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Crunch time! Can the springboks make it three?

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Since its conception in 1987, the Rugby Union World Cup has always created history, drama, heroes, villains, nail-biting scenarios and moments of pure brilliance. This year’s simmering cauldron of rivalries will be brought to the boil in New Zealand—exactly where it all started more than two decades before. Let the battle commence.

When the Rugby Union World Cup story began 24 years ago the organisers had high hopes for a sport that had long-deserved a platform befitting of its massive popularity—a stage upon which its finest exponents could display their myriad of skills in front of a captivated international audience.

Even in those halcyon days of the late 1980’s, not even the most optimistic fans could have predicted the blood and thunder produced by this increasingly spectacular tournament.

History in the making

For connoisseurs of the previous six campaigns there are particular memories that spring instantly to mind.

The first champions, New Zealand, jointly hosted the competition and proceeded to make light work of any team that stood in their way. This included a mercurial French team who were convincingly trounced 29-9 in the inaugural final. That day the nonchalant Kiwi team included legends such as Sean Fitzpatrick, Grant Fox, John Kirwan—who scored a decisive try in the final—and Michael Jones.

Four years later Australia—featuring mouthy try machine David Campese—laughed in the face of tradition by toppling rugby’s original architects and joint hosts, England. Although the game at Twickenham—which the Aussies won 12-6—was indicative of a low scoring and defensive tournament, it heralded a new chapter of southern hemispheric domination and raised serious questions about Will Carling’s famously arduous team briefings (during which Jeremy Guscott would apparently fall asleep). Many saw this as an official changing of the guard and, for England, it began a 12-year hiatus from the World Cup final.

Pump up the volume

In 1995, Jonah Lomu burst on to the scene leaving a trail of forwards flailing hopelessly in his wake. Huge, powerful and lightning-fast, Lomu stamped his indelible footprint on the tournament, scoring several breath-taking tries. It was South Africa in their own back yard, however, who defied the experts by smashing, skipping and swooning their way to victory, adding a coat of sensational gloss to Mandela’s brave new post-apartheid nation. It would also drag the sport kicking and screaming from ale-saturated, nicotine-stained amateur clubhouses into the weight-pumping, speeding-locomotive gymnasium of professionalism.

A year before the millennium it was Australia’s turn to bookend the decade with another cup, leaving the legacy that their form over the preceding ten years warranted. The solid and impenetrable 1999 outfit coasted to the final before sweeping aside perennial runners-up France. Most of the points in a 35-12 victory came from Matt Burke’s trusty boot, making Australia the first country to trouble the trophy engravers twice. Upsettingly, it would also be the last time that traditional cotton shirts would be worn at the finals. Shortly after, the big sports brands introduced eye-wateringly tight spandex attire; flattering to some and positively insulting to others.

After a dozen years in World Cup final wilderness the colonialists unveiled, at will, a majestic weapon, with a left foot of pure gold. Johnny Wilkinson’s schedule of practice teetered on the brink of OCD, but paid dividends right at the death. During the final, in Sydney, England took the game to the Aussies, trading crunching tackles, getting under their skin and matching them point for point. Led by the lion-hearted Martin Johnson, they poured forward in the final seconds, and the ball eventually broke to Wilkinson who dispatched his devastatingly precise drop-kick with ice-cold, consummate ease.

At the climax of the 2007 shin-dig, a battered and heavily-criticised England somehow made it into the final again. This time a South African team with tenacity, brutality and creativity to burn crushed the holders to lift the Webb Ellis trophy for a record-equalling second time. The team’s glorious progress through the championship was highlighted by the gazelle-like speed of top try scorer Bryan Habana and never-say-die approach of the talismanic Schalk Burger.

It had been yet another classic fortnight of theatre, confirming the Rugby World Cup as a premier fixture on the sporting calendar and leaving a global audience counting down the seconds to 2011.

Who’s coming to the party?

With the tournament a matter of weeks away TABJ dusts off its magnifying glass and examines the match winners, secret weapons, enigmas and potential heroes from the top nations.

South Africa

Explosives expert: Bryan Habana

He already has a winners medal proudly pinned to his lapel and Habana will be looking to add another this summer. Although his form has been inconsistent since the memorable 2007 victory, the winger’s abundant box of tricks has often reopened when club and country have needed it most. Provided he is given adequate service, the electrifying turn of pace that has earned him the nickname ‘dash’, could light up the tournament. Under fire, coach Peter De Villiers will be praying that his star man’s afterburners are activated in time for the early stages.

Artillery: Morné Steyn, Schalk Burger, Chiliboy Ralepelle

England

Explosives expert: Chris Ashton

Ashton caught the eye of England selectors after converting from rugby league in 2007. He put in some unforgettable performances during the early part of 2011 and perfected the knack of being in the right place at the right time, to finish England’s intricate passing sequences. He usually completes a try by ‘swan diving’ over the line, much to the chagrin of one M. O. Johnson, whose attempts to censor Ashton’s gymnastics have proved fruitless. It is the winger’s industry and enthusiasm, however, which are most likely to succeed during the World Cup.

Artillery: Jonny Wilkinson, Lewis Moody, Marc Cueto

Ireland

Explosives expert: Brian O’Driscoll

Outside centre and veteran of well over 100 international caps, O’Driscoll is one of several members of the Irish contingent who will count this tournament as their last great opportunity for goldware. O’Driscoll, who has proved pivotal during several successful Grand Slam campaigns,  scored two tries during the last World Cup but didn’t quite live up to his nation’s high expectations, on the loftiest rugby stage. He’ll be looking to put that right in the early exchanges this time, delivering his lethal combination of flair and fearlessness.

Artillery: Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy

Australia

Explosives expert: Quade Cooper

A young man with authoritative rugby shoulders, Cooper has dismantled teams with his running breaks and dynamic passing. After the recent Wallabies tour his maturity on the pitch was unfortunately counteracted by an inexplicable Gold Coast stealing spree which earned him a burglary conviction! The inside centre will be hoping to commit grand theft of the sporting variety when his rejuvenated team start their campaign in a potentially tricky encounter against Italy. With Cooper in the ranks a third World Cup for the Aussies is a distinct possibility.

Artillery: James O`Connor, Stephen Moore, Adam Ashley-Cooper

New Zealand

Explosives expert: Dan Carter

New Zealand are in pole position to snatch their first title since the inaugural competition and one man sums up their ethos entirely; D. W. Carter. Quiet and reserved off the pitch, but fluent, athletic and devastating on it, Carter is considered one of the greatest fly-halves to have graced the game. Arguably the complete player, he has already dispatched well over 1,000 points, incorporating all the different methods of scoring. Carter will see the World Cup as the ultimate test of his extraordinary abilities. Don’t be surprised to if he heads the points table.

Artillery: Richie McCaw, Colin Slade, Ma’a Nonu

France

Explosives expert: Vincent Clerc

In Vincent Clerc Les Bleus have a waspish little dynamo who, on his day, can dazzle, dink, drive through and deceive defences. His diminutive frame, positional sense and fast reactions have often combined to create try scoring opportunities for both him and his team mates. He will be hoping to revive the fortunes of an inconsistent French side who flattered to deceive in the 2011 Grand Slam, but whose finesse and ‘je ne sais quoi’ is often typified by Clerc. Although a French triumph seems unlikely, he has defiantly stated that France are capable of securing a first title.

Artillery: Maxime Médard, Morgan Parra, Dimitri Yachvili 

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