The Rugby World Cup: Which team to put your shirt on: Our guide to the squads, odds and omens

POOL A: SCOTLAND, SOUTH AFRICA, SPAIN, URUGUAY

SCOTLAND

Ripped up the form book in the last Five Nations'. Cast as wooden-spoon favourites before the tournament started, the Scots gelled under Jim Telfer's uncompromising coaching and gave warning of what was to come when John Leslie scored inside a world-record nine seconds in their opener, against Wales. Scotland won 33-20, lost unluckily by three points to England and then dismissed Ireland 30-13. The title was claimed in Paris in a game which was a template for entertaining rugby. Scotland won 36-22 and Gregor Townsend became only the fifth player to score a try in each Five Nations' game in one season. Always the playmaker, Townsend has added consistency to his game since moving to Brive. The Leslie brothers, John and Martin, New Zealand-born though qualified through Scottish ancestry, made an enormous difference in midfield and the back row respectively. But the undoubted star was Scott Murray, the young giant of a lock. Ian McGeechan has been tempted away from North-ampton to mastermind the campaign with Telfer.

Strengths: Fluency of movement with the ball in hand plus rugged inventiveness in open play.

Weaknesses: Lack of strength in depth and a pack regularly outgunned by bigger forwards.

Backs: G Metcalfe, C Paterson, C Murray, K Logan, S Longstaff, A Tait, J Leslie, J McLaren, J Mayer, G Townsend, D Hodge, G Armstrong (capt), B Redpath, I Fairley. Forwards: T Smith, P Burnell, G Graham, D Hilton, G Bulloch, R Russell, S Murray, A Reed, D Weir, C Mather, M Leslie, B Pountney, G Simpson, P Walton, S Grimes, S Reid. Coach: J Telfer.

Odds: 100-1

SOUTH AFRICA

The world champions believe they can be the first in the cup's short history to retain the title, despite a rocky Tri-Nations Championship this summer. As hosts in 1995 they won all six matches, beating New Zealand 15-12 in extra time having earlier seen off Australia and France. It was history in the making, with Nelson Mandela wearing the Springbok No 6 jersey as he handed the trophy to Francois Pienaar. Pienaar, along with most of his triumphant team-mates, is out of the frame and the new players seem fitter, stronger and faster than their predecessors. However, their form has dipped since the run of 17 successive wins, equalling the All Blacks' 1960s record. After the 13-7 loss to England last December, coach Nick Mallett has controversially dispensed with the services of captain Gary Teichmann and several other senior players. The few who have survived from the 1995 final include the scrum-half and captain Joost van der Westhuizen, the lock Mark Andrews, the prop Os du Randt and the recently-recalled centre Brendan Venter.

Strengths: Always a mighty physical presence, with a never-say-die attitude throughout the side.

Weaknesses: More pre-Cup disruptions than would seem necessary or healthy may take toll.

Backs: P Montgomery, K Malotana, B Paulse, P Rossouw, S Terblanche, D Kayser, R Fleck, W Julies, P Muller, B Venter, J de Beer, H Honiball, J van der Westhuizen (capt), W Swanepoel.

Forwards: O du Randt, A Garvey, O le Roux, C Visagie, N Drotske, C Rossouw, M Andrews, S Boome, K Otto, A van den Berg, J Erasmus, R Kruger, B Skinstad, A Venter, A Leonard, A Vos. Coach: N Mallett.

Odds: 7-2

SPAIN

Seeing Italy become part of Europe's premier international tournament has helped Spain believe that one day they can make it the Seven Nations' Championship. The gradual growth of rugby in the country should be stimulated by this World Cup appearance. Rugby in Spain is entirely amateur and mainly the preserve of students, although efforts are being made to introduce it into schools. In addition to this first World Cup, Spain also earned a place in last season's European Shield. Pitched into a qualifying group with Portugal and Scotland, Spain's place in the finals hinged on whether they could beat the Portuguese. They played to their strength - forward bulk - and despite the sending-off of Jose Diaz after 14 minutes, the accuracy of Andrei Kovalenco, Spain's Ukrainian-born goal-kicker, secured a 21-17 victory. The job done, Spain capitulated 85-3 to Scotland. Avoiding similar thrashings by the Scots and South Africa will be uppermost in their minds, though their consolation could come in the form of victory over Uruguay.

