The essential A-Z of the Rugby World Cup

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A is for Ashton: England's coach, Brian Ashton, is charged with the task of defending the trophy seized by his predecessor but one, Sir Clive Woodward, and he wants to do it playing "open-ended rugby". Many critics, including some who once counted themselves among his disciples, accuse him of going down the route of "closed-off rugby" by backing a juggernaut pack to spare him the ignominy of an early departure. This is probably unfair: Ashton has never been much interested in damage limitation. But in the absence of a footballing midfield, his options are severely limited.

B is for Berbizier: Twenty years ago, Pierre Berbizier played for France in the first World Cup final. Eight years later, he coached his country to within a millimetre of another showpiece. (To this day, the Tricolores believe Abdel Benazzi was denied a perfectly legitimate match-winning score in the semi-final against South Africa). Berbizier is now nearing the end of a tour of duty as Italy's guiding light – a spell so productive that the Azzurri have a better than even chance of reaching the knock-out stages for the first time. All they have to do is beat the Scots.

C is for Cardiff: A question: why, in the name of whatever God science has left us, are the Welsh being permitted to play one of the pivotal matches of a French tournament on their own rectangle of mud, in front of their own supporters? The answer: sporting politics. There was dirty work afoot in the World Cup committee room when France tabled their bid for this competition – the kind of dodgy dealing common to most global events, but no less despicable for that. By buying the votes of the Celtic bloc with offers of major matches (Ireland would have played a game or two in Dublin had they not bulldozed their own stadium), the host nation ensured the competition would be tarnished from the get-go. Wales would struggle to beat the Wallabies in Bordeaux or Lyon or Toulouse, but at the Millennium Stadium, they have a very decent chance.

D is for Discipline: Strange to relate, World Cup behaviour took a turn for the better in 2003, even though Martin Johnson was playing. Sendings-off used to be as rare a hen's teeth in Test rugby – Cyril Brownlie, Colin Meads and Mike Burton were the only evil-doers driven from the field in an entire century of international activity from 1871 – but by the time the first World Cup was played in 1987, referees were flexing their fingers with some regularity. There were two dismissals in that competition, two more in 1991 and four in both '95 and '99. Last time, there were none at all. Disgraceful. The game has gone soft on us.

E is for Edinburgh: Please refer to the item under "C". Happily for those who still cling to the notion of fairness, the Scots have no chance of beating New Zealand, wherever the game is played.

F is for Foreign Office: David Milliband's people have launched a "Know Your Game Plan" campaign, containing nuggets of advice that might have escaped even the most hardened sports traveller. For instance: "protect your valuables." Thank heaven for our mandarins. We'd be lost without them.

G is for Gamesmanship: There's a lot of it about these days. On the field, football-style appealing has been gathering momentum ever since Matt Dawson starting waving his arms around in mock horror at opposition transgressions. Off the field, coaches habitually use the media to plant ideas and preconceptions in the minds of referees. The International Rugby Board took ruthless action against this tactic last month and were studiously ignored. There's a surprise.

H is for Hernandez: As in Juan Martin Hernandez, the Argentine full-back. He plays his club rugby in Paris with Stade Francais, from where he has forged a reputation as the best in the business. Even the All Blacks wish he was one of theirs, which is an unusual development in itself. They usually covet Fijians and Samoans.

I is for Ibanez: There are times when an individual demands to be held in the highest regard. Step forward Raphael Ibanez, captain of France. A man of Spanish ancestry who earns his money in London with Wasps, he somehow symbolises the unique spirit of Tricolore rugby more completely than any of those playing in the union heartland of the far south-west. He led his country to the 1999 final and was the stand-out hooker in the 2003 tournament.

J is for Jones: If Michael Jones is half as good a coach as he was a player, Samoa will win this World Cup at a canter. Jones was a Samoan international before becoming an All Black at the start of the 1987 tournament – a competition he dominated to such a ridiculous extent that by the end of it, he was generally considered to be the finest open-side flanker ever to grace a rugby field. He continued in that vein for the best part of a decade, despite the injuries that slowed him and the religious beliefs that prevented him playing on a Sunday. In recent years, he has started to make something of the impoverished Pacific islanders. Long may he continue.

K is for Kick-offs: Good old television. Of the 48 games in this World Cup, only 25 will be played in daylight. England's matches against South Africa and Tonga begin at 9pm – if the champions make a Horlicks of it against the Boks, it may be because they were served mugs of the stuff before taking the field – while all but two of the knock-out fixtures will start at the dead of night. A couple of celebratory beers after the match? Have them before the match, instead.

L is for Lima Known: as "The Chiropracter" because of his effect on the backs of those he tackles – poor Derrick Hougaard, the South African outside-half, is expected to land soon after being smashed into the stratosphere in Brisbane four years ago – Brian Pala Lima, from the Samoan village of Puipaa, is about to set a new standard by playing in his fifth World Cup. He admits to being 35, but when pressed on the accuracy of that figure, those who work with him shrug their shoulders as if to say: "He could be 53 for all we know."

M is for Marseille: The French are playing only one match – a pool fixture against Georgia – at Stade Velodrome, quite the most spine-tinglingly exciting rugby venue in the world game. More fool them. Only Argentina have prevailed over Les Bleus in the heart of Provence. Everyone else, including the All Blacks and the Wallabies, have finished second there. The English might have won on the shores of the Mediterranean in 2003, but fell short by a point. Just recently, they fell short by plenty. It is called the Law of Diminishing Returns.

