Can the Wallabies’ backline make up for the weaknesses of its forward pack and help clinch a third rugby World Cup? How will the French cope with the pressure of host-nation status? Are the All Blacks, Cup-less for 20 years, all they’re cracked up to be? Can the English mount some sort of meaningful defence of the title they won so memorably in Sydney four years ago? And will the man whose extra-time field goal secured the William Webb Ellis trophy in that final, Wallabies’ nemesis Jonny Wilkinson, be fit to play after suffering yet another injury?
With the World Cup opener less than 48 hours away, these questions and more will be scrutinised, analysed, chewed over and debated in bars all over the rugby-playing world in the coming seven weeks, and finally answered in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis on October 21.
The tournament kicks off with the host nation France opening its campaign against Argentina in Paris at 5am on Saturday (AEST). Australia then fronts up against Japan in Lyon on Saturday night, at 11.45pm. And so begins the six-week orgy of rugby that winds its way all over France – from Marseille in the south, Bordeaux and Nantes in the west, Lyon in the east and to Paris in the north. But, strangely, it will not be an exclusively French affair.
Six qualifying games will also be played in the United Kingdom — or what the French used to dismissively describe as perfidious Albion — before the event’s focus returns to France and reaches its climax at Saint-Denis.
One can only hope the cauliflower-eared extravaganza retains the fans’ interest for longer than the diabolically dull cricket World Cup staged earlier this year in the West Indies. Hostage to TV schedules, and lasting a tortuous seven weeks, it had sent everyone to sleep by the time the final was eventually played.
Surely the men who run the Game They Play in Heaven will have taken heed of those mistakes and ensured that tickets are not overpriced for the average fan, TV does not get to run the schedule and there is a continuity and flow to the games which maintains the tournament’s momentum – even if they have to deal with cricket’s problem of lop-sided early games involving the sport’s minnows.
Whether the Wallabies’ revolutionary new ion-charged jerseys will be in evidence in the final on October 21 is dependent upon the fancy Dans who do the running and try-scoring in the backline — the glamour boys who finish off all the grunt work from the less fashionable forwards.
This is where the Australians have traditionally been strong and again they will be relying on the veteran half-back pair of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, captain Stirling Mortlock, tormentor of the All Blacks in the recent Tri-Nations Test at the MCG, Matt Giteau, Chris Latham, Lote Tuquri and Adam Ashley-Cooper to do the damage, punching holes in the opposition’s defence with clever running.
The forward pack is the worry. Coach John Connolly is adamant the 2007 Wallabies will not be pushed around by the likes of the English and South Africans – as has happened routinely in the recent past – and will more than hold their own in the heavy-boy stakes.
If Connolly is right and the forwards can hold their ground, perhaps Australia can make a lie of their fourth favouritism – behind New Zealand, South Africa and France – and pull off a memorable upset.