Strengths: Boundless enthusiasm and realisation they are about to hit steep learning curve.

Weaknesses: Not enough strength, size, experience and ability to worry the big boys.

Backs: F Puertas, F Velazco, M A Frechilla, J I Inchausti, A Socias, O Ripol, S Loubsens, A Socias, R Bastide, F Diez, A Enciso, A Etxeberria, A Kovalenco, J Alonso, A Gallastegui. Forwards: J Camps, J I Zapatero, V Torres, L J Martinez, F de la Calle, D Zarzosa, J M Villau, S Tuineau, S Souto, A Malo (capt), C Souto, O Astarloa, J Diaz, A Malet, A Mata. Coach: A Feijoo.

Odds: 2,500-1

URUGUAY

Debut appearance in the finals has been earned the hard way by Los Teros. At one stage they stood a win away from qualifying automatically into Group E, but a lapse of concentration led to a 21-16 defeat by the United States which sent them to the repechage and a battle with Portugal. Two thumping wins and they faced one further hurdle: a do-or-die confrontation with Morocco. Uruguay had home advantage for the first leg but looked in trouble against a resolute Moroccan defence until capt-ain Diego Ormaechea scored a late try to seal an 18-3 win. Federico Sciarra, the scrum-half, proved the key man when the sides met again in Casablanca, kicking six penalties in the 21-18 defeat which still put them through. Rugby only arrived in the country in 1951 but has grown swiftly in popularity. Coach Daniel Hererra said: "We have some excellent youngsters coming through, especially in the backs." Like their neighbours Argentina, Uruguay can stand up for themselves in the pack, which includes the mighty Bristol prop Pablo Lemoine. But the main ambition this time will be damage limitation.

Strengths: Natural physical bulk.

Weaknesses: Inexperience and lack of fitness and expertise at this level.

Backs: D Aguirre, S Aguirre, A Cardoso, M Cervino, P Costabile, M Ferres, J M Marques, J Menchaca, M Mendaro, F Paullier, F Sciarra, F Sosa Diaz, P Vecino, J Viana. Forwards: J Alzueta, J C Bado, E Berruti, N Brignoni, F de los Santos, L de Olivera, N Grille, G Laffite, M Lame, D Lamelas, P Lemoine, D Ormaechea (capt), M Panizza, A Ponce de Leon, G Storace. Coach: D Herrera.

Odds: 2,000-1

POOL B: ENGLAND, NEW ZEALAND, ITALY, TONGA

ENGLAND

Perfectly capable of beating all-comers, however unconvincing they were against Australia in Sydney in June. The trouncing of the United States was as ruthless as it gets, last autumn they beat South Africa, while the year before they drew with New Zealand. They have definitely shattered the myth that southern hemisphere sides are unbeatable, but need to believe that themselves. The forwards, led by Martin Johnson, are as good as any; Johnson and whoever partners him in the second row can dominate the line-out, the front row is solid and strong, but the aces are in the back row, where Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back, as well as the promising Joe Worsley and Martin Corry, can cause all sorts of problems. They are spoiled for choice at centre behind the scrum, the ever-improving full-back Matt Perry is another potential match-winner, and with Jonny Wilkinson directing operations from fly-half there is no reason why they should not go all the way this time around.

Strengths: Home turf, pace out wide, guile through the middle; vast amount of experience up front, and defensively extremely sound.

Weakness: In the past, a tendency to self-doubt has led to an inability to apply killer touch.

Backs: N Beal, M Perry, L Lloyd, D Luger, A Healey, J Guscott, W Greenwood, M Catt, P de Glanville, J Wilkinson, P Grayson, M Wood, M Dawson. Forwards: J Leonard, G Rowntree, V Ubogu, D Garforth, P Vickery, R Cockerill, P Greening, N McCarthy, M Johnson (capt), T Rodber, D Grewcock, G Archer, R Hill, N Back, J Worsley, L Dallaglio, M Corry. Coach: C Woodward.

