In the three years leading into the World Cup, New Zealand has lost just three games. One per year, and only to two Countries - Australia and South Africa(twice). It's hard to argue their credentials as favorites, but it's also a tough road for the All Blacks. They meet the six nations champions in the quarterfinals, the only team to beat them this year in the Semi-finals and the only team to beat them in a world cup final in the world cup final.
They will be playing as much to shake the 'choker' tag that they have acquired over recent world cups. When New Zealand won in 1987 they were underdogs. Every tournament since(with the possible exception of 1991) they were expected to win. With the draw they have, if they do - they will deserve to be world champions.
South Africa last year declared themselves 'the only team capable of beating the All Blacks' which was a big claim for a team that had met the All Blacks twice that year and lost on both occasions. They did however go on to back up that claim by upsetting the All Blacks at Rustenberg in the dead rubber of the 2006 tri nations. They have a dangerous looking squad and an easier path to the final. They can expect to play Scotland in the quarterfinal, which on form should be a formality, before the physical danger of the Argentinians.
The Africans should simply have too much firepower for these opponents and will arrive at the final eager to go.
Australia should get a chance to redeem themselves for allowing rugby the embarrassment of having to call England our champions for the past four years when the two teams meet in their quarterfinal. It will be a great rematch, but ultimately the talented Australian side should destroy the bungling English and go into their semi with some form. It doesn't get any easier for the Aussies though - facing the winner of new Zealand vs France to get into a likely final with South Africa.
The Aussie team looks well balanced, has real strike power and is doing all they can to put their scrummaging problems behind them. They have two go through three of the biggest sides in international rugby to take the cup, but they have the ability to do it, and the temperament to play their best rugby at the best time. That's why they have two world cups to their name already.
It's all going wrong for France. Upset on center stage by the Argentinians on day one of the world cup, they now have to look forward to a date with the number one team in the world at quarterfinal time. France has only beaten New Zealand once this century - the 42-33 victory in Marseille seven years ago. Should they make it through that they would have to beat both the other tri-nations teams to take the world cup.
Now - France has the ability to rise up for a big game and pull it out of the bag. They did it two world cups ago to sink New Zealand hopes, and they can conceivably do it again. However I doubt they can do it 3 weeks in a row, and given their showings so far I doubt they will do it at all. They threw the ball around and looked great against a 14-man Namibian side, but that is the only time I have seen them play with the belief they can achieve that sort of magic. When a French side gets that belief they are a dangerous thing indeed. This one hasn't found it yet.
England are the current world champions until someone wins this years final, but you would have to be a pretty optimistic supporter to think England will even make it their far. Two years ago New Zealand achieved a grand slam by beating all the home nations on successive weekends. England will have to achieve a grandslam of their own against tri-nations sides to lift the world cup. And their task is even harder than that, because to even get to the knockout stage they need to topple a Tongan side that pushed South Africa to the edge last weekend.
The world cup winners of 2003 were the best organised, most complete squad at the tournament. Unfortunately they 2007 class didn't seem to learn anything from them.
The poor cousin of world rugby struck a big blow by beating the French on day on of the world cup. It is still the only boil over of the tournament, but the effects reverberate around the tournament still. Not least of which is that the Argentinians are going to have to prove their pool topping ranking by dealing with Ireland to get to the quarterfinals. Should they do that(and they should) the Scottish should hardly slow them before a huge semi-final against the Springboks.
Argentina draws most of it's players from French rugby, and has been crying out for a place in a competition of the caliber of the tri nations or six nations. The scalp of France at home in the World Cup, and the likely scalps of Ireland and Scotland, are going to make their demands harder and harder to ignore.
You need a certain amount of spine to win the world cup - and any side that concedes a match before the first whistle just plain doesn't have it. Sure the Scots were probably never going to beat the All Blacks, but by admitting it by fielding a second string side, they have shown a blatant lack of respect to the All Blacks, the tournament and most of all to their own home fans - some of whom paid up to $450 a ticket to see their home side take on the best in the world.
Personally, I'll be cheering for Italy next weekend.
How much would Ireland have liked the world cup to come 12 months ago? Since then they have plodded their way through a poor preparation, suffered injuries to everyone from the captain to the waterboy and shown all the point scoring ability of a gumboot in their first pool matches. Despite this they are still an outside chance to make the quarterfinals if they can beat Argentina and claim a bonus point. On present form - they can't.
Wales, hmmmmmm. I don't know what it is about the home nations side, but they just don't seem to know what to do when they get the ball. The Welsh team on 2003 was dangerous from anywhere on the field, the 2007 vintage is only really dangerous to themselves. Wales should have enough to put away the Fijians and make it to the quarterfinals, but it would be sad if they went any further, because they don't look like the 8th best team in the world to me.
Italy has made great strides in recent years having joined the six nations. And this is reflected by their continued showings at the world cup. Back in '87 they were blown off the park 70-6 by the All Blacks, but this year, calling on all the experience and skill they have learned in the 6 nations competition, they reduced that margin to 76-13. Hold on, there's something wrong here...
I'll say this for Italy - they fronted up, unlike the Scots. Suppose against all form the winner of the Scotland/Italy match makes the world cup final to play New Zealand. Scotland have already conceded they have not a hope of victory. At least Italy has the spine to try for it.
New Zealand v Romania (85-8)
Rugby world cup photos
New Zealand Haka Tries - cool video