss to Australia at Twickenham. England suffered disappointing quarter-final losses in 1987 (to Wales) and 1999 (to South Africa), while going out at the semi-final stage to New Zealand in 1995.

One to Watch:
Jonny Wilkinson - He may have spent most of the time since the last World Cup on the treatment table but Jonny Wilkinson is finally fit and raring to go as England head to France. He remains one of the most influential fly-halves in the game. Wilkinson pulls England's offensive strings and his goal-kicking is outstanding, making him his country's most valuable weapon. A true star of the world game.

Four years of farce:
The cracks began to appear in the English team almost as soon as they stepped off the plane from Sydney. Since winning the World cup they have finished third, fourth, fourth again in the Six Nations, are onto their third coach and last year completed a record seven straight defeats, including humiliation at Twickenham against Argentina. Injuries to key players have played a major part in England's demise but at least now, with the exception of Harry Ellis, Brian Ashton has a fully fit pool of players to pick from.

Can they win it?
No: Brian Ashton doesn't have a settled team and admitted after the tour to South Africa that he only new five or six names for his first choice XV. To be that unsure of your best side that close to a World Cup almost guarantees that you wont win it. When he does decide his starting team, the players will not have had sufficient time to gel into anything like the cohesive unit that won in 2003.
Yes: England's pack is still capable of being the best in the world. A fit Andrew Sheridan can marmalise any opponent put in front of him and take the rest of the scrum forward with him. If that happens, Jonny Wilkinson will have the platform he craves to dominate a game. It's how they won the last tournament, and it's possible that they could do it again.

Did you know?
England have won the BBC Sports Team of the Year award four times, the most any team has lifted the trophy and one more than the British Lions. England took the gong in 1980, 1991, 1993 and 2003

Prognosis - Wave goodbye to William:
When you consider how unbeatable that 2003 side looked ahead of the tournament, you realise how far away this England side is from that benchmark. But a lot depends on their quarter-final draw. Brian Ashton would probably rather face Wales than Australia, and if Gareth Jenkins men beat the Wallabies in Cardiff and England come second in their group, it will be a repeat of 2003 and England will have a real chance of a semi final spot. Wales will doubtless think the same.

SAMOA

Colours:
Blue shirts with white trim, white shorts, blue socks

Nickname:
Manu Samoa

Coach:
Michael Jones (Australia)

Captain:
Semo Sititi

Anthem:
Samoa Tula 'I (The Banner of Freedom)

What's it about?
This anthem does exactly what it says on the tin. The lyrics encourage Samoans to wave their national flag as it is a sign of their freedom. Banner of freedom, get it?

First International:
Samoa 0-6 Fiji (August 18, 1924)

Biggest Win:
Samoa 74-7 Korea (April 8, 1990)

Biggest Loss:
Samoa 3-73 Australia (August 6, 1994)

Famous Samoans:
Malietoa Tanumafili (former Head of State), Va'ai Kolone (two-time Prime Minister who stood for the Human Rights Protection Party) and Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson (this one doesn't really count although he did live in Samoa for many years).

Player to Watch:
Lome Fa'atua - The flying wing is as famous for the tattoos that cover his legs as he is for his try-scoring skills in a Samoa and Pacific Islanders jersey. The former basketball star is currently plying his trade for Wellington Hurricanes in his original homeland of New Zealand. Cast aside his club journeyman tag in the 2006 Super 14 campaign, finishing as the tournament's leading try-scorer with 10 in 14 appearances as Wellington reached the final.

World Cup History:
For a country with a population of around 160,000, Samoa can be rightly proud of its record in World Cup finals. They made a huge impact as Western Samoa in 1991, pounding Wales during a 16-13 win in Cardiff. They went on to beat Argentina and push Australia before a 9-3 loss. They won the hearts of rugby fans around the world before losing to Scotland in the quarter finals. It was the quarter finals again for Samoa in 1995 as they beat Argentina and Italy in the Pool stages before being knocked out by eventual champions South Africa. In 1999, Samoa recorded an impressive 38-31 win over Wales but lost a quarter final play-off with the Scots. In 2003, Samoa beat Uruguay and Georgia comfortably before giving England the fright of their lives. They eventually lost to England and South Africa but left with heads held high.

SOUTH AFRICA

Colours:
Green shirts with gold collars, white shorts, green socks

Nickname:
The Springboks

Coach:
Jake White (South Africa)

Captain:
John Smit

Anthem:
Nkosi Sikelel' I Africa (God bless Africa)

What's it about?
Adopted as the national anthem since 1997, the hymn is a call for God to bless and protect Africa. The call rings out from "deep seas breaking round, over ever-lasting mountains, where the echoing crags resound." Stirring stuff. To cut a long story short, it ends with a call for a united and free South Africa.

First International:
South Africa 4-0 British & Irish Lions (July 30, 1891)

Biggest Win:
South Africa 134-3 Uruguay (June 11, 2005)

Biggest Loss:
South Africa 3-53 England (November 23, 2002)

Famous South Africans:
Nelson Mandela (first democratically-elected President), Winnie Mandela (politician and second wife of Nelson Mandela), Sid James ('Carry On' legend), J.R.R. Tolkien (author), F.W. de Klerk (last state President and joint winner of Nobel Peace Prize), Zola Budd (over-hyped Los Angeles Olympics failure), Ernie Els/Retief Goosen/Gary Player (golf legends), Kevin Pietersen ('England's' finest cricketer), Denise Darvall (donor for first human heart transplant).

Player to Watch:
Bryan Habana - When he is not giving cheetahs a run for their money in sprint races, Bryan Habana is continuing to grow in stature as one of the best and most exciting rugby players in the world today. Blessed with blazing speed, Habana can leave would-be tacklers trailing in his considerable wake. The sight of Habana flying full-length across the try line has become a familiar one and that trademark celebration should be seen a few times in France.

World Cup History:
South Africa has only played in the last three World Cups since being re-admitted to the IRB fold in 1992. Their most famous performance came in their first World Cup appearance on home soil in 1995. The Springboks defeated Samoa in the quarter-final and France in the semi-final before beating New Zealand 15-12 in an emotional final played out in front of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. South Africa produced another strong showing in 1999, defeating England in the quarter-finals before losing to Australia in the semis. The 2003 tournament was not such a success with the Springboks falling to New Zealand in the quarter-final.

TONGA

Colours:
Red shirts with white trim, white shorts, red socks

Nickname:
'Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles)

Coach:
Jim Love (New Zealand)

Captain:
Inoke Afeaki

Anthem:
Koe Fasi Oe Tu'I Oe Out Tonga (Song of the king of the Tonga Islands)

What's it about?
The anthem has strong religious overtones and calls for God to look down and bless and protect the Tongan lands, while also keeping an eye out for King Tupou.

First International:
Tonga 9-6 Fiji (August 15, 1924)

Biggest Win:
Tonga 119-0 Korea (March 22, 2003)

Biggest Loss:
Tonga 0-102 New Zealand (June 16, 2000)

Famous Tongans:
King George Tupou I (ruler of country for 48 years, during which time Tonga became a Christian state free of slavery), Queen Salote Tupou (ruled in the 1900s) and King Taufa'ahau (the son of Quenn Salote who ruled from 1967 until his death in September, 2006).

Player to Watch:
Nili Latu - The rising star of Tongan rugby, uncompromising flanker Nili Latu plays his club rugby in New Zealand with the Super 14's Wellington Hurricanes. Made his debut for Tonga against Japan in June 2006 and went on to captain his country during their World Cup qualifying win over the Cook Islands. Has also represented the Pacific Islanders team.

World Cup History:
It has not been an easy ride for Tonga at the four World Cup finals they have reached, losing 11 of 13 games played. They have failed to progress past the Pool stages in 1987, 1995, 1999 and 2003 and they did not qualify for the tournament in England in 1991. Tonga picked up their two World Cup wins against the Ivory Coast (29-11) in 1995 and Italy (28-25) in 1999, which was the same year they got thumped 101-10 by England. The last World Cup featured disappointing losses to Italy, Wales, New Zealand and Canada.

