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A Bluffer's Guide to... the Rugby World Cup

Still baffled by all this business in New Zealand? Let us take you by the hand and walk you through the tournament format.

Keith Earls and Jamie Heaslip in an ice bath after training this week.
Keith Earls and Jamie Heaslip in an ice bath after training this week.
Image: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

New Zealand?

Yes. Home of hobbits, millions of sheep and, for this year at least, the premier tournament in international rugby.

New Zealand hasn’t played host to the Rugby World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987, a year that, much to the shame of tiny Antipodean nation, also marks the All Blacks’ only victory in the event.

Australia and South Africa have both won two of the subsequent five tournaments, while England nicked the trophy in 2003 courtesy of a last-minute drop goal from Her Majesty’s Johnny Wilkinson.

So, how does it work?

Brace yourself.

This year’s event features twenty nations, each of whom is placed in one of four seeded pools. The line-up reads as follows:

A: New Zealand, France, Tonga, Canada, Japan.

B: Argentina, England, Scotland, Georgia, Romania.

C: Australia, Ireland, Italy, Russia, USA.

D: South Africa, Wales, Fiji, Samoa, Namibia.

The members of each group then play each other once in a round-robin league, with the top two teams progressing to the quarter-finals.

It can’t be that simple.

It never is. The league uses a points system slightly more elaborate than what the average sports fan is accustomed to.

A run-of-the-mill win is worth 4 points, a draw is worth 2 points and a loss is valued at 0 points. Score more than four tries, however, and your side earns a bonus point; lose by less than seven points (ie. secure a manly, heroic loss) and that, too, bags another bonus point.

Theoretically, there’s such a thing as a two-point loss, but that would require an improbable combination of attacking prowess and defensive ineptitude. France could manage it.

Then…

You’re into straightforward knock-out territory, with group winners playing second-place finishers in the next round.

Tied matches will be decided by two ten-minute  halves of extra-time. Failing that, there always the opportunity for a period of sudden death and the IRB’s last, worst resort: a kicking competition.

So who’re the favourites?

As seems to be the case before every World Cup, the All Blacks look close to unbeatable. Mental discipline cost them dear in 2007 and, in the four-year interim since their quarter-final humiliation at the hands of France, New Zealand have built a side that appears as tenacious and ruthless as it is talented.

When you’re writing that of a side that includes Dan Carter at fly-half, Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Corey Jane and Israel Dagg, it’s very high praise indeed.

Having said that, Australia, whose form has oscillated wildly in recent years, finally appear to have stumbled upon a line-up capable of consistently challenging their neighbours. With imaginative talents like Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Digby Ioane within its ranks, the Wallabies’ back line is nothing short of devastating when given the space to express itself.

Don’t overlook France, either; Les Bleus have more than enough talent compete with best the Southern Hemisphere has to offer, provided they manage to wrest themselves free from the control of their “mercurial” coach, Marc Lièvremont.

Didn’t you mean to say Ireland?

Ehm, not exactly.

The national side lost every one of its four international warm-up games prior to the tournament, and with question marks hanging over the match fitness of a host of players, including Brian O’Driscoll, Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip, not to mention the recent loss of David Wallace to a knee injury, expectations are considerably lower than they were as recently as two years ago.

If we were to ignore the many pre-tournament indications to the contrary and assume the team will find its rhythm in the group stages, Ireland’s biggest match, and possibly the most significant of the tournament, will come against Australia. Victory over the Tri-Nations champions will likely mean the difference between a favourable quarter-final and– if we’re to get really optimistic– semi-final draw and a route to the final that includes encounters with South Africa and New Zealand.

How do I follow the tournament?

Setanta have every game, RTÉ will be broadcasting all of Ireland’s group matches and the knock-out stages, but you can keep up with the action here on The Score: we’ll be liveblogging every match.

Here’s everything we have in store.

Kicking on: Welcome to our Rugby World Cup coverage

Please take your seat… here are the Rugby World Cup stadiums

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