Australia, South Africa, Canada, Romania
The "group of death" was so called because not only Australia and South Africa were in it but Canada, 1991 quarter-finalists, as well. Pity the plucky, unlucky Romanians, then, though the Canadians have been doing so badly that they too are about to have their mortality confirmed.
Far from being the three-way battle that once seemed possible, Group A looks like being a straight contest between the Wallabies and Springboks to avoid having to play England in the quarter-finals. The winners of the opening game, when Australia begin their title defence in Cape Town, can expect to confront the lesser obstacle of Italy, Western Samoa or Argentina.
A less physically demanding challenge than England's towering forwards would present could have an important effect on the later stages of the competition, when players are trying to nurse their injuries and preserve their energies. So the first match, while an enticing prospect in its own right, is also bound to be critical to the destination of the World Cup.
If this takes for granted the demise of the Canadians, nothing that has happened of late suggests differently. Canada emerged from the 1991 tournament with immense credit and have gone on to beat Scotland, Wales and even the French team who were on their way to glory in New Zealand last summer. But then the neat idea of a world tour to prepare for the World Cup went horribly wrong.
Forget the modest wins over Uruguay and Fiji. More pertinent was that the conclusive defeats by England, France, Scotland and finally a 73-3 hiding by New Zealand last month were the outward signs of internal tension which prompted outspoken criticism of the coach, Ian Birtwell, by his senior forward Norman Hadley. And that in turn led to Hadley's omission.
Gordon MacKinnon, who also fell out with the powers-that-be, reached a rapprochement early enough for his inclusion but this cannot disguise the effect of recent events. "Everybody will write us off, saying we're going to be massacred by Australia and South Africa," John Billingsley, a senior Canadian official, conceded.
This makes Birtwell's contrasting optimism thoroughly unconvincing. "There's a tremendous commitment and the lads have the ability to bounce back very quickly," he said. "If we realise our potential we have every chance of getting out of our pool games."
This is a huge conditional given Australia's and South Africa's rating among the tournament favourites, though even after the run of adverse results they have experienced the Canadians can reasonably expect to see off Romania. Narrow defeats in Bucharest by Wales and France are virtually meaningless when set against the Romanians' dire record whenever they go away.
So there was just as much ritual optimism in the remarks of Theodor Radulescu, Romania's manager, when he said: "Romanians used to make a strong team, hard to beat because they were really determined. That was one of the things missing lately. Now we've got it back." Or this from Constantin Cojocariu, the lock: "Romania will not be a victim in South Africa."
On the contrary, the victims in Group A are bound to be Romanian and Canadian and, whatever the result of the grand opening at Newlands, it would be no surprise to see the holders face the hosts once more in the final in Johannesburg.
England, Western Samoa, Argentina, Italy
If England have learned anything during the occasional years of comparative failure that have punctuated their recent successes, it is never to take anything for granted - not even beating Ireland at Twickenham.
Yet if there is one thing their opponents in Group B have long since been taking for granted it is that beating the English in South Africa is not a feasible proposition. Not even Italy, who recently humbled the Irish and are the most upwardly-mobile of all the second-ranking countries, think so.
Here is Georges Coste, French coach of the Azzurri: "We must aim to destabilise our group but I am talking of the Samoans and Argentines because we cannot hope to destabilise England." And Alejandro Petra, the lawyer who coaches Argentina: "Let us forget about England but Italy and Western Samoa can be beaten."
These may be statements of the obvious but at the same time they reflect the gap that continues to exist in world rugby. Argentina, Western Samoa and Italy have all at one time or another been considered the probable next members of the formerly self-perpetuating elite. But, at least in the first two cases, the breakthrough never actually came.
It is a depressing history, also shared by Romania and Canada, and now it is the Italians' turn to be pushing hardest at a hitherto closed door. After their rather easy win over Ireland, they are confidently talking of forcing an expansion of the Five Nations' Championship. If form were the only guide they would be favoured to go through as runners-up to England and so play the winners of South Africa-Australia.