USA

Nickname:
Eagles

Coach:
Peter Thorburn (New Zealand)

Captain:
Kort Schubert

Anthem:
The Star-Spangled Banner

What's it about?
The national anthem was inspired by an American victory over the British in a battle at Baltimore's Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814, when the Stars and Stripes flag was still flying high and proud at the end of the scrap. The lyrics describe the brown stuff hitting the fan all around and bombs bursting in the air, while the flag generally still looks great and signals America as the land of the free and home of the brave.

First International:
USA 8-12 Australia (September 16, 1912)

Biggest Win:
USA 91-0 Barbados (July 1, 2006)

Biggest Loss:
USA 8-106 England (August 21, 1999)

Famous Americans:
Benjamin Franklin (politician and founding father of the USA), General George Custer (military leader), Abraham Lincoln (assassinated president), Martin Luther King (civil rights activist), Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn creator), Thomas Edison (light-bulb inventor), Harry Houdini (escape artist), Babe Ruth (baseball folk hero), Michael Jordan (basketball legend), Tiger Woods (golf genius) and Paris Hilton (proving even the completely talentless can become famous).

Pedigree:
The reigning Olympic champions (okay, so they won that title in 1924) have struggled to live up to their billing as sleeping giants on the world stage. America got off to a winning start in their first game in 1987, downing Japan 21-18. Losses to England and Australia followed. In 1991, the Eagles offered little resistance while losing to Italy, the All Blacks and England in the Pool stages. The 1999 campaign brought convincing losses to Ireland and Australia before the Americans suffered a narrow 25-27 defeat to Romania. In 2003, the USA lost 19-18 to Fiji and also came up short against Scotland and France. But a second World Cup victory was recorded with a 39-26 success against Japan.

One to watch:
Former American footballer and wrestler Paul Emerick has the versatility to play full-back, centre or wing. After making his mark in the domestic game with Chicago, Emerick, who did not even pick up a rugby ball until he was 19, moved to Europe. He enjoyed spells with Amatori and Parma in Italy before joining Newport Gwent Dragons in the summer of 2006.

An Englishman abroad:
After a successful career in England coaching Gloucester and Wasps, the former England scrum half is now chief executive and president of USA Rugby. He was signed up and given the brief to get the Eagles to the quarter-finals of the 2011 World Cup. Fifteen tickets for the main stand at Eden Park shouldn't be that hard to come by for a man with his connections. But seriously, Melville is laying some sound foundations and if he can attract the cast offs from the NBA and the NFL the States could be the most resource rich nation in the rugby playing world.

Wheely good:
They may struggle in the conventional 15-man game but the USA are the current wheelchair rugby world champions after they defeated New Zealand 34-30 in New Zealand in 2006. This was their third world title, having won consecutive gold medals in the 1995 and 1998 championships. They also won two paralympic golds in the sport in 1996 and 2000, but lost their crown to New Zealand in Atehns in 2004.

Did you know?
The first recorded game of rugby on American soil took place at Harvard University on May 14, 1874 and produced a 3-0 victory for the host institution over Montreal's McGill University. It was the first of a three match series played under the rules of "The Boston Game" with the second and third contests - both 0-0 thrillers - played under McGill's rules. Harvard were so impressed by their opponent's laws that they adopted them forthwith.

Prognosis - Eagles fail to take off:
The Americans could be looking at a whitewash. Their best chance of chalking up a victory comes against Tonga who only sit one place above them in the world rankings. Their other three opponents are all in the top ten and could all post big scores on them. Nigel Melville hasn't been in the job long enough to bring about the kind of grass roots development that will have an impact at senior level, and a few good thumpings will do nothing to inspire the youngsters back home to swap their helmets fir scrum caps.

POOL B

AUSTRALIA

Pedigree:
When New Zealanders first pushed for the idea of a Rugby World Cup prior to 1987, they'd have been horrified if they'd realized that - 20 years on - it would be their trans-Tasman rivals who boasted the finest World Cup pedigree, but that's a fact. Heading into this year's event, the Wallabies are the only two-time winners of the Webb Ellis trophy, and the only side to have been to the final three times. In the time since the first tournament, where it finished fourth, Australia has lost just three World Cup matches.

Knuckling Down to it:
John Connolly waited a long time to gain control of the Wallabies, so he'll be desperate to make a decent go of the Rugby World Cup. It's ironic to consider now, but the man known almost universally as 'Knuckles' could have been in charge as long ago as 1990, when the then Queensland coach was touted as a possible heir to Bob Dwyer, before a Bledisloe Test win in New Zealand saved Dwyer's neck, while also setting the Wallabies on the path to World Cup glory the following year. Well known for his passion of the horse racing turf, Connolly has taken a few selection gambles since he took charge of Australia - most notably with regular inside centre Matt Giteau at scrum half. The Wallabies' form at the back end of the Tri-Nations suggests that these might just be about to pay off.

The South African Connection:
The Aussies have got good value out of their South African 'exports' and 2007 promises more of the same. In 1999, former Bok loosie Tiaan Strauss, who'd returned to rugby after originally settling in Australia to play rugby league, became a World Cup winner appearing for the Wallabies. This year, former Bok Under-21 representative Dan Vickerman stands poised to emulate that achievement. The abrasive 28-year-old has matured into one of the world's premier second row exponents, highlighting that fact during the recent Tri-Nations where he upstaged his more highly touted All Black and Springbok opponents.

Farewell To The Firm:
It doesn't seem so long ago that the old firm of scrum half George Gregan and flyhalf Stephen Larkham were running rings around opponents in 1999, with the Larkham boot drop kicking the Springboks out of that tournament in extra time of a desperately tight semi-final at Twickenham. Now the pair, along with a number of other senior Wallabies, are winding up for their last dance on a World Cup stage that has been extraordinarily kind to them. Don't be surprised if the 'old fellas' bow out in some style!

The Black attack:
Australians love nothing better than shattering Kiwi dreams, and the Wallabies have made a habit of that in World Cup semi-finals, taking out the All Blacks at that stage of the 1991 and 2003 events. The two protagonists are drawn to meet at the same phase of this year's tournament - a point the Australians were quick to point out during the one-up-man-ship that followed their upset Bledisloe Cup Test win at Melbourne earlier in the year. That win snapped a five-game losing streak against the Kiwis, while offering the Wallabies a fair degree of psychological encouragement ahead of a potential World Cup showdown. Could it really happen again?

Prognosis - Semi-finalists or better:
Are the Wallabies contenders or the ultimate competition spoilers? Australians will hope it's the former, and their defense this season certainly adds credibility to that claim, having taken on the same air of stinginess that saw the class of '99 let in just one try en-route to winning that tournament. Even so, Connolly's Wallabies still appear a team more likely to have one big performance in them, as opposed to being able to produce the top notch stuff for three straight weeks - which they would need to do to get by an assortment of (most likely) England, New Zealand and either France or South Africa in order to bag Australia's third title. That said; expect them to have the Kiwis trembling, if the two end up liaising in the last four again!

CANADA

Nickname:
The Canucks

Coach:
Ric Suggitt (Canada)

Captain:
Ed Fairhurst

Anthem:
O Canada:

What's it about?
O Canada pays tribute to the 'true north, strong and free.' Those who sing the anthem promise to stand on guard and protect their country. They also ask for help from God in a bid to keep their land "glorious and free."

First International:
Canada 8-9 Japan (January 31, 1932)

Biggest Win:
Canada 71-3 Barbados (June 24, 2006)

Biggest Loss:
Canada 0-70 England (November 13, 2004)

Famous Canadians:
Pamela Anderson (well-endowed Baywatch beauty), Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Alanis Morrissette (singers), Jim Carrey (Dumb and Dumber actor), Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone), Reginald A. Fessenden (inventor of the television) and Chris Haney and Scott Abbott (creators of Trivial Pursuit).