Odds: 10-1

NEW ZEALAND

The undisputed kings of the game - even if it is 12 years since they won the World Cup. Last season, when they suffered five Test defeats, it seemed that All Black magic had gone soft in the centre. But they have reshaped and look as awesome as ever. There are new names in the team, new heroes: lock-forward Norm Maxwell is set to eclipse the once irreplaceable Ian Jones, Taine Randell looks the part as captain after an uncertain start, and Christian Cullen is thriving again. It all clicks around a pack which provides plenty of ball for Andrew Mehrtens, the No 10 who has survived a rocky patch to become the master strategist of a side who are hungry and playing fast, open rugby. As proof of the All Blacks' advance, Jonah Lomu, rugby's superman in 1995, is now a supersub, understudying men of even greater pace and handling skill. The thought of Lomu being missing from the starting XV might hearten some, but the Tri-Nations saw the All Blacks improve; as ever, they will be the team to beat.

Strengths: Superb all-round game with no weak links is built on total commitment.

Weaknesses: None, apart from a slight inexperience in the pack and a possible lack of subtlety outside Mehrtens.

Backs: J Wilson, C Cullen, G Osborne, J Lomu, T Umaga, P Alatini, D Gibson, A Ieremia, C Spencer, A Mehrtens, T Brown, J Marshall, B Kelleher, R Duggan.Forwards: C Dowd, G Feek, C Hoeft, K Meeuws, A Oliver, M Hammett, R Brooke, I Jones, N Maxwell, R Willis, A Blowers, J Kronfeld, S Robertson, R Thorne, T Randell (capt), D Mika. Coach: J Hart.

Odds: 5-6

ITALY

Took a hiding and a half against South Africa in the summer, conceding more than 100 points in the Second Test after letting in 74 in the First. But they were weakened by injuries and exhausted after a demanding domestic season. Coach Georges Coste resigned after that tour but has agreed to stay on and help the new coach, former wing Massimo Mascioletti. They have some outstanding players: Paolo Vaccari on the wing can be brilliant on his day; centre Christian Stoica is hugely talented; and outside-half Diego Dominguez, formerly of Argentina, is one of the best goal-kickers in the cup. Of the forwards, Mauro Bergamasco, the young Padova openside, made a huge impression against England in the qualifier last November, when the 15-23 scoreline could have been much closer if the Italians had not had a perfectly good try disallowed. Blindside flanker Massimo Giovanelli is a tower of strength, and what the front row lacks in technique it makes up for in spirit.

Strengths: Will never stop trying, and, when opportunity presents itself, have firepower to take it and turn it into points.

Weakness: Have always lacked discipline. They give away penalties and position, and consequently can lose their heads and any advantage.

Backs: S Ceppolino, D Dominguez, L Martin, F Mazzariol, G Mazzi, N Mazzuccato, M Pini, F Roselli, C Stoica, A Troncon, P Vaccari, N Zisti. Forwards: O Arancio, M Bergamasco, C Caione, A Castellani, C Checchinato, W Cristofoletto, G DeCarli, M Giacheri, M Giovanelli (capt), A Moretti, A Moscardi, F Properzi, P Pucciariello, S Saviozzi, L Travini. Coach: M Mascioletti.

Odds: 1,000-1

TONGA

This small southern-hemisphere island is rugby-mad and in June, roared on by a 10,000 crowd, they showed how dangerous they can be by beating France 20-16, and three tries to one. So their performances in the recent Pacific Rim tournament - they drew 6-6 with Samoa but lost 44-17 to Japan and 30-10 to USA - were surprising. Tonga played in the first World Cup, missed 1991, but were back for 1995. The game arrived on the island through Methodist missionaries. Only in 1973 did Tonga first go on a full tour, to Australia, as the island celebrated 50 years of rugby. They lost the first Test 30-12 in Sydney but then produced one of the greatest shocks in the game's history by winning 16-11 in Brisbane. Their form has always been erratic, but Tonga have produced some great players over the years. Traditionally better suited to sevens, their talent for running rugby and their relish for the big tackles make them dangerous opponents in any company. Their technical adviser, the South African David Waterston, has been working on greater self-discipline.

