The 2011 Rugby World Cup: An armchair fan's guide
With its heady mix of hard-hitting tackles, heart-stopping tries and hakas, the 2011 Rugby World Cup kicks off tonight as hosts and favourites New Zealand take on Tonga in Auckland.
In a land where rugby is religion, the All Blacks, so often tipped for the title at the start of the tournament, will be desperate to get their hands on the famous William Web-Ellis trophy for the first time since 1987, the last time the competition came to their shores.
But after losing the recent Tri-Nations final to fierce rivals Australia and with genuine challengers bearing down on them from every other corner of the rugby playing world, the 2011 tournament promises to be one of the most open in years.
On the eve of one of the biggest and most-bruising competitions in the sporting calendar here is a quick run-down of players, predictions and past performances for the armchair fan. Touch! Pause! Engage!
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The 2011 Rugby World Cup features 20 teams from six different continents, from established nations like South Africa and France to minnows like Namibia and the USA. It runs for seven weeks from tomorrow with the winners playing for the famous William Web Ellis trophy in Auckland on October 23.
Teams begin the tournament in four groups of five. After playing each team in their pool once, the top two progress to the last 16 and the knock-out phase. England start the tournament in Pool B along with Argentina, Scotland, Georgia and Romania. For the full schedule of matches visit: www.rugbyworldcup.com/home/fixtures/calendar.html
2. Top Teams/ Bookies Favourites
As has been the case at the start of so many World Cups, New Zealand go in as favourites followed by their neighbours Australia. Bookmakers Ladbrokes rate the All Blacks as 8-13 on to win on home soil with the Aussies at 3-1. The 2007 winners South Africa are next in line according to the bookmakers at 9-1 followed by France, a 14-1 shot.
Having won the title in 2003 and made the final in 2007, Six Nations champions England could just be the dark horse of the tournament at 16-1.
3. Home Nations
Of the four home nations only England harbour a serious belief they can win the tournament, although a semi-final berth is likely to be the best they can hope for. Ireland, Wales and a resurgent Scotland will all be hoping to make it through as far as the quarter finals although the Scots face the toughest task, having to beat either England or Argentina to get beyond the pool stage.
4. Ones to watch
From Jonah Lomu in 1995, to Johnny Wilkinson in 2003 and Bryan Habana last time out, the Rugby World Cup can provide the definitive moment in a player’s career.
From New Zealand fly-half Dan Carter to South African scrum-half Fourie du Preez there is a whole host of established stars ready to grab the tournament by the scruff of its neck.
But here are three stars slightly less heralded players set to put their boot print on this year’s contest.
Quade Cooper, Australia. The 23-year-old fly half may not provide the steady-eddy option like fellow number 10s Carter and Wilkinson but he is quite simply the most exciting player in his position in the world right now. Combining superb off-loads and fearsome running he can strike heart into the fear of any defence.
Manu Tuilagi, England. Most people thought the World Cup may have come too soon for the 20-year-old Leicester Tigers centre. But like Lomu in 1995 and Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004, Tuilagi’s best weapon may be the very fact that he is young, fearless and unknown at international level.
Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand. The opinion-dividing centre has been given a start in the opening game against Tonga and as the man in possession of the jersey could this be the time when he really delivers on the international stage? A dual-code international and some-time professional boxer the colourful character has all the skills to take the tournament by storm.
Although 95,000 foreign fans are expected in New Zealand over the next seven weeks for most of us, jostling to try and see the big screen in a crowded pub is as close as we will get to the action.
The 11-hour time difference doesn’t always make for the most sociable viewing hours but for a full list of televised matches visit www.itv.com/rugbyworldcup/
The tournament hasn’t even kicked off and yet there has still been plenty of controversy to whet the appetite. One of the main talking points in the build up was the unveiling of England’s black second strip which led New Zealand Prime minister John Key to label them a bunch of ‘wannabees’ for trying to emulate the All Blacks. The rebuilding of Eden Park and ticket prices have also been hot potatoes in the build up to the tournament.
The first rugby World Cup was held in Australia and New Zealand in 1987. The All Blacks were the inaugural winners beating France in the final. Since then three other countries have won the tournament; Australia in 1991 and 1999, South Africa in 1995 and 2007 and England in 2003.
8. What they say
Three of the top quotes of the World Cup build-up
“We heard you were concerned about security issues, but let me reassure you that half of New Zealand doesn’t know where Whanganui is, so you’re safe from a terrorist attack."
- Piri Cribb (NZL), master of ceremonies, puts American minds to rest at the USA team's welcome ceremony in Whanganui.
"Everyone knows what he can do. He's a megastar and a rock star and a great athlete. If he can do his magic, hopefully I can run off him."
- Ma'a Nonu (NZL) on Sonny Bill Williams.
"We've got a decent set of forwards. It's up to us to see how we balance the warrior and artistry - we're working hard on that, but we'll not be short of the warrior, that's for sure."
- Georgia's Scottish-born coach Richie Dixon promises a good old-fashioned battle for his home country.
9. The Haka
The traditional Maori war dance performed by New Zealand before every game. Words don't do it justice.
10. Snacks and drinks
For any armchair fan the only thing as important as the game are the snacks to accompany it.
For a truly authentic Kiwi feel try soft drink L&P, Pineapple Lumps sweets, Speights, Montieths or Mac’s Gold beer or the king of all New Zealand food, the humble pie!