New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Canada, Namibia
New Zealand have won the last two World Cups and are favourites to make it three in a row in Japan, write Alasdair McDowell, Ahmed Shooble, Mark Stillman and Samuel Draper.
Steve Hansen’s side start their defence on Saturday with their toughest group challenge against second-favourites South Africa.
They will likely face a knock-out test against either Ireland or Scotland in the quarter-finals. New Zealand’s success may depend on which Beauden Barrett shows up. He is one of the strongest members of a dominant All Blacks side, but his goal-kicking has been questioned by the media and the public.
South Africa arrive as perhaps the most in-form team in the tournament. With impressive victories over Australia and Argentina, the Springboks will be looking to build on their Rugby Championship triumph under the stewardship of Rassie Erasmus. Ranked fourth in the world they should qualify but will struggle to overcome New Zealand in the pool. Expect Boks captain Siya Kolisi and fellow flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit to be involved in all things positive for South Africa.
Italy’s prospects of progressing appear slim. Fortunately, the Azzuri were spared qualifying owing to a top 12 finish in England in 2015. Their record in recent years is miserable, picking up the wooden spoon in every Six Nations since. Head coach Conor O’Shea, who reached the quarters in 1999 as a player, has been unable to halt the slide. Most capped player Sergio Parisse has enjoyed a glittering career, but now 36, is too heavily relied upon. Eliminated in every group stage of the Rugby World Cup since its 1987 inception, the rot is unlikely to stop.
Canada have the potential to produce some good performances with the likes of Daniel van der Merwe and Tyler Ardron bolstering their ranks. They could emulate the positive results they showed in 2015 with a win against Italy. However, a string of unconvincing showings throughout the warm-ups haven’t helped ease pressure off boss Kingsley Jones. Third place is a realistic target for Les Rouges.
Namibia have the worst record out of any side that has previously been to a World Cup. Laying claim to the worst World Cup defeat in history, a punishing 142-point drubbing to Australia in 2003, they are not expected to do much else other than make up the numbers in the group.
Favourites: New Zealand
Surprise package: Canada
Whipping boys: Namibia