Strengths: Physical size and power allied to an instinctive flair which can unpick any defence.

Weaknesses: A tendency towards carelessness and ill-discipline when under pressure.

Backs: S Faka'osifolau, S Finau (capt), S Marten, E Taione, I Tapu-eluelu, T Taufahema, S Taumalolo, S Taupeaafe, F Tatafu, T Tiueti, S Tu'ipulotu, S M Tu'ipulotu, E Vunipola, B Wooley. Forwards: D Edwards, T Fainga'anuku, K Faletau, P Faletau, I Fatani, B Kivalu, S Koloi, F Mafi, L Maka, T Penisini, N Ta'u, T Taumoepeau, M Te Pou, V Toloke, K Tu'ipulotu, F Vunipola . Coach: P Tu'ihalamaka.

Odds: 1,000-1

POOL C: FRANCE, CANADA, FIJI, NAMIBIA

FRANCE

A successful World Cup hinges on the ability to peak at the right time. France look as if they peaked 18 months early, yet to count them out is foolhardy, as history shows. That said, the signs are not good. After back-to-back Grand Slams in 1997-98, this year the French struggled to beat Ireland, were upset by Wales, demolished by England and eclipsed by Scotland at the Stade de France, where they have still to record a victory. Worse followed on their summer tour, with a record 54-7 Test defeat in New Zealand and an embarrassing loss in Tonga. None the less, they have some fine players. Christian Califano was the world's best prop a season ago before injury, Emile Ntamack is a Rolls-Royce among backs, and Thomas Castaignede is an instinctive genius. The coaches, Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux, know their Pool C opponents, Canada, Fiji and Namibia, could all provide sterner opposition than previously anticipated. But France should reach the quarter-finals, and it may only take one or two little things to click for them to become a major threat again.

Strengths: All individual ingredients are in place to conjure up flair which opponents fear.

Weaknesses: Too easily lose focus and discipline faced with setbacks or sustained pressure.

Backs: E Ntamack, C Dominici, P Bernat-Salles, X Garbajosa, S Glas, J Marlu, R Dourthe, C Lamaison, C Desbrosse, T Castaignede, U Mola, P Mignoni, S Castaignede, O Sarramea. Forwards: O Magne, C Califano, F Tournaire, C Soulette, P de Villiers, R Ibanez (capt), M Dal Maso, F Pelous, O Brouzet, A Benazzi, D Auradou, M Lievremont, L Mallier, A Costes, T Lievremont, C Juillet. Coach: J-C Skrela.

Odds: 20-1

CANADA

There was enough spirit and attitude on show in the warm-up matches against Wales and England to suggest that Gareth Rees and his men will be prepared to tough it out with the best of them. While they lost both, Rees felt his squad had shown enough to suggest they had not been left behind in the age of professionalism. They have enough full-timers based in the British Isles, France and Japan to give them a steely edge, and in their three previous appearances in the tournament they have given a good account of themselves, reaching the 1991 quarter-finals. There is a good balance of experience and thrusting newcomers: Rees is one of very few players to be appearing in his fourth World Cup - he was a raw 19-year-old in 1987 - while hooker Mark Cardinal is in his third, having had to miss 1991 because of business commitments. Although they are in a tough group - France, Fiji and Namibia represent fiercesome opposition - Dave Lougheed at outside centre and Winston Stanley and Courtney Smith on the wings represent a serious threat to opponents.

Strengths: Place-kicking skills of Gareth Rees will guarantee points.

Weaknesses: Lack of frequent get-togethers and a concomitant disparity in fitness levels.

Backs: S Stewart, J Pagano, J Cordle, J Loveday, C Smith,

W Stanley, S Bryan, D Lougheed, K Nichols, G Rees (capt), B Ross, M Williams, J Graf. Forwards: R Bice, D Major, D Penney, R Snow, J Thiel, M Cardinal, P Dunkley, M James, B McCarthy, J Tait, C Whittaker, R Banks, D Baugh, J Hutchinson, R Robson, A Charron, M Schmid. Coach: P Parfrey.