Pedigree:
The Canucks have competed in all five World Cups held to date, with the high point coming in 1991 when they reached the quarter-finals. During that tournament in England, Canada beat Fiji and Romania in the Pool round before falling to New Zealand by a 29-13 scoreline in Lille. The most recent 2003 campaign saw the Canadians lose to Wales, New Zealand and Italy before they grabbed a consolation victory over Tonga. A World Cup record of six wins and 11 losses hangs around Canadian necks heading to France.

Bear essentials:
The Canadians will be the only squad at the World Cup able to count Winnie the Pooh among their number during the tournament. Everyone's favourite furry, friendly honey-sucker is tattooed on the ankle of coach Rick Suggit, who presumably used to draw a few 'Ahh's with his chosen piece of body art from the Canadian Women's team when he was in charge of them.

One to watch:
A former rugby league player in his native Australia, James Pritchard qualified to play for Canada through his grandfather. The full-back/wing played for Bedford in National League One in 2003 and broke the league's scoring record with 374 points en route to the Player of the Year award. Spent the second half of the 2006-07 season as a member of the Northampton Saints. Scored a national record 26 points during a World Cup qualifier against Barbados in 2006.

Call me Al:
He won't be in his kit this year but Canada's most capped servant, Al Charron will be with the squad as special ambassador / interpreter. Having accounted for more serious injuries than a high speed train crash during his 70 cap career, the big back row called it a day after the last tournament but is still heavily involved in the Canadian rugby scene and regularly pours forth on the subject in his column on the official Canadian rugby website, in which he recently took a bit of a swipe at his fellow countrymen, claiming: "A portion of our population is almost gleefully hoping we don't do well on the world stage and are just waiting to crap on our guys." Direct isn't he?

Making a splash
Canadian Sevens star and Nova Scotia Keltics wing Richard O'Malley didn't make the final cut for Suggit's World Cup 30, but could console himself with the news that he reached the final of the National Cannonball Championships. On an off-day recovery day in a swimming pool, O'malley decided to enter a regional heat and made a big enough splash to proceed to the National event, where he could win $2000 and a year's supply of chewing gum. Who needs a World Cup winners medal?

Prognosis: No repeat of '91
Australia and Wales will have far too much quality for a side that has steadily improved over time thanks to many of its players heading for Europe. Canada's challenge this year is to win their 'group within a group' and their tussles with Japan and Fiji should be tight and entertaining. They lie just below Fiji in 13th in the IRB ranking with the Asians slightly further down the ladder in 18th. If you want some entertaining minnow action these clashes are the ones to watch.

FIJI

The Human Skewer:
They're not generally backward in coming forward in Australia, so when the Aussies dubbed Fijian Ilivasi Tabua 'The Human Skewer' during his time playing on the Wallaby flank in the early 90s, it's not hard to guess the reason why. Tabua played 10 Tests for Australia between 1993 and 1995, and 17 for his native Fiji, returning to his homeland post the Aussie stint, to re-ignite his Fijian Test career which ultimately stretched from 1990 until 1999. That included two Rugby World Cups: one for the Wallabies in 1995, and then for Fiji four years later. Given that Tabua coaches like he played: there are no ifs, buts or maybes, it was probably no surprise that Fiji turned to his no nonsense approach after parting company with the controversial New Zealander Wayne Pivac at the start of this year. While the Fijians had their moments during Pivac's three years, he ultimately struggled to gain their respect which impacted on Fiji's consistency. In Tabua, the Fijian players have a figure they can look up to. He has since added to his credibility by skillfully managing the infusion of the country's overseas players, while giving the best locals their shot, during the recent Pacific Six Nations. That bodes well for the team's unity. The next question is: can Tabua make his side more competitive against the elite top eight nations?

Pedigree:
It is often forgotten that Fiji was a quarterfinalist at the inaugural World Cup, causing the shock of that tournament when they flattened Hugo Porta's Pumas. Unfortunately that's been their lot as far as the World Cup goes; going winless in 1991, failing to qualify at all four years later, and then just making up the numbers at the last two events. Even so, the Fijians can play on their day, as France found out when stressed in 1987 and again in 1999, while the Scots were counting their blessings after being 'Rupenied' during a 22-20 scrape in Sydney last time around.

International Man of Mystery:
It remains to be seen whether wonder winger Rupeni Caucaunibuca will front for France '07, after his recent suspension for recreational drugs use. The tournament organizers should be moving heaven and earth to see that he does. Not only can Rupeni light up the tournament on his own, the presence of the 'Bua Bullet' [Bua is Caucaunibuca's village in Fiji] could be just the thing to transform the crowd pleasing Fijians into a genuine tournament threat.

One to watch:
In contrast to some of his team-mates, No 8 Tomasi Soqeta's [pronounced Songeeta] name is relatively easy to say, but you don't have to have a long name in the Fijian side to be a handful. The skilful 23-year-old has already shown himself to be a talent, both in the New Zealand domestic leagues, and also in the Pacific Nations. If the Fijian big men can provide him with a platform, Soqeta could surprise a few.

Did you know:
Fiji's first overseas Test [against Samoa at Apia in August 1925] was played on a field which featured a large tree inside the field of play! The game also kicked off at 7.30am in the morning, so that the Samoan players could still go to work after the game had finished. The locals had crabby days in the office - Fiji won the Test 6-0!

Prognosis: Also Rans
As much as Tabua and his enthusiastic Fijians will it otherwise, the gap between the likes of Fiji and the top nations is just too large. Fiji will be competitive in Pool B. They should beat Canada and Japan, and could give Wales an uncomfortable moment or two, but their lack of regular exposure against the stronger sides, and its associated lack of team-work under pressure, should ensure that Tabua's troops don't progress beyond the first round. Fiji's biggest Achilles heel is its tight five. That Tonga could push the side around during its come-from-behind 21-15 Pacific Nations win in June doesn't bode well for the Fijians' prospects of coping with the Wallaby or Welsh big men.

JAPAN

Nickname:
The Cherry Blossoms/Brave Blossoms

Coach:
John Kirwan (New Zealand)

Captain:
Takuro Miuchi

Anthem:
Kimigayo (The Emperor's Reign)

What's it about?:
The anthem is basically a call for the Emperor's reign to last for 8,000 generations and "for the eternity it takes small pebbles to grow into a great rock and become covered in moss." So quite a long time then.

First International:
Japan 9-8 Canada (January 31, 1932)

Biggest Win:
Japan 155-3 Taiwan (July 7, 2002)

Biggest Loss:
Japan 17-145 New Zealand (June 4, 1995)

Famous Japanese:
Emperor Hirohito (124th Emperor of Japan who led his country during World War II); Shingo Katayama (cowboy hat-wearing golfer); Yoko Ono (Japanese-American artist and musician who married John Lennon); Yasuhiro Yamashita (Olympic and four-time world champion in judo who won 203 consecutive contests).

Pedigree:
Japan have long been the powerhouse of Asian rugby and as a result have played in every World Cup to date, but only recorded one victory - a 52-8 success over Zimbabwe in 1991. Their low point came in 1995 when they found themselves on the wrong end of a record 145-17 thrashing against a New Zealand side playing many of its second string players. The result was said to have set the sport of rugby union back 10 years in Japan as the negative media coverage surrounding the result proved very damaging. Japan thrilled crowds in Australia in 2003 with an exciting, wide-open style of rugby but the end result was still disappointing as the Blossoms lost to Scotland, France, Fiji and the United States. Better is expected in 2007 as Kirwan has laid down the challenge.

Samurai Spirit:
Former All Blacks star John Kirwan took control of coaching duties on January 1, 2007 and has boldly raised the bar, insisting his players display the "Samurai Spirit" and win at least two games - most likely targeting Fiji and Canada - in this year's World Cup. It's a tall order for a country which has seen rugby's profile decline since professionalism as soccer has exploded and they have not been helped by missing out on hosting the 2011 World Cup. Still, Kirwan's enthusiasm and energy is infectious and earlier this year, the Japan Rugby Union launched the ATQ (advance to the quarter-final) programme aimed at getting into the world's top eight by 2011.

