France bidding to dazzle home supporters
Springboks building momentum for defence
England unfancied after turbulent buildup
France geared up for strong challenge
This year's Rugby World Cup promises to be fiercely competitive with the four leading teams all pitched in the same half of the draw.
Hosts France have been installed as marginal 11/43.70 favourites over New Zealand 3/13.95, with South Africa 7/24.40 and top ranked Ireland 9/25.30 close behind in the betting. A lopsided path means only two of these teams can reach the semi-finals but it is extremely difficult to envisage the tournament winner coming from outside this quartet.
France's credentials are hard to contest with the team progressively building over recent years under the leadership of Fabien Galthie and defensive guru Shaun Edwards.
With only one defeat in the last two Six Nations campaigns, France have developed strongly and will take some stopping if they can topple the All Blacks in their opener.
Blessed with one of the best attacks in the world, France will have to cope without Romain Ntamack after the fly-half ruptured his ACL last month. But the likes of Antoine Dupont and lethal finisher Damian Penaud will provide the flair and pace to ensure France are a formidable threat.
South Africa stormed to World Cup victory in Japan four years ago and the Springboks appear to be peaking just in time for the defence of the trophy. Momentum is certainly on their side with South Africa crushing New Zealand 35-7 at Twickenham in their final warm-up game.
The Springboks demonstrated their potent combination of attacking flair and physical strength in the forwards against the All Blacks and appeared to unleash a new star in versatile back Canan Moodie.
This result followed on from their emphatic 52-16 drubbing of Wales and South Africa could be timing their run perfectly with captain Siya Kolisi back fit. The last time France hosted the World Cup, the Springboks won back in 2007 and this confident team can repeat the feat this autumn. South Africa look the pick of the favourites at 7/24.40.
All Blacks weaker than usual
New Zealand head into the tournament with questions marks against them after a record defeat against the Springboks. The All Blacks appeared to have no answer to South Africa's power game and for all their attacking class, New Zealand will need to show they can adapt their game against the most powerful opponents.
Ireland seek to break new ground
Ireland's form over the last year is impossible to fault but the team still have to prove they can replicate this on the biggest stage. Currently on a run of 13 successive victories, including their grand slam triumph in the Six Nations, Andy Farrell's team are exceptionally well drilled.
Hopes are high of a strong challenge but incredibly Ireland have never reached the semi-finals of the World Cup. Their chances here have not been helped by a devilish draw which puts them on collision course with France or the All Blacks in the quarter-finals.
It is exceptionally competitive in the top half of the draw but France and South Africa look the standout teams. France can defeat New Zealand in their opener and top their pool, while the Springboks are fancied to edge out Ireland to win their group. This would keep them apart in the last eight and a bet on France facing South Africa in the final stands out at 9/19.80.
Home nations verdict - England no hopers, Scotland up against it, Wales could surprise
It has been a disastrous buildup for England with Steve Borthwick's strugglers lurching from one crisis to another.
Their first defeat to Fiji concluded their summer warm-up matches and was their fifth loss in the last six matches. Confidence appears to be at an all-time low while Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola will be suspended for their crucial opener against Argentina.
England are pitched in the weaker half of the draw but there is no guarantee they will get out of their group in their current form.
Scotland face a huge challenge to qualify from their pool, with South Africa and Ireland heavy favourites to progress. There have been signs of progress under Gregor Townsend but it will require a monumental performance for Scotland to avoid a pool stage exit for the second World Cup in a row.
Wales are a team in transition after the return of Warren Gatland but an extended tournament run should never be ruled out, with little to fear in pool opponents Australia. Gatland has twice steered Wales to fourth place at the World Cup, including four years ago, but this current team are under the radar after losing experienced leaders such as Alun Wyn Jones and an indifferent set of results.
South Africa have no shortage of firepower in their backline but Kurt-Lee Arendse could prove their biggest attacking threat in France.
Arendse matched Bryan Habana's record as the fastest player to reach 10 tries for the Springboks, achieving this in just eight matches.
The pacy wing scored a hat-trick in July during their thrashing of Australia and he looks poised to wreak havoc against his World Cup opponents. Arendse can spearhead South Africa's challenge and appeals at 14/115.00 to finish as the leading tournament tryscorer.
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