Odds: 500-1

FIJI

Missed out in 1995, which woke them up to the fact that they had perhaps been getting their emphasis wrong by over-concentrating on the sevens version of the game. Coach Brad Johnstone, a New Zealander, has been trying find the balance between the methodical approach of 15-man rugby and the more exhilarating, instinctive style of sevens. They will have to curb their natural desire to keep the ball alive and in play for as long as possible and instead rely more on the ball-winning skills of the forwards, where lock Simon Raiwalui, who has had a great deal of experience with Queensland and latterly at Sale, can do really well. Old maestro Waisale Serevi is still around, ready to turn on the magic, but there are others equally capable of making an impact in the tournament. At half-back Jacob Rauluni could prove a threat and in the centre they have Meli Nakauta, who is a heavy hitman in the tackle.

Strengths: Quick-witted approach, stunning handling skills and scorching pace make them dangerous, particularly on the counter.

Weakness: Will have to temper their inclination to run everything, otherwise they will leave themselves open to attack.

Backs: J Rauluni, M Rauluni, N Little, W Serevi, M Nakauta, L Little, W Sotutu, T Matson, V Satala, I Tiko, F Lasagavibau, M Vunibaka, M Bari, A Uluinayau. Forwards: G Smith (capt), D Rouse, J Veitayaki, E Natuivau, N Qoro, I Rasila, S Raiwalui, A Naevo, E Katalu, I Tawake, I Tabua, S Tawake, A Mocelutu, A Doviverata, K Sewabu, I Male. Coach: B Johnstone.

Odds: 250-1

NAMIBIA

Crushed by South African provincial sides in the Vodacom Cup during the summer, Namibia face a tough assignment in their first World Cup. A young side, they qualified thanks to superb organisation by coaches Johan Venter and Rudi Joubert, chalking up a 22-10 qualifying win over Cote D'Ivoire. The inspiration that day was captain and No 8 Quinn Hough, who scored two tries. They then beat Morocco 17-8 and, their best result, demolished Zimbabwe 39-14, scoring six tries. Since then, bad habits have returned, and in June Joubert was appointed coach after Venter was sacked for that disastrous Vodacom run of only one win and a draw from 14 matches. The problems were exacerbated by off-field rows with the national sports commission, who wanted a quota of 60-40, whites to blacks, in the team. That dispute now out of the way, Joubert is determined Namibia will not let themselves down. "We are not going there just to make up the numbers," he said. "Our players are amateurs but I still believe we can have professional attitudes."

Strengths: Attitude and playing nous hardened by consistent exposure to South African rugby.

Weaknesses: Ambivalence about identity as a country and team, added to limited resources.

Backs: L van Dyk, D Mouton, G van Wyk, D Farmer, A Samuelson, R Jansen van Vuuren, L Holthausen, C Loubsher, F van Rensburg, R Janjies, J Zaayman, R Pedro, S Janse van Rensburg. Forwards: F Fisch, S de Beer, M van Rooyen, J Olivier, S van der Merwe, Q Hough (capt), S Furter, H Lintvelt, H Senekal, E Izaacs, P Steyn, J Theron, G Opperman, M Jacobs, E Smith, A Blaauw, H Horn. Coach: R Joubert.

Odds: 2,000-1

POOL D: WALES, ARGENTINA, JAPAN, MANU SAMOA

WALES

Graham Henry has been walking on water since he took over the coaching job a little over 18 months ago. He has turned out some abrasive, canny and cunning sides. The tactics at line-outs, where the Wales forwards run into position at the last minute and launch their jumpers immediately, have bothered many an opponent. The pack are now awesome. The front row are as good as any; the locks are combative and skilful; the back row, with the gargantuan figure of Scott Quinnell usually leading the way, can be unstoppable. In the backs they have a wealth of talent and lethal finishers. Now Neil Jenkins is standing flatter he presents a more all- round threat, and outside him Scott Gibbs and Mark Taylor are a centre pairing made in heaven. Gareth Thomas and Dafydd James have genuine pace on the wings and at full-back is one of the most dangerous counter- attackers and bravest of men under pressure in Shane Howarth. They know they can keep out the best and go on to beat them at their own attacking game.