Return of Takuro:
After a spell in the international wilderness No.8 Takuro Miuchi is back to captain the Cherry Blossoms in a second successive World Cup. The Oxford University graduate fell out of favour with Kirwan's predecessor Jean-Pierre Elissalde last year and Japan went through five captains before Elissalde's departure.in January this year. Kirwan's first move as coach was to recall the lion-hearted Miuchi, who captained Japan on his debut at the age of 19.

Orient Express:
Japan may not be able to lay claim to the title of number one rugby nation in the world, but they can boast the leading try scorer on the international rugby history in Daisuke Ohata. The charismatic flying wing Japan's best known player and is something of a celebrity in his native country, having won the Japanese version of Superstars. He has scored 65 Test tries in 55 games and broke the record held by none other than David Campese with a hat-trick of touchdowns against Georgia on May 14, 2006.

Did you know?
John Kirwan's predecessor as coach, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Elissalde, was sacked in September 2006 for taking a job with French club Aviron Bayonnais without consulting the Japan Rugby Football Union.

Prognosis:
Japan were one of the most exciting sides to watch at the 2003 tournament with their fast and furious brand of running rugby. The problem as always with the Cherry Blossoms is whether their physically out-gunned set of forwards can win enough ball for a lively backline. They will cause their Pool B opponents uncomfortable moments, no doubt, but hard to say where a victory is going to come from.

WALES

Nickname:
The Dragons

Coach:
Gareth Jenkins (Wales)

Captain:
Stephen Jones

Anthem:
Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (The Land of My Fathers)

What's it about:
An uplifting song hailing the land in which poets and minstrels rejoice. The anthem pays tribute to the mountains, hills and valleys of Wales and ends with the country surviving having "eluded traitors' foul knives."

First International:
Wales 0-30 England (February 19, 1881)

Biggest Win:
Wales 98-0 Japan (November 26, 2004)

Biggest Loss:
Wales 13-96 South Africa (June 27, 1998)

Famous Welsh:
Richard Burton (actor), Timothy Dalton (James Bond actor), Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs actor), Laura Ashley (designer), Max Boyce and Tommy Cooper (comedians), Shirley Bassey, Charlotte Church and Tom Jones (singers), Harry Secombe (God-bothering crooner), Neil Kinnock (Labour party leader), Colin Jackson (hurdles champion), Ian Rush (goal machine) and Terry Griffiths (snooker player).

Pedigree:
If World Cups were decided on passion alone, the Welsh fans would have celebrated a tournament victory by now. But how you play on the field dictates success in the real rugby-playing world and there is no getting away from the fact Wales have under-achieved in the World Cup. The 1987 competition marked the closest Wales have come to World Cup glory as they reached the semi-finals before being hammered by New Zealand. The 1991 and 1995 tournaments were huge disappointments as Wales failed to progress past the pool stages. On home soil in 1999, they reached the quarter finals before losing 24-9 to Australia. In 2003, Wales opened with three straight pool wins before losing to New Zealand. In the quarter-finals, the Welsh were on top for the first hour before England turned on the power and scratched out a 28-17 win.

One to Watch:
James Hook - At just 23 years of age, the future is bright for the young man who has been compared to New Zealand's Dan Carter and Welsh legend Barry John. Lofty praise indeed. The Ospreys star can play either fly-half or centre and will be excited to display his talents on the world stage in France.

Sitting comfortably?
Gareth Jenkins hasn't long been in the job, but the Welsh coaching seat has rarely had time to warm up in recent years. After Mike Ruddock was ousted following Grand Slam success, Australian Scott Johnson was installed and then left for a job with the Wallabies before Jenkins got the call. And it would seem his stay in the role could be curtailed by a poor World Cup, with Johnson and former welsh coaches Steve Hansen and Graham Henry, the men now leading their native All Blacks all linked to a return to Wales post France 2007.

Knackered
Rugby fans don't come much more fanatical than the Welsh, and if they manage to win the World Cup this year we could be in for a few horror stories about the lengths they'll go to in celebration. The last time Welsh won a major trophy - the 2005 Six Nations - events on the pitch were overshadowed by crazed fan Geoffrey Huish, who cut off his own tackle following their victory over England. He had pledged to castrate himself if Wales beat their neighbours and carried out his promise with a pair of blunt wire cutters before walking in to his local and waving the removed spheres around in a plastic bag to show his mates, before collapsing.

Did you know?
73 Jones's have played for Wales in the 125 years since their Test debut against England in February 1881, making it the most common surname in Welsh international rugby.

Prognosis: Last four potential
On paper Wales look in good shape but the loss of Ryan Jones has robbed them of their main ball carrying threat in the forwards. If they can beat Australia they will probably avoid South Africa in the quarter-finals, and face England instead. In the backs they have the talent to score tries against anyone and if their forwards can provide them with enough ball this could be a world cup to remember for the most talented group of welsh players in recent memory. The semi finals are not beyond them.

POOL C

ITALY

Nickname:
The Azzurri

Coach:
Pierre Berbizier (France)

Captain:
Marco Bortolami

Anthem:
L'Inno Di Mameli (Hymn of Mameli)

What's it about:
The words of the anthem call to mind past battles for freedom waged by the Lombard towns, the Florentine republic, the Genoese, together with the young Balilla, against the Austrians, the Sicilians and the French in the so-called Sicilian Vespers.

First International:
Italy 0-9 Spain (May 20, 1929)

Biggest Win:
Italy 104-8 Czech Republic (May 18, 1994)

Biggest Loss:
Italy 0-101 South Africa (June 19, 1999)

Famous Italians:
Marco Polo (explorer), Sergio Leone (film-maker), Canaletto (painter), Leonardo da Vinci (painter/sculptor/inventor), Luciano Pavarotti (opera genius), Mario Andretti (Formula 1 driver), Pierluigi Collina (mad-eyed football referee), Frankie Dettori (pint-sized jockey), Dino Zoff (legendary football goalkeeper).

Pedigree:
The Italians have competed in all five World Cups, beginning in 1987 with a heavy 70-6 loss at the hands of New Zealand. The Azzurri have yet to make it out of the pool stages at any World Cup. 2003 was their most successful tournament in terms of the number of wins with two against Tonga and Canada and a narrow 27-15 loss to Wales but a ridiculously harsh fixture schedule ruined any chance they had of progressing further. Probably their finest moment was in defeat against New Zealand in 1991 when they were expected to be hammered but held the mighty All Blacks to a 31-21 defeat - their best ever result against the Kiwis. They have a record of five wins and 11 losses.

Berbizier bows Out:
If ever a coach deserved a fitting send-off it's Italian supremo Pierre Berbizier. The wily little Frenchman is returning to his native country to take over the coaching reins at Racing Club Paris after the World Cup but will leave Italy with a squad that is finally living up to its potential. Berbizier has transformed the Azzurri in his two years at the helm since taking over from John Kirwan after the 2005 Six Nations. After just two months with the squad he inherited, Berbizier guided the Azzurri to a stunning 30-29 win away to Argentina and the following summer Australia were given the fright of their lives before securing a narrow victory. It was last year's Six Nations, however, that finally announced the arrival of Italy as a genuine world force. Their best ever campaign saw victories over Wales and Scotland and only a narrow 20-7 defeat to England.

Pack Leaders:
Italy boast a fearsome set of forwards that on their day are a match for any side in the world. Indeed they usually field two sets of front rows during a game that could probably walk into any of the world's top sides. How the likes of England, Australia or Ireland could do with a prop like Martin Castrogiovanni or Andrea Lo Cicero. Behind them captain, Gloucester lock Marco Bortolami is the side's talisman and that's not forgetting an aggressive back row of Mauro Bergamasco, Sergio Parisse and Josh Sole.