Form is fickle, though, as the Samoans' results have shown, and the only certainty is that Argentina, despite having a powerful pack and emerging with some credit from last month's two Tests in Australia, are the group's outsiders. What to make of the Samoans, however, is less obvious.
If this World Cup throws up an emergent country as the last one did with Samoa, it will have performed a truly virtuous service. Indeed the Samoans themselves have higher aspirations than a mere quarter-final place and after they had trounced Wales 34-9 in Apia last year Tate Simi, the manager, was even talking of a place among the world's top five.
This was put into cruelly realistic perspective by the subsequent 73- 3 defeat by Australia and, more recently, one of 60-8 by South Africa, though any side who can go to Eden Park and beat Auckland - the first international visitors to beat the Auks in Auckland for 13 years - merits due respect.
Yet England could be excused for imagining that, if the Wallabies and Springboks can do that to the islanders, then so can they, and if there is one team in the world capable of withstanding the ferocity of Samoan tackling it is Will Carling's.
Who goes through with England, and therefore whether Italy make the quarter- finals for the first time, will most likely depend on another fickle thing, Italian temperament. It has been Coste's triumph to have instilled a measure of uncharacteristic discipline but whether this can withstand the physical battering they will take against Samoa is another matter.
Still, it is worth repeating another statement of the apparently obvious from Coste. "We must follow the rules," he said. Alas, any team who do so - even lilywhite England - will not win the World Cup.
New Zealand, Wales, Japan, Ireland
These are such turbulent times in New Zealand rugby that it has somehow become easy to forget that the All Blacks won the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and set standards which demanded a professional commitment no matter how much longer the game remained amateur.
It seems they did everyone but themselves a favour. Eight years on, the regaining of the Webb Ellis trophy has become less an end in itself than the very salvation of the union code in what used to be its hottest hot- bed. With the advent of Rupert Murdoch's Super League, rugby union in the Shaky Isles appears shakier than ever before. At least, it is if we are to believe the Jeremiahs and even David Kirk, the '87 captain, is purveying doom and gloom.
There is no great insight in anticipating a comfortable passage for New Zealand past Wales, Ireland and Japan; it is what happens then that is of such profound concern that anything less than a place in the final would, so they say Down Under, give rugby league as much of a shot in the arm as the initiation of the Auckland Warriors into the Australian RL competition.
We can rely on it, however, that the whole country will be more All Black- crazy than they ever were Warrior-mad if the All Blacks treat their unwonted status as dark horses as a stimulus rather than an insult. And if they want to be utterly venal about it, the better they perform the more of Murdoch's millions those who would defect will be able to command.
But that is for the future. In the here and now of Group C there is no reason to believe other than that Sean Fitzpatrick's youthful team are blessed with the kindest of draws. Japan, by their own admission, would be happy to confine their losing margin within 100 points and nothing that has happened to Wales or Ireland lately suggests they will be a threat to anyone much except each other.
The real battle in this group, then - apart from for the hearts and minds of the New Zealand public - will be between the Irish and Welsh for second place.
Surely even those two at their worst will not be vulnerable to the vertically challenged Japanese. But that is just about the only certainty that exists in either camp at the moment. Ireland may have thought they had gained a psychological advantage when they won in Cardiff but they more than lost it with an abject defeat by Italy.
On the other hand, the sense that the Welsh might be ready to progress is based on nothing more tangible than a change of management and of players.
What can be said with certainty is that in South Africa the Japanese, having won the Asian championship through the application of forward strength against their physical equivalents, will revert to a trickier, less predictable brand of rugby as the only means of exploiting the vulnerability of the home countries.
More importantly, the very fact that they are here is a joy in itself. This World Cup may be viewed as a matter of life and death for New Zealand rugby but since January's Kobe earthquake in which 5,500 perished life and death in Japan mean real life and death.
Kobe Steel had won the Japanese championship for a seventh successive year only two days earlier and the stadium in which they had done so was destroyed. This puts the vicissitudes of the New Zealanders, not to mention the World Cup in all its glory, into a proper perspective.
