It seems to have taken an age to arrive (the tournament, not my preview) but finally it's here at last and all the meaningless international friendlies and even this year's irrelevant Tri-Nations are firmly behind us. For all those teams who fielded weakened teams during the last 12 months in order to preserve players for this tournament, I wonder if it will prove to be worth it? I mean, only one team can win the Webb Ellis trophy.
So which team will that be? Let's have a look at the qualifying pools:
Pool A - England, South Africa, Samoa, Tonga, USA
"Quel surprise," as they say in France, Jonny is crocked again and it's all doom and gloom in the English media who appear to be under the illusion that a fit Wilkinson gives us a great chance of beating South Africa and progressing through the tournament. Do me a favour! Although I wouldn't entirely write off an English victory against the Springboks (the packs are pretty evenly matched in my view), South Africa's all round solidity should see them home comfortably whether or not Jonny plays. Jake White's become so irritating of late that I'd love to see his side fail miserably, but I suspect they'll win this pool and then progress to at least the semis. England should (although it's by no means guaranteed) see off Samoa and make it to the quarters. Samoa v Tonga could be one of the games of the tournament if big hits turn you on, and I'd expect the referee will need to remember where his red card is. It's a difficult pool for the USA whose best chance is against Mr. Paddy Power and the big-eating Tongans.
Pool B - Australia, Wales, Fiji, Canada, Japan
Despite home advantage for the Welsh, Australia should stroll through this pool. The Aussies still lack a half-decent front row, but are lucky enough to be drawn against teams who are probably not capable of troubling them in this phase. Wales have gone backwards at a rapid rate of knots since Mike Ruddock was scandalously dumped last year and the decision to leave out Henson is baffling. They are extremely fortunate that the other teams in the pool are unlikely to offer much resistance and that they won't be facing their nemesis, Samoa. It will be Fiji and Canada battling it out for 3rd spot with Japan propping things up.
Pool C - New Zealand, Scotland, Italy, Romania, Portugal
This really is going to be too easy for the All Blacks, especially as Scotland and Italy are likely to field second-string sides against them whilst keeping their respective powders dry for their own little encounter. In 2003 a pool game injury to Umaga threw the All Blacks out of kilter and a similar scenario involving Carter and/or McCaw could spell trouble. I'm clutching at straws here but if New Zealand are seriously undercooked at the quarter final stage, are missing one or two first choices and don't manage to sort out a creaky lineout and unconvincing centre pairing, they could just be vulnerable. The Scotland v Italy game will be the major game of interest and I fancy the Italian forwards to dominate this one. Portugal's first appearance is welcome although I do fear for their safety and they'll do well to keep the score against Romania respectable.
Pool D - France, Ireland, Argentina, Georgia, Namibia
Aka the "Pool of Death". One very good team will be eliminated from the tournament and it's not easy to predict who that will be. It looks like O'Driscoll will be fit which is a huge boost for Ireland as without him they are a much reduced force. France face the Argies in the first game and this could be pivotal. Argentina have a fabulous recent record against the French but there's so much riding on it I just can't see France losing. Ireland's problem against both France and Argentina will be coping at scrum time, but ultimately I see them coming through second in the pool behind the French, although this one could go down to the number of tries scored or points difference. Georgia and Namibia provide the sideshow in this pool, with Georgia likely to record their first World Cup victory.
Overall the Kiwis deservedly start as favourites, but South Africa, Australia and hosts France have closed the gap this year and must realistically fancy their chances. Personally I think home advantage will be huge this year and so, if I have to get off the fence, I'll predict France to keep the cup in the northern hemisphere.
Vive La France!