Power Sergio:
It's doubtful whether there will be a more athletic, multi-talented No.8 in France this autumn than Italian powerhouse Sergio Parisse. The shaven headed Stade Francais star oozes class and has become the Azzurri's chief ball-carrying weapon in the forwards. Has a tendency to concede too many penalties, but his pace and excellent hands see him turn up time and again in the backline. A real livewire as well in the loose.

Did you know?
This will be Italy coach Pierre Berbizier's third World Cup campaign, his second as a coach. At the inaugural tournament in 1987 he wore the No.9 shirt for France in their final defeat to New Zealand. Eight years later he was coach of France in South Africa and resigned after their semi-final defeat to the Springboks.

Prognosis - Last eight awaits:
With arguably the strongest squad in their history, Italy have their best ever chance of progressing to the group stages behind New Zealand. Romania and Portugal should be dealt with comfortably enough so their fate will be decided in the massive showdown against Scotland whom they beat in last year's Six Nations. No excuses this time, their destiny is in their own hands.

NEW ZEALAND

A Legacy awaits:
One way or the other, the career of veteran coach Graham Henry is going to be defined by the outcome his All Blacks achieve at this year's tournament. Although it has been relatively plain sailing for Henry since he succeeded John Mitchell in the role at the end of 2003, now is where it really counts. Will the one-time Great Redeemer get the World Cup-winning legacy he so desperately covets?

Third time lucky?:
Scrumhalf Byron Kelleher, hooker Anton Oliver and flanker Reuben Thorne all featured when the All Blacks memorably imploded against France at Twickers in '99. Kelleher and Thorne were victims again against the Aussies in '03 - with Thorne the skipper of that side. Can these three All Black veterans finally exorcise those demons on the game's ultimate stage?

Pedigree:
"We're not chokers, mate," defeated All Black coach John Mitchell said defiantly at the press conference following his team's semi-final loss to Australia four years ago. Sorry 'Mitch', but history says that you are. Despite being the pre-tournament favourites on each occasion since they won the inaugural event at home in 1987, the All Blacks have always found a way to lose. And, in each and every tournament since, the Kiwis' defeat has become more agonizing. Who's to say it won't happen again? If you listen closely to the Kiwi nearest to you, you can almost hear the choking noises already!!!

Did you know:
It was the legendary Liverpool Football Club manager Bill Shankly that said football is much more important than life or death! He could have been talking about New Zealand rugby. Such is the country's obsession with the game; general elections have twice been won and lost on it. In 1981, the country's then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon allowed a highly controversial Springbok tour to proceed, knowing that 51 percent of his electorate was in favour. Despite the virtual civil war that followed, Muldoon was re-elected at year's end. Not so his fellow National [New Zealand's conservative party] government of 1999. They openly banked on the goodwill generated by a World Cup win in that year to get them back into office, and were promptly booted out at the ballot box after John Hart's All Blacks lost!

The threat they don't see:
The All Blacks are seldom beaten when they are pumped up pre-games. Talk to some of the beaten brigade from last time around and they'll tell you they didn't see the Australian threat coming, and were mentally spent after having knocked off the Springboks the week before. That makes the Kiwis potential quarterfinal match up against Ireland at the Millennium Stadium on October 6 a real danger game. The Irish nearly slipped under the All Blacks' guard last summer in New Zealand, when their hosts were looking ahead to the Tri-Nations - Eddie O'Sullivan's men have improved a good deal since then. Cardiff has also traditionally been a kind venue for Ireland, while the Munster men also bagged a Heineken Cup there two seasons back. Ireland has never beaten New Zealand before. If it did in a World Cup quarterfinal, not only would it make the tournament a success regardless of what later transpired, it would also finish off Graham Henry for a second time. The Irish ultimately ended his tenure as Welsh coach, forcing him out after Wales were humiliated 54-10 at the start of the 2002 Six Nations.

Prognosis:
Probable winners, but anything is possible!

Why:
If all things were equal, the IRB's number one ranked side would romp home in the World Cup. New Zealand appears to have the most talented squad, have the most strings to its bow in terms of the styles it can play, and boasts a greater deal of depth than just about all of its rivals. The trouble is, you could have just about said the same thing about every other All Black side pre-tournament, and they've only got the job done once before. That's why the Cup won't ever be New Zealand's by right until it's actually in Richie McCaw's hands! For the All Blacks, the biggest battle is a mental one. How the current crop handles the pressure of expectation - both their own, and their publics - will define them. It is when they appear to be traveling at their most smooth that they could be the most vulnerable.

PORTUGAL

Nickname:
Os Lobos (The Wolves)

Coach:
Tomaz Morais (Portugal)

Captain:
Vasco Uva

Anthem:
A Portuguesa (The Portuguese Song)

What's it about?
The anthem was written by republicans upset by a British ultimatum over Africa in 1910. The song is a call to arms and speaks about the insult and embarrassment of the British offer. It really gets going in verse three with a hearty rendition detailing how Portuguese should march on the British. Eventually, the sun signals Portugal's revival and the rays at dawn are "like a mother's kisses." We're guessing that's a good thing.

First International:
Portugal 5-6 Spain (April 13, 1935)

Biggest Win:
Portugal 55-11 Netherlands (November 24, 1996)

Biggest Loss:
Portugal 0-92 Romania (April 13, 1996)

Famous Portuguese:
Pope Damasus I (4th Century Pope), Pope John XXI (13th Century Pope), Fernäo de Magalhäes (explorer who led first successful circumnavigation of the earth from 1519-1522), Jorge Álvares (16th Century explorer who discovered China), Rosa Mota (Olympic Marathon champion), José Mourinho (The Special One) and Cristiano Ronaldo (the little winker of Manchester United fame).

Pedigree:
Portugal have long been labelled with third-tier status in the world of rugby union. But having received a grant from the IRB in 2006 - with the sole purpose of helping them become a tier-two country - there is no doubt the Portuguese are making strides in the right direction. Portugal showed they were ready to begin climbing the international ladder during the 2003-04 season when they won the European Nations Cup, which has often been dubbed as the Six Nations competition for lesser European countries. Os Lobos enter the 2007 World Cup ranked 21st among the 95 rugby-playing countries officially recognised by the IRB.

One to watch:
Pedro Leal - The free-flowing full-back has been Portugal's best player on the IRB World Sevens circuit in the past year, scoring more than 40 tries in the abridged version of the international game. Has won more than 20 full caps for his country and will be expected to spark some attacking rugby in France.

Long way round:
Portugal set out on the road to the World Cup by competing in the European Nations Cup, where they finished third after securing wins over Ukraine, Georgia, Czech Republic (twice) and Russia. At this stage of qualifying, the Portuguese lost twice to Pool C rivals Romania. Round 5 of qualifying in October, 2006 saw Portugal take on Italy and Russia in a tri-nations of sorts. Italy defeated both lesser opponents heavily but it was Portugal who advanced to Round 6 with a 26-23 win over the Russians. The next stage saw Portugal lose to Georgia but they entered the repechage and defeated Morocco 26-20 on aggregate. That set up a showdown, over two legs, with Uruguay for the last spot at the finals. Portugal won the first leg by a 12-5 scoreline in Lisbon and, even though they lost 18-12 in Montevideo, Os Lobos held on to record a 24-23 aggregate victory, booking their ticket to France.

Did you know?
Portugal will be the first totally amateur team to compete in a Rugby World Cup since the sport turned professional and were once involved in a 0-0 draw, against Italy in 1972. In 2004, Tomasz Morais was nominated for the IRB's Coach of the Year award, quite an achievement for a man overseeing a third-tier rugby nation.

You're nicked:
Several Portugal players were arrested after an altercation with local police while celebrating qualification for the World Cup in Montevideo. No charges were pressed and those involved were eventually allowed to leave the country. Imagine if they win a game at the tournament proper!

ROMANIA

Nickname:
The Oaks

Coach:
Daniel Santamans (France)

Captain:
Sorin Socol

Anthem:
Desteapta-te, Romane! (Awaken Thee, Romania!)