Strengths: Jenkins' goal-kicking; the Quinnells; Rob Howley; Millennium Stadium atmosphere.

Weakness: Indiscipline. They lost to Ireland in the Five Nations because too many lost their heads at critical moments.

Backs: S Howarth, N Boobyer, G Thomas, D James, N Walne, S Gibbs, A Bateman, M Taylor, L Davies, J Jones-Hughes, N Jenkins, S Jones, R Howley (capt), D Llewellyn. Forwards: P Rogers, A Lewis, D Young , B Evans, G Jenkins, J Humphreys, C Wyatt, C Quinnell, M Voyle, A Moore, G Llewellyn, C Charvis, G Lewis, B Sinkinson, M Williams, S Quinnell. Coach: G Henry.

Odds: 14-1

ARGENTINA

The Pumas recorded their first victory on British soil when they beat Scotland at Murrayfield in August, although they went on to lose to Ireland a week later. However, the enforced absence through injury of the powerhouse Federico Mendez, who can play at hooker or on either side of the scrum, is a major blow. Their World Cup record is poor: they have won just one match (v Italy in 1987) out of nine. To make matters worse, their group contains Wales, who in June became the first British side to record a Test series win (2-0) in Argentina. The Pumas' opening match launches the tournament at the Millennium Stadium against Wales. The pack is no pushover, even without Mendez. Former captain Pedro Sporleder should prove a handful in the line-out, Martin Scelzo is an impressive front- row player and out on the flank is the experienced Rolando Martin. Much will be expected of scrum-half Agustin Pichot, and watch out for wing Ottavio Bartolucci.

Strengths: Scrummaging, which should earn them a solid platform of possession their backs are quite capable of turning into points.

Weakness: An aging side with too many 30-somethings and not enough bright young things.

Backs: M Contepomi, I Corleto, D Albanese, O Bartolucci, G Camardon, L Arbizu (capt), F Contepomi, J Orengo, E Simone, J L Cilley, J Fernandez Miranda, G Quesada, A Pichot , N Fernandez Miranda. Forwards: R Grau, O Hasan, M Reggiardo, M Scelzo, M Ledesma, F Diaz Alberdi, A Canalda, A Allub, C I Fernandez Lobbe, R Perez, P Sporleder, G Longo, R Martin, S Phelan, M Ruiz, L Ostiglia. Coach: A Wyllie.

Odds: 150-1

JAPAN

Having been beefed up with some imports from New Zealand - Andrew McCormick, Graeme Bachop, Jamie Joseph, Robert Gordon and Greg Smith - they have been sweeping all before them. They won the Epson Cup, the Pacific Rim tournament, after beating Canada, Tonga and Samoa at home, and also the United States, suffering just one loss, to Fiji. Clearly their previous record in the World Cup, a solitary victory over Zimbabwe in 1991, is not going to prove an accurate form guide. This mob have to be taken seriously. The pedigree of their mighty Kiwi imports is a given, but there is plenty of home-grown talent as well. Wing Daisuke Ohata showed with his wonder try against Scotland in the 1999 Hong Kong Sevens that he is one of the best broken-field runners in the world, and he scored four tries in the Epson Cup. Fly-half Keiji Hirose, who scored 34 points in the win against Tonga, including a world-record nine penalties, is no slouch either. Their summer triumph will give them confidence in Pool D.

Strengths: Inventiveness, and opponents likely to underestimate them.

Weakness: Lack of physical presence may well prove their undoing.

Backs: T Matsuda, T Hirao, T Masuho, D Ohata, P Tuidraki, R Miki, A McCormick (capt), Y Motoki, A Yoshida, A Koga, K Hirose, K Iwabuchi, G Bachop, W Murata. Forwards: S Hasegawa, T Nakamichi, N Nakamura, K Oguchi, M Kunda, M Sakata, R Gordon, N Okubo, Y Sakuraba, H Tanuma, G Smith, Y Watanabe, H Kiso, R Ishi, J Joseph, T Ito . Coach: S Hirao.

