The Rugby World Cup kicks off on Friday night amid much hype and fanfare in New Zealand, with shrewd mentor Ewen McKenzie likening the showpiece event to a grand slam tennis tournament with only three genuine contenders.
Just as the so-called Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have dominated tennis majors for the past six years, McKenzie suspects only New Zealand, Australia and England are truly capable of winning seven consecutive matches to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
McKenzie, who guided Queensland to this year’s Super Rugby title and was a Wallabies assistant coach to Eddie Jones when Australia reached the 2003 World Cup final in Sydney, rates South Africa, France, Ireland, Wales and Scotland as outsiders unlikely to go all the way.
“There’s certainly some very key games as we go and we’ll be watching those pivotal games that can change the nature of the tournament, but I just keep going back to who can win seven straight games,” McKenzie told AAP.
“How many teams in the world against oppositions with increasing abilities can get seven wins in a row? There’s not a lot of contenders in that space.
“It’s not dissimilar to a grand slam tennis tournament where you’ve got to front up and win seven straight.
“Within that, you’ve got to work out which teams have got the depth because there’ll be a few injuries and things like that.
“You need to be able to get through the rub of the green. It will be about luck; a yellow card can make a big difference. A yellow card usually means a try.
“All of those are things we can’t control or know about and it makes the tournament interesting.
“But I still keep going back to who can win seven straight.
“Clearly the All Blacks are in the mix, Australia are there and the English have done well (in the lead-up).
“There’s not a lot of other teams that can do that as the opposition gets harder and harder.”
The seventh edition of the World Cup is back where the extravaganza began in 1987, in rugby-mad New Zealand described as a stadium of four million.
It guarantees a total immersion for fans an the 600 players from 20 teams spread across the country ready for the six-week tournament.
“This is the spiritual home of rugby,” acknowledged International Rugby Board (IRB) chief executive Mike Miller.
More than 58,000 spectators are expected to fill the revamped Eden Park for Friday night’s tournament start between the All Blacks and neighbouring Tonga, with another 50,000 fans expected to pack Auckland’s waterfront party area to watch the kick-off and spectacular opening ceremony on big screens.
Then two of those pivotal pool matches McKenzie was talking about take place over the weekend.
England, the European champions, take on surprise 2007 semi-finalists Argentina in Dunedin on Saturday night.
With Scotland also hovering in Pool B, victory is imperative for England and Argentina to keep alive their respective hopes of topping the group and gaining less difficult knockout path to the October 23 final.
England will be without skipper Lewis Moody (knee) and winger Mark Cueto (back), but still boast a wealth of experience headed by 2003 World Cup final hero Jonny Wilkinson at five-eighth.
Pitted in Pool C alongside Ireland, Italy, Russia and the USA, Australia launch their quest for a third World Cup against the Azzurri at Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium on Sunday night before defending champions South Africa tackle Wales in a massive Pool D encounter on Sunday night in Wellington.
Should they top Pool C as expected, the Wallabies will meet the runners-up from Pool D in the quarter-finals – and Wales coach Warren Gatland insists that may well be the defending champion Springboks.
The Welsh also have Wallabies conquerors Samoa plus Fiji and Namibia in their group and have not beaten South Africa for 12 years.
Gatland, though, believes they can upset the 2007 champions and sweep the pool stages.
“We’ve lost by four points, three points and five points and we’ve outscored them seven tries to six in the last three matches,” he said this week.
In other games on Saturday, France and Japan – in top-ranked New Zealand’s Pool A – clash at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday, Scotland face Romania in Invercargill and Fiji and Namibia square off in Rotorua.
Ireland and the USA play on Sunday in New Plymouth.