What's it about:
Wake up everyone, we are proud Romans. We'd rather die in battle in elevated glory, than live enslaved on our ancestral land.

First International:
Romania 0-21 USA (July 1, 1919)

Biggest Win:
Romania 100-0 Bulgaria (September 21, 1976)

Biggest Loss:
Romania 0-134 England (November 17, 2001)

Famous Romanians:
Ilie Nastase (tennis player), Nicolae Paulescu (discovered insulin), Henri Coanda (inventor of the jet engine).

The Lowdown:
The Romanians have long been considered one of Europe's leading rugby-playing countries outside of those already competing in the Six Nations. With a style of play built around a giant, bruising pack, Romania was at its best in the 1980s, beating Wales (twice), Scotland (the 1984 Grand Slam side) and France (twice). In 1981, they lost 14-6 to the All Blacks but had two tries disallowed. At a time when Romania was ruled by a Communist regime, the national team - filled with top players who were employed by the army or the police - was extremely strong. There was a great deal of funding for the national team and they trained six days per week. Several leading players lost their lives in the 1989 revolution. Among those killed was captain Florica Murariu, an army officer who was shot dead at a roadblock. When rugby went professional, the domestic game took a severe dent in Romania, with many French-based players refusing to turn out for the national team, and some hit-and-miss performances yielded some rather ugly results (see the record loss to England). In recent times, Romania have strengthened their position as one of Europe's leading second-tier nations, winning the European Nations Cup (Six Nations B) in 2000, 2001-02 and 2004-06. They qualified for the 2007 World Cup at the top of their pool, booking their tickets to France with victories over Georgia on October 7, 2006 (20-8) and Spain on October 14, 2006 (43-20).

Pedigree:
Romania have competed in all five previous World Cups. They opened their World Cup account with a 21-20 win over Zimbabwe at Eden Park in 1987. But losses to France and Scotland followed and the Oaks failed to reach the quarter-finals. In 1991, Romania lost to France and Canada before ending the competition on a high note with a 17-15 win over Fiji in Paris. The 1995 tournament in South Africa was a tough one for the Romanians as they lost to the hosts as well as Canada and Australia. In 1999, Romania lost to Australia and Ireland either side of a 27-25 victory over the United States at Lansdowne Road. The 2003 competition began with heavy losses to Ireland, Australia and Argentina before finishing with a face-saving 37-7 win over Namibia.

Player to watch:
Petru Balan, the highly-rated loose-head prop, is no stranger to top level rugby, reaching the Heineken Cup Final with Biarritz in 2005-06 and helping his club win the French championship in the same season. Played in two games for Romania in the 2003 World Cup. Played club rugby for Dinamo-Bucaresti in his homeland before moving to France to join F.C. Grenoble, where he played in the European Challenge Cup Final. Moved to Biarritz in 2003.

Did you know:
Rugby union was introduced to Romania when students returned from their studies in Paris with rugby balls. That led to the formation of clubs such as Stadiul Roman. A total of 17 other clubs would be formed in the capital of Bucharest. Romanians celebrate with¿ A shot of Tuica, a potent spirit made from plums, peaches and pears. Snacks for Romania games¿ You can't go wrong (so we're told) with the national dish of 'sarmale' which is made with rice and chopped meat (your choice) wrapped in cabbage leaves.

Players to Watch:
Sorin Socol - The Agen lock will lead Romania's attack from the second row. Boasts World Cup experience as a member of the 2003 squad. Made his Test debut against Spain in 2001 and has won 30 caps, scoring 25 points.
Ovidiu Tonita - The powerful flanker has been a regular for Perpignan in recent times having previously played in France for F.C. Grenoble and Biarritz. Made his Test debut against the Netherlands in 2000 and played in all four games in the 2003 World Cup. Wasps fans will remember him for scoring a try against their club in the Heineken Cup in January, 2007.

SCOTLAND

Nickname:
None

Coach:
Frank Hadden (Scotland)

Captain:
Jason White

Anthem:
Flower of Scotland

What's it about:
It may be under fire from members of the Scottish Executive, but Flower of Scotland remains a favourite of rugby followers in Scotland. The song hails Scotland's victory - under the guidance of King Robert the Bruce - over England's King Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. It pays tribute to those who fought to protect Scottish soil, sending King Edward back south of the border with his tail between his legs.

First International:
Scotland 4-1 England (March 27, 1871)

Biggest Win:
Scotland 100-8 Japan (November 13, 2004)

Biggest Loss:
Scotland 10-68 South Africa (December 6, 1997)

Famous Scots:
John Logie Baird (early TV pioneer), Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone), Robert Burns (poet/songwriter), Sean Connery ('the' James Bond), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island author), William Wallace (the original 'Braveheart'), James Dewar (inventor of the thermos flask), Billy Connolly (comedian), Gordon Brown (Prime Minister), Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool F.C. legend), Sir Alex Ferguson (Man United manager), Colin Montgomerie (golf nearly man) and Rod Stewart (music legend).

Pedigree:
Given that they have fewer players to choose from than the likes of Tonga or Samoa, maybe we have been expecting too much from Scotland? The Scots failed to advance from the pool stages in 1987 but fared better in Europe in 1991 as they reached the semi-finals before losing to England in heartbreaking fashion at Murrayfield as Rob Andrew converted a last-gasp drop goal for the Auld Enemy. They have never come so close to World Cup glory since, losing in the quarter-finals to New Zealand in 1995 and 1999, and to Australia in 2003.

One to watch
Sean Lamont - At a time when Scotland's international form has blown hot and cold, the Northampton Saints wing has consistently caught the eye. His powerful, elusive running is a constant worry for opposing defences. Played a key role in surprising victories over France and England in 2006 and was one of the few bright spots during a disappointing 2007 Six Nations campaign.

How much?
You know there's something wrong when a visit of the All Blacks can't sell out Murrayfield. After shamelessly backing France's bid to host the tournament in return for home advantage, the Scots slapped prices as high as £164 on tickets to watch their pool game against the favourites, and have yet to fill the stadium. To add insult to injury, Frank Hadden is toying with the idea of throwing the game by playing a reserve side.

Trouble at home:
No country, including the cash strapped minnows of the world game, comes to the World Cup riven by more internal strife than Scotland. They are now down to just two professional teams and their top p layers are deserting to clubs across the border and across the English channel in their droves. The SRU is drowning in debt (perhaps an explanation for the high ticket prices) and struggling to keep control of the game. Any success the national team enjoys this year will be in spite of, not because of the professional game in Scotland.

Did you Know?
When Scotland defeated England on March 27, 1871, it marked the first international rugby match in the game's history. The contest took place on the cricket field of the Edinburgh Academy at Raeburn Place.

Prognosis - quarter finalists at best:
Scotland should have enough to beat the Italians to progress to the last eight where they will lose to the French. They should certainly not allow what happened at Murrayfield in the Six Nations affect them. If Frank Hadden decides to sacrifice the game against New Zealand by fielding a second XV he is sure to be frowned upon by the IRB who are already fending off accusations of degrading international rugby and could well do without a top tier nation adding fuel to the fire.

POOL D

ARGENTINA

Nickname:
The Pumas

Coach:
Marcelo Loffreda (Argentina)

Captain:
Augustin Pichot

Anthem:
Marcha de la Patria (March of the Fatherland)

What's it about:
The anthem asks the free people of the world to shout out "we salute the great people of Argentina." (footballers excepted, of course). The song ends with a promise to "live with crowned glory or swear to die gloriously." Not much middle ground there, then.

First International:
Argentina 3-28 British & Irish Lions (June 12, 1910)

Biggest Win:
Argentina 152-0 Paraguay (May 1, 2002)

Biggest Loss:
Argentina 8-93 New Zealand (June 21, 1997)

Famous Argentinians:
Diego Maradona (Hand of God cheat), Ossie Ardiles (jinking Spurs midfielder), Ricky Villa (scorer of Wembley wonder goal), Eva Peron (political leader), Ladislao Biro (inventor of the biro pen), Ernesto Che Guevara (revolutionist), Angel Cabrera (reigning US Open golf champion).