Ivory Coast, Tonga
It used to be said that the French, their rugby team anyway, were terrible travellers but after an ineffectual and occasionally dismal Five Nations' Championship Pierre Berbizier is relying on precisely the opposite effect in South Africa.
The coach now suggests that his players perform better when they are a long way from home and the facts bear him out: victory in South Africa in 1993 and a historic triumph in New Zealand last year interspersed with failure in the championship.
So we are now invited to lay aside the evidence of the domestic season when France were thrashed by England and lost at home to Scotland for the first time in 26 years. "I still believe this team is good enough to do well in South Africa," Berbizier said.
This is a lowered expectation from his original pronouncement. "Be there on 24 June," read his placard on the wall at the French squad's first training camp of last season. This is the date of the final, and though France will have no trouble proceeding from Group D, it is not even certain they will win it.
Even discounting the prospects of Tonga and the Ivory Coast, the French must face their Parc des Princes nemesis, Scotland, and on recent form you would have to back the Scots, leaving the losers with the uncomfortable prospect of a quarter-final against New Zealand. "The match against Scotland will decide our fate in the tournament," Berbizier said.
This is more realistic than an offering from Philippe Sella, the great centre who will retire when France's World Cup concludes. "Even if the Five Nations' tournament did bring disappointment, this is still a great team," he said. But though the heart - the romantic vote, if you like - may go with France, the head no longer can.
Which leaves the Scots as decent outsiders, picked out by Bob Dwyer, Australia's coach, as dangerous opposition to whomever they encounter. On a strict line of form, they should actually beat France and so go through to meet Wales or Ireland, both of whom they beat last season - and that would leave them, like last time, in the semi-final.
All of which reckons not only without the capacity of the French to pull together in a foreign land but also without Tonga and the Ivory Coast. Tongan form is as perverse as that of their great rivals the Samoans, with a 75-5 annihilation by Canterbury, the New Zealand Ranfurly Shield holders, following better results over the past year.
For instance, Wales could not score a try in winning 18-9 in Nuku'alofa last summer and when Tonga played Western Samoa they scored more tries than their island neighbours and were unlucky to lose at all, let alone by 32-19. And remember that the Samoans went on to trounce Wales 34-9.
"People know, even though we have had our losses, that when we go down we go down fighting," Sione Taumoepeau, the former Tonga coach, said - which may be literally true. Less worrisome is the threat posed by the Ivory Coast, whose presence is of great symbolic importance but came about largely because others in the African qualifying group did not take them sufficiently seriously.
Even now, the Ivorians themselves cannot quite believe they really are here, and the last time they were in Pretoria they lost 97-7 to Northern Transvaal. "No one was more surprised than us when we qualified," Gervais Coffie, the Ivorian rugby federation president, said. Yet the captain, Athanase Dali, paints a completely different picture: "We expect to win a game in the World Cup." Not likely.
WORLD CUP FORM GUIDE
Population: 26,393,000; (rugby union players 16,500).
Form guide: 13 Nov 1993 Argentina 23, S Africa 52; 4 Jun 1994 Argentina 16 Scotland 15; 11 Jun Argentina 19 Scotland 17; 8 Oct S Africa 42 Argentina 22; 15 Oct S Africa 46 Argentina 26; 30 Apr 1995 Australia 53 Argentina 7; 6 May Australia 30 Argentina 13.
Form guide: 5 Jun 1994 Australia 33 Ireland 13; 11 Jun Australia 32 Ireland 18; 18 Jun Australia 23 Italy 10; 25 Jun Australia 20 Italy 7; 17 Aug Australia 20 NZ16; 30 Apr Australia 53 Argentina 7; 6 May Australia 30 Argentina 13.
Form guide: 11 Jun 1994 Canada 15 Wales 33;10 Dec England 60 Canada 19; 17 Dec France 28 Canada 9; 21 Jan 1995 Scotland 22 Canada 6; 7 Mar Uruguay 9 Canada 28; 8 Apr Fiji 10 Canada 22; 22 Apr NZ 73 Canada 7.