Odds: 1,000-1

MANU SAMOA

Like Polynesian neighbours Fiji and Tonga, Samoans are naturally athletic and bulky enough to pack a punch on the pitch. These little islands have sent many a star to fame and fortune in New Zealand and Australia - migration initially caused by the search for work. These days, Samoa have many fine players of their own, although the Pacific Rim tournament produced a mixed bag of results - a loss to Japan, victories over Canada and the United States and a 6-6 draw with Tonga. More worryingly, New Zealand tore them apart, winning 71-13, but with the likes of Pat Lam, Va'aiga Tuigamala, Junior Paramore, Trevor Leota and Stephen Bachop on board, there is no shortage of talent. What they will need when they line up is discipline and spirit. In 1991, they beat Wales to reach the quarter- finals. They also reached the last eight four years ago, and that must be their target again. The Samoans are driven by a common cause - proving they are a fine team in their own right and not just a recruiting station for richer neighbours.

Strengths: Magnificent, streetwise men in key positions who know how to win if chance arises.

Weaknesses: Lack of quality reserves and a slight over-reliance on the ultra-physical.

Backs: S Leaega, M Umaga, Va'aiga Tuigamala, Brian Lima, A So'oalo, F Toala, T Vaega, T Vili, T Fanolua, G Leaupepe, S Bachop, E Va'a, J Clarke, S So'oilao. Forwards: K Faiva'ai, M Mika, F Pala'amo, B Reidy, T Leota, O Matauiau, L Falaniko, O Palepoi, L Tone, C Glendinning, S Sititi, S Ta'ala, K Toleafoa, I Feaunati, P Lam, J Paramore. Coach: B Williams.

Odds: 150-1

POOL E: IRELAND, AUSTRALIA, ROMANIA, UNITED STATES

IRELAND

Can shake up the best of them, but can they go one step further and win not just one match against the odds but three or four? They clearly have the playing talent, but history is against them. Pitched into Pool E with Australia (who inflicted that heart-breaking quarter-final defeat at Lansdowne Road eight years ago), Romania and the USA, Ireland should progress to the last eight via the extra play-off game. To go a stage further would be to enter uncharted territory. Warren Gatland, the New Zealand-born coach in charge since February 1998, has seen his side flatter to deceive. In this year's Five Nations they had the beating of France, only to be undone by a late penalty. They beat Wales but were easily seen off by Scotland and England. Their current strength is an abrasive pack, spearheaded by a front row of Peter Clohessey, Keith Wood and Paul Wallace. The South African-born Dion O'Cuinneagain, who captains the squad, gives the back row more mobility, but the backs lack the class and guile to break the gain line regularly.

Strengths: Their raw courage and sheer unpredictability can unsettle even the top nations.

Weaknesses: Inconsistency, tactical naivety and lack of confidence after run of poor results.

Backs: C O'Shea, G Darcey, J Bishop, M Mostyn, J Topping, J Bell, K Maggs, M Mullins, B O'Driscoll, D Humphreys, E Elwood, T Tierney, B O'Meara. Forwards: P Clohessy, R Corrigan, J Fitzpatrick, A McKeen, P Wallace, K Wood, R Nesdale, J Davidson, P Johns, M O'Kelly, R Casey, T Brennan, D Corkery, K Dawson, A Ward, D O'Cuinneagain (capt), E Miller. Coach: W Gatland.

Odds: 100-1

AUSTRALIA

The timing could not have been sweeter: a thumping victory over New Zealand at the end of August was the perfect way to complete their preparations, particularly since the Tri-Nations series was so unpleasant for the Wallabies.The return of full-back Matt Burke, now fully recovered from a shoulder injury that kept him out for almost a year, was welcome; his pace and power in attack and superb defensive play will make the Aussies' line hard to breach. In the centre, Nathan Grey and Daniel Herbert are an awesome combination, while outside them are Ben Tune and Joe Roff, scorers of thunderous good tries. George Gregan is a quick-thinking, rapid-moving scrum-half, and his half-back partner, Tim Horan, has a superb footballing brain. When it comes to the pack, John Eales in the second row is an inspirational captain; up front, Phil Kearns anchors the scrum, but is no slouch around the park. Having won the World Cup in 1991 they lost out to that Rob Andrew drop goal in 1995, but will take some beating this time.