World Cup History:
The Pumas have appeared in all five World Cup finals played to date, but have only progressed past the pool stages on one occasion - in 1999. Argentina won a playoff with Ireland in St Etienne to advance to the last eight in 1999, where they were duly seen off by France. In 2003, they narrowly missed out on a quarter-final berth, losing 16-15 to the Irish in a pool decider.

One to Watch:
Felipe Contepomi - Wearer of the number 10 shirt, Contepomi has been instrumental in Argentina's recent rise up the world rankings and forms a potent half-back partnership with Augustin Pichot. Contepomi is well-grounded in European rugby as he played for Bristol before moving to Leinster, where he has taken the Celtic League by storm.

Scrummage pioneers
Nobody does it quite like Argentina when it comes to scrummaging. The Pumas have a technique all of their own known as the 'Bajada', invented in the late 1960s by the legendary Fransisco Ocampo. Its defining trait is that all the power of the scrum is directed through the hooker, who at this year's world cup will be the highly rated Mario Ledesma. One key characteristic is that the second rowers bind their outside arms around the prop's hips rather than through their legs. A three-stage, coordinated push or 'empuje coordinato' is then called by the scrum half. On the call 'Pressure', all eight tighten their binds. On 'One' they all sink, bending their legs to 90 degrees. On 'two' they come straight forward while violently expelling air from their lungs. No player moves his feet until they achieve forward momentum and if the first shove is inadequate the scrum half calls the three stages again and the opposition is usually caught off guard.

In from the cold
It seems likely that, before long, Argentina will be invited to dine at rugby's top table in the form of either Tri Nations or Six Nations membership. Their inclusion in one or other of the two major annual championships has long been a talking point but their climb up the world rankings and improving Test results against the major nations in recent years have now made it a probability rather than possibility that the Pumas will be mixing it with the Tier One countries in the very near future, with the Sanzar countries favourites to welcome them in.

Did you Know?
Despite their nickname, the emblem on Argentina's shirts is, in fact, a jaguar and not a puma.

Prognosis - No progress from pool of pain:
It's hard on the Argentinians, but they will probably be going home after September 30. They will struggle to beat France in the opening match. The French will be breathing fire and will never have as much motivation to win a game. As for old foes Ireland, their two victories over Ireland B in the Summer mean little. Marcelo Loffreda's team will be meeting a full strength green machine and will lack the firepower to steal qualification from them.

FRANCE

Nickname:
Les Bleus

Coach:
Bernard Laporte (France)

Captain:
Raphael Ibanez

Anthem:
La Marseillaise

What's it about:
The catchy anthem calls for people to defend France against fierce soldiers who come to "slit the throats of our sons, our friends." The song encourages the French to grab their weapons and march. Towards the end, dying enemies represent triumph and glory.

First International:
France 8-38 New Zealand (January 1, 1906)

Biggest Win:
France 77-10 Fiji (November 24, 2001)

Biggest Loss:
France 10-61 New Zealand (June 9, 2007)

Famous French:
Brigitte Bardot (actress), Gerard Depardieu (big-nosed actor), Gaston Leroux (Phantom of the Opera author), Roland Garros (aviator who first crossed the Mediterranean Sea), Yves Saint-Laurent (fashion designer), Napoleon Bonaparte (French Emperor), Vanessa Paradis (Joe Le Taxi one-hit wonder), Charles de Gaulle (World War II general), Eric Cantona (karate-kicking football genius), Andre the Giant (ridiculously tall wrestler now pushing up the daisies).

Pedigree:
The French could rightly be described as the nearly men of the Rugby World Cup. They stunned heavy favourites Australia in the 1987 semi-finals but went on to lose at the hands of New Zealand in the final. They lost to England in the 1991 quarter-finals before going down 19-15 to hosts South Africa in the 1995 semi-finals. The French went one better in 1999 and reached a second final but again they came up short, losing 35-12 to Australia in the Cardiff final. In 2003, it was the semi-finals once more as Jonny Wilkinson kicked the French out of the competition during a 24-7 England win.

Yan the man:
The complete rugby player and one of the most influential centres in the game today. Yannick Jauzion is tall, strong and pacy. He also has an eye for the smallest of gaps in the defence and is a tremendous attacking force. Will be one of the first names on Bernard Laporte's team-sheet this autumn.

Bye-bye Bernard:
Rugby will be the poorer for the loss of France's bespectacled, outspoken head coach. Bernard Laporte has taken up the offer of a role as junior sports minister with the French government after the World Cup, which means we will no longer be entertained by the controversial comments we have almost come to expect from rugby's favourite Herr-flick look-alike. His latest outburst was aimed in person at Australian referee Stuart Dickinson when he told him that he was so disgusted with his officiating of France's first Test in New Zealand this summer, that if Dickinson was appointed to one of Les Bleus games in the World Cup, Laporte and his players would not turn up.

Blame it on the weatherman:
There has been a tendency for the French rugby public to look to the heavens in frustration after a few of their World Cup exits. In 1995 they could have done with 15 snorkel masks in the second half of their semi-final against South Africa, and many believed they would have come out on top if conditions had been better. In 1999 they were sure that if the weather they had for their glorious comeback against New Zealand in the semi-final replicated itself in the final against Australia, they would be World Champions. The prophecy was not to come true. And in 2003, it was once again pouring with rain when they went down 24-7 to England. Bernard Laporte refused to blame the conditions for his side's demise, but don't be surprised if you catch a few French supporter casting the odd glance up before Les Bleus' crunch games this Autumn.

Did you Know?
Accused of professionalism in an amateur age, the French were banned from the Five Nations in 1932. They did not play in the competition again until 1947.

Verdict - Best chance yet:
Let's get one thing straight. France can win this World Cup. They have good enough players, as they have had in every tournament, and as has been proved by their Six Nations record in recent years. The problem with them is that you never know if those players are going to turn up. The biggest worry for Bernard Laporte is that his stars will wilt under the pressure, and the hammerings they have taken from New Zealand since 2004 could prove a tricky hurdle to overcome. France can be devilishly good or appallingly bad. If the former doesn't show itself on home soil, it will be a tragedy.

GEORGIA

Nickname:
The Lelos

Coach:
Malkhaz Cheishvili (Georgia)

Captain:
Ilia Zedguinidze

Anthem:
Tavisupleba (Liberty)

What's it about:
A song celebrating Georgia's freedom. It is a rather short ditty that mentions the mountains and valleys that are shared with God and praises Georgia's liberty and glorious future.

First International:
Georgia 16-3 Zimbabwe (September 12, 1989)

Biggest Win:
Georgia 98-3 Czech Republic (April 8, 2002)

Biggest Loss:
Georgia 6-84 England (October 12, 2003)

Famous Georgians:
Joseph Stalin (former Soviet dictator), Mikhail Saakashvili (President since 2004), Zurab Azmaiparashvili (chess grandmaster), Georgi Kinkladze (former Man City hero) Temuri Ketsbaia (former Newcastle United, advertising board-kicking football player).

Pedigree:
Georgia were not even playing international rugby when the first World Cup was held and while they tried to qualify for the competition in 1995 and 1999, they did not reach rugby's greatest show until 2003 when they beat fierce rivals Russia 17-13 to make it to Australia. And then it was quite a baptism of fire as they lost all four games in Australia, shipping 200 points and only posting 46 of their own. They qualified for the 2007 tournament by beating Portugal in a playoff 28-14.

One to watch:
Paliko Jimsheladze - Playing his club rugby in France with Arras (since 1999), Paliko Jimsheladze was the first Georgian to win 50 caps for his country. The fly-half made his debut in 1995 and marked the occasion by scoring a hat-trick of tries. His productive boot has been Georgia's main offensive weapon and he scored 37 points in the last World Cup.