N is for New Zealand: Oh, them. There is no point denying that the All Blacks are clear favourites to win the Webb Ellis Cup. Some of their rugby since they last failed to win it in 2003 has been frightening, the rest of it merely exceptional. But that is rather the point about the silver-ferned brigade: they have been off-cycle in World Cup terms since winning the inaugural tournament on their own patch 20 years ago. They were too old in 1991, too young in 1995, too naive in 1999, too selectorially challenged last time out. Graham Henry, a coach of the very highest calibre, has thrown the paintbox at this competition. Will the colours run again? We shall see.

O is for O'Driscoll: The Ireland captain's problem – no, he is not perfect – is his enthusiasm for the rufty-tufty side of the game. Few centres run quite as far, quite as quickly, in an effort not to miss out on a punch-up. O'Driscoll is a brilliant player, quite possibly the best in his position. But as some hulking great forward from Bayonne reminded him during a violent warm-up match in Basque country last month, discretion is the better part of valour.

P is for Portugal: It is impossible not to feel sorry for them. When the Portuguese beat Uruguay over two legs to secure the last of the repechage places, their celebrations were clouded by a sense of foreboding. On 15 September, at noon British time, they face New Zealand in Lyon. Rumour has it that Bill Frindall has been asked to keep the score.

Q is for Qera: It is not unusual for Fijians to illuminate World Cups with individual performances of jaw-dropping grandeur. Severo Koroduadua showed some star quality in 1987, Viliami Satala and Alfred Uluinayau were staggeringly good in 1999, Rupeni Caucaunibuca scored tries fit for the gods in 2003. Who this time? Akapusi Qera, a back-row forward who finished second to the golfer Vijay Singh in the Fijian Sportsman of the Year awards, is a likely candidate. Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coach who has signed Qera for the coming season, describes him as "something else". And Ryan does not praise anyone if he can help it.

R is for Rucking: There will be precious little of it here, more's the pity. In the past, players hanging around the tackle area like a bad smell could expect to be rucked to kingdom come. Not kicked or stamped, but rucked – that is to say, swept out of the way by opposition forwards as they drove through the breakdown area to secure possession. Only confirmed masochists enjoyed the experience; normal folk stayed on their feet, thereby ensuring a supply of quick ball to the two sets of backs. These days, the IRB blanch at the thought of mothers and their children witnessing boots on bodies. The result? More cheating, more penalties and even more frustration.

S is for St Denis: Stade de France, the national stadium, can be found here, in one of the less captivating areas of Paris. Easy to reach but difficult to leave, especially at a late hour, there are precious few drinking opportunities in the immediate locality. There again, Twickenham is hardly heaven for party animals.

T is for Tonga: Who'd be a broadcaster? 'Osaiasi Alu-Moe-Lotu Filipine may tax the most lucid of commentators, not to mention Aisea Paseisei Havili Kaufusi. The Tongans, who just happen to be in England's group, like to confuse matters further by changing their names at the drop of a sarong. Sione Mone Tu'ipulotu, well known to rugby followers in Newport from his time with the Dragons, occasionally calls himself Sione Mone while the coach, Quddus Fielea, is sometimes referred to as Kutusi Quddus. Is that clear? Excellent.

U is for Unimaginative: South Africa in '95 and Australia in '99 won the World Cup by tackling opponents to a standstill, not putting tries past them. England scored only twice in the entire knock-out stage of the last tournament, at a rate of once every 130 minutes. If rugby romantics capture the hearts and souls of spectators, it is the hardened realists who capture trophies. And if that makes football followers feel smug, the words "Italy" and "Germany" should put them straight.

V is for Vatuvei Samurai: There have been worse names for a Japanese rugby player. Just one thing: Luatangi Samurai Vatuvei is a Tongan. The Japanese have played in all five World Cups to date and have always fielded foreign-born personnel: sometimes naturalised Pacific islanders, often hired hands from New Zealand. John Kirwan, an All Black wing who coached Italy before moving to the Far East, has cast his net far and wide for this tournament. His party features a Thompson, a Robins and an O'Reilly.

W is for White: Four years ago, the Springboks arrived in Australia on the back of two scandals: one to do with racism, the other to do with grotesque physical excesses at a pre-World Cup boot camp. Jake White, the current coach, has dragged South African rugby out of the mire and restored a sense of self-respect. Always a superb tactician, he has played the most sophisticated of political hands in establishing the Boks as serious contenders for the title. The Republic owes him a debt of honour.

X is for X-rated: Where will it all kick off after the big kick-off on 7 September? There is always a bare-knuckle bash somewhere during a World Cup – France and England fought out the most brutal of quarter-finals in 1991, while the Springboks had pitched battles with both Canada and Samoa four years later – and one or two fixtures have a whiff of sulphur about them this time. When Samoa play Tonga in Montpellier, watch through your fingers. When the champions meet South Africa in the second round of pool matches, keep half an eye on the ball and the other one and a half on the afters.

Y is for Yannick: Or rather, two Yannicks. Monsieur Jauzion is the centre capable of propelling France to a third World Cup final in six attempts; Monsieur Nyanga has the potential to run the best teams ragged from his position in Les Bleus' back row. Between them, they could take the host nation to another level and beyond to ultimate victory.

Z is for Zigzag: This was the name of the move that won the World Cup for England in Sydney four years ago: Lewis Moody's line-out catch, Mike Catt's midfield burst, Matt Dawson's snipe, Martin Johnson's rumble, Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal. Some people still believe England will run another "zigzag" in Paris on 20 October and retain the trophy; rather more suspect the "zigzaggers" are living on Planet Zog. This much is certain: one man will be travelling to France with a move or two up his sleeve. Which leads us, rather neatly, back to "A".