Strengths: Creative, quick-witted, can attack from all parts of the field and from any situation.

Weakness: Inclined, of late, to indiscipline; conceding penalties is a dangerous thing to do with so many good goal-kickers around.

Backs: M Burke, C Latham, J Little, J Roff, B Tune, N Grey, DHerbert, T Horan, S Staniforth, S Larkham, R Kafer, G Gregan, C Whitaker. Forwards: A Blades, D Crowley, R Harry, P Noriega, P Kearns, J Paul, M Foley, M Connors, J Eales (capt), D Giffin, J Williams, M Cockbain, O Finegan, T Bowman, D Wilson, T Kefu, T Strauss. Coach: R Macqueen.

Odds: 5-2

ROMANIA

Have dragged themselves back up the world rankings after being forced to rebuild following the harrowing and destructive revolution of December 1989. The build-up for this World Cup has seen them thrashed 62-8 by a less than top-quality France in June, followed more recently by an equally emphatic 60-19 defeat against Scotland at Murrayfield. In their qualifying group they lost to Ireland - the two countries meet again in Pool E - and just scraped through their vital match against Georgia, although they were denied four of their first-choice front-five players by club demands in France. There are fears that the lure of the franc will entice the bulk of their top players away; already there is talk that many of the younger ones, tempted by university scholarships, will go to France and then want to qualify for that country. Players to watch include full-back Petre Mitu, inexperienced but with plenty of flair and an excellent goal-kicker, and captain Tudor Constantin, a ferocious lock with Racing Club.

Strengths: Remarkable ability to regroup in adversity. They will be a spirited side.

Weakness: Do not have capacity to soak up punishment against the better sides, as their defensive record on the way to the finals shows.

Backs: M Iacob, L Sirbu, R Vusec, M Ciolacu, I Tofan, R Gontineac, G Brezoaianu, C Lupu, R Fugigi, G Solomie, C Sauan, C Hildan, M Vioreanu, P Mitu. Forwards: T Constantin (capt), C Stan, L Rotaru, N Dima, P Balan, S Demci, O Tonita, A Petrache, C Draguceanu, T Brinza, D Chiriac, F Corodeanu, E Septar, R Mavrodin, A Salageanu, S Slusariuc. Coach: J Phillips.

Odds: 1,000-1

UNITED STATES

More downs than ups on the run-in to the finals, not least the clinical thrashing by England. They fared a little better in Cardiff, but that was not against a full-strength side. But they did extremely well in the Pacific Rim Tournament, beating Canada, albeit by a point, in Toronto. They also accounted for Fiji and Tonga, only losing to Western Samoa and Japan. Even so they have no illusions about their chances. They just do not have the time or money to work together for weeks at a time. Logistically they are scattered all across the States and, in the case of Tom Billups, captain Dan Lyle and lock Ray Lehner, England. But in Lyle they have an inspirational leader and a flanker-cum-No 8-cum-lock of the highest quality. There is also experience in the shape of towering locks Luke Gross, formerly with Harlequins, and David Hodges. At scrum- half they have unearthed a gem in Kevin Dalzell, rapidly gaining a reputation for explosive breaks and his pugnacious approach. He is also proving to be quite a goal-kicker.

Strengths: Forwards have experience and flair enough to rattle the cages of best of opponents.

Weakness: Defensively do not have the know-how to keep out the well- drilled professionals.

Backs: K Shuman, V Anitoni, B Hightower, A Saulala, S Uigalelei, D Stroble, J Grobler, M Scharrenberg, T Takau, D Niu, M Williams, K Dalzell, J Coulson, A Blom, R Schurfeld. Forwards: J Clayton, M L'Huillier, R Lehner, G Sucher, T Billups, K Khasigian, L Gross, A Parker, E Reed, D Hodges, F Mo'unga, S Paga, R Tardits, D Lyle (capt), R Lumkong. Coach: J Clark.

Odds: 2,500-1 Odds supplied by Ladbrokes

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