Mental edge:
Georgia's best chance of a victory in France comes against Namibia and the Eastern Europeans scored a psychological blow against the Africans by beating them 26-18 in the IRB Nations Cup in Romania in June. They also scored a 22-20 victory over Italy A in the tournament but lost 24-12 to the Emerging Springboks.

Georgia by the numbers:
The Georgian rugby union have just 30 rugby clubs, two leagues, 513 senior players, 715 players between U21 and U17 level, 1280 U15 schoolboy players, 93 coaches and 18 referees, which all adds up to just a few less bodies than the entire England playing and backroom staff.

Did you know?
As a non-olympic sport the Georgian government has directed little or no funding to rugby. As a result Georgia's rugby team has previously made scrummaging machines from old Soviet tractors.

Prognosis - Namibia is their final:
If Georgia were as hard to beat as they are to find out interesting information on, they would make the latter stages of this tournament. But they aren't. Even a losing bonus point would be an improvement on their 2003 performance, but it's unlikely Georgia will secure one of those against the three powerhouses in their group. They should take a victory against Namibia though and that will be a satisfactory performance as Tier Three nation. Last time out they were World Cup debutants and now, in 2007, that extra bit of experience should see them go home with a W on the board.

IRELAND

Coach:
Eddie O'Sullivan

Captain:
Brian O'Driscoll

Anthem:
Amhran na bhFiann - The Soldier's Song & Ireland's call

What's it about:
As the title would suggest, this anthem is sung by soldiers who have sworn to protect Ireland. The soldiers sing as they march off to protect their country and proudly boast "children of a fighting race, that has yet to know disgrace." It is followed by Ireland's call, an anthem composed just for the rugby side that represents all Ireland, as opposed to the Republic.

First International:
Ireland 0-7 England (February 15, 1875)

Biggest Win:
Ireland 83-3 USA (June 10, 2000)

Biggest Loss:
Ireland 6-59 New Zealand (June 6, 1992)

Famous Irish:
James Hoban (designer of the White House), Kenneth Branagh, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Farrell (actors), Boyzone and Westlife (boy bands), Bram Stoker (Dracula author), Padraig Harrington (golfer), Barry McGuigan (boxing champion) and Eamonn Andrews (This is your life TV personality).

Pedigree:
The Irish have been pretty consistent at the previous five World Cups, going out at the quarter-final stages in 1987, 1991, 1995 and 2003. In 1999, they lost a playoff with Argentina and failed to reach the last eight. They came closest to glory in 1991 when they were pipped 19-18 by Australia in the quarter-finals, with Michael Lynagh scoring the match-winning try in injury time at Lansdowne Road.

One to Watch:
Brian O'Driscoll - After making his debut on the summer tour to Australia in 1999, Brian O'Driscoll wasted no time in establishing himself as a world-class centre. Now regarded as the best No.13 in the business. Was named captain of Ireland in 2003 and was also captain of the 2005 British Lions, where he was the victim of a controversial spearing incident that left him with a dislocated shoulder. An inspirational leader of the Irish, his performances will be the key to Ireland's success.

First stop: Poland
While many countries took their players to sun-kissed resorts in Europe to prepare for the World Cup, Ireland headed for the deep freeze in Poland. Eddie O'Sullivan took his men to Spala in July, a pre-season destination for the Irish since 2001 and home to the famous cryotherapy facility, a large freezing chamber that speeds up recovery of the muscles and allows players to train harder more often. Players immerse themselves in the chamber twice a day for a week for three minutes a time. The longest an athlete can stay in the chamber is four minutes before the fluid in their eyeballs starts to freeze. The Irish have been so impressed with its benefits that a similar chamber has been built in Wexford, which will save them a bit on the airfare.

Joker in the pack:
Second Row Donncha O'Callaghan has earned himself a reputation of something as a comedian after such pranks as turning up to a Munster training session dressed as a pantomime horse, and attempting to pull down Lions spin-doctor Alastair Campbell's trousers while he was giving a press interview on the 2005 tour. The joking stops when he takes the field though. Alongside Munster team mate Paul O'Connell and Leinster's Malcom O'Kelly, Ireland's locking and lineout resources are among the strongest in the world and they will be a handful for any opponent in France.

Did you Know?
When the Irish run out of the tunnel for a game, captain Brian O'Driscoll admits he likes to be third from last in the line-up as the players take to the field. It's a superstition that he has had to do without since becoming captain.

Verdict: Everyone's Dark Horses
Eddie O'Sullivan's men are unlucky to be in such a tough group but it should work to their advantage and they will be hard bitten by the time they reach the quarter finals, something their possible opponents New Zealand certainly won't be. This is Ireland's greatest chance to do something special. Their starting fifteen is packed with quality and can beat any side on its day. It's time to stop underachieving.

NAMIBIA

Nickname:
Welwitschias

Coach:
Hakkies Hussleman

Captain:
Kees Lensing

Anthem:
Land of the Brave

What's it about:
This anthem pays tribute to the glory of those who fought for Namibia's freedom. It also bangs on a bit about a beautiful land of savannahs and proclaims undying love for the motherland.

First International:
Namibia 0-9 British & Irish Lions (July 5, 1955)

Biggest Win:
Namibia 116-0 Madagascar (June 15, 2002)

Biggest Loss:
Namibia 0-142 Australia (October 25, 2003)

Famous Namibians:
Frankie Fredericks (Olympic sprinter), Pendapala Shigwedha (crossed the Arctic Circle), Shiloh Jolie-Pitt (daughter of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt), Sam Nujoma (first President of Namibia).

Pedigree:
Namibia first qualified for the World Cup finals in 1999 and although they eventually lost all three pool games, they took heart from leading the French for 20 minutes before falling to a 35-13 defeat. Things didn't get much better in 2003 as they lost by a record scoreline to Australia and sparked a debate about minnows being allowed in the tournament as they lost all four pool games, scoring 28 points while shipping a mammoth 310. They defeated Morocco in a two-leg playoff to reach France, having suffered humiliation against Kenya in an earlier qualifying match. Having only formed as a union in 1990 when they gained independence from South Africa, they looked like being an international force when they conquered both Ireland and Italy in 2-0 series wins at home, but they failed to make the 1995 tournament and that early promise has tailed off.

Prop star:
One of the strongest props in world rugby, Kees Lensing plays for the Super 14's Natal Sharks. Also boasts experience with the Bulls and with Leeds Tykes (2005). Made his debut for Namibia against Madagascar in 2003 and was a driving force in the country qualifying for the 2007 World Cup. Not exactly flavour of the month in England, first of all for leaving Leeds when they got relegated with two years left on his contract, then for upsetting London Irish director of rugby Brian Smith, who claimed Lensing had agreed to join the Exiles before signing for the Sharks.

Currie flavour:
Lensing is joined in the squad by seven other players who ply their trade in South Africa's premier competition, the Currie Cup: They are the wonderfully named Skipper Badenhorst, Marius Visser, Piet van Zyl, Jacques Burger, Jane du Toit, Jacques Nieuwenhuis and Hugo Horn providing the much-needed experience to the Namibia squad.

Namibians take the trophy:
Despite their dismal World Cup record, Namibia has been home to the Webb Ellis Cup. Alright, it was organised by the French embassy in Windhoek as part of the celebrations to mark their third successful World Cup qualification campaign. The Cup toured the country's towns and was presented as a gesture of goodwill by the Ambassador of France in Namibia to His Excellency the President of Namibia, Mr Pohamba.

Did you Know?
Until independence, players who hailed from Namibia were also able to represent South Africa. One such player who took advantage of this ruling was Percy Montgomery.

Verdict - Thanks for coming
The African minnows are heading straight for another whitewash. The only question is whether they or Portugal will create another record losing margin. Their coach at the last World Cup, Dave Waterston, told anyone who would listen that the IRB were simply not doing enough to help the smaller nations and four years on, his former charges remain international whipping boys. Their heart and desire will be as big as anyone's, their losing margins will be equally as large.

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