Form guide: 12 Nov 1994 England 54 Romania 3; 10 Dec England 60 Canada 19; 21 Jan 1995 Ireland 8 England 20; 4 Feb England 31 France 10; 18 Feb Wales 9 England 23; 19 Mar England 24 Scotland 12.
Form guide: 17 Dec 1994 France 28 Canada 9; 21 Jan 1995 France 21 Wales 9; 4 Feb England 31 France 10; 18 Feb France 21 Scotland 23; 4 Mar Ireland 7 France 25; 8 Apr Romania 15 France 24.
Form guide:11 Jun 1994 Australia 32 Ireland 18; 5 Nov Ireland 26 USA 15; 21 Jan 1995 Ireland 8 England 20; 4 Feb Scotland 26 Ireland 13; 4 Mar Ireland 7 France 25; 19 Mar Wales 12 Ireland 16; 6 May Italy 22 Ireland 12.
Form guide: 21 May 1994 Italy 63 Netherlands 9; 18 Jun Australia23 Italy 20; 25 Jun Australia 20 Italy 7; 1 Oct Italy 24 Romania 6; 12 Oct Wales 29 Italy 19; 6 May 95 Italy 22 Ireland 12.
Form guide: 26 Oct 1993 Tunisia 16 Iv Coast 19; 30 Oct Morocco 3 Iv Coast 15; 14 Jun 1994 Iv Coast 9 Morocco 17; 16 Jun Iv Coast 13 Namibia 12; 18 Jun Iv Coast 17 Zimbabwe 10.
Form guide: 24 Oct 1994 Japan 67 Sri Lanka 3; 26 Oct Japan 97 Malaysia 9; 29 Oct Japan 26 S Korea 11; 11 Feb 1995 Tonga 47 Japan 16; 19 Feb Tonga 25 Japan 16.
Form guide: 3 Jul 1994 NZ 20 France 23; 9 Jul NZ 22 South Africa 14; 23 Jul NZ 13 South Africa 9; 6 Aug NZ 18 South Africa 18; 17 Aug Australia 20 NZ 16; 22 Apr 1995 NZ 73 Canada 7.
Form guide: 7 May 1994 Romania 30 Russia 0; 14 May Romania 26 Italy 12; 18 Sep Romania 9 Wales 16; 1 Oct Italy 24 Romania 6; 12 Nov England 54 Romania 3; 8 Apr 1995 Romania 15 France 24; 22 Apr Scotland 49 Romania 16.
Form guide: 19 Nov 1994 Scotland 10 South Africa 34; 21 Jan 1995 Scotland 22 Canada 6; 4 Feb Scotland 26 Irealand 13; 18 Feb France 21 Scotland 23; 4 Mar Scotland 26 Wales 13; 19 Mar England 24 Scotland 12; 22 Apr Scotland 49 Romania 16.
Form guide: 6 Aug 1994 New Zealand 18 SA 18; 8 Oct SA 42 Argentina 26; 15 Oct SA 46 Argentina 26; 19 Nov Scotland 10 SA 34; 26 Nov Wales 12 SA 20; 13 Apr 1995 SA 60 W Samoa 8.
Form guide: 4 Jun 1994 W Samoa 32 Tonga 13; 22 Jun Tonga 9 Wales 18; 9 Jul Tonga 12 Fiji 10; 11 Feb 1995 Tonga 47 Japan 16; 19 Feb Tonga 25 Japan 16.
Form guide: 12 Oct 1994 Wales 29 Italy 19; 26 Nov Wales 12 SA 20; 21 Jan 1995 France 21 Wales 9; 18 Feb Wales 9 England 23; 4 Mar Scotland 26 Wales 13; 19 Mar Wales 12 Ireland 16.
Form guide: 12 Oct 1993 NZ 35 WS 13; 4 Jun 1994 WS 32 Tonga 19; 25 Jun WS 34 Wales 9; 2 Jul Fiji 20 WS 13; 6 Aug Australia 73 WS 3; 13 Apr 1995 SAfrica 60 WS 8.
Population and playing figures, with the exception of Ivory Coast, taken from the Guinness Rugby Union Fact Book by Chris Rhys.Reuse content