The road to the 2015 Rugby World Cup is just under a month away, and the pre-tournament speculation over which teams have the ability to go all the way and claim the William Webb Ellis trophy is beginning to step into gear.
As with any knock-out tournament, previous Rugby World Cups have been notoriously difficult to predict, and the 2015 edition doesn't look like it will be any different. Indeed, with the grouping of Australia, England, Wales and Fiji in the Pool A "group of death", just picking who will make it out the group stages is tricky enough.
In order to make sense of the situation and to shine an objective shaft of light into a sea of one-eyed parochialism, I have turned to history to settle who exactly is going to be victorious at Twickenham on October 31.
So what does the history of the world cup tell us? Although it may be a well-worn clichÃ©, it is also certainly true that rugby world cups give credence to the notion that rugby is a "game of inches". Chances are, when we get to the knockout rounds, games will be decided by goal kicking, mental resilience, and the ability to make good decisions under pressure.
Over the last few weeks, New Zealand scribes and the public had been in the middle of a fierce debate over the final wing spot for the 31-man squad. While on August 30 Waisake Naholo got the nod over Cory Jane, Israel Dagg and Charles Piutau, history tells us that these are not the players who will decide the outcome of tournament.
Rather, looking back all the way to 1987, invariably there have been three positions which are crucial to the overall success of a team at RWC: Coach, captain, and goal kicker. Almost without fail, teams which have excelled in these three areas have gone on to win the cup. There are of course, exceptions to the rule, i.e. Stephen Donald, but on the whole these are in my mind the defining traits of world cup champions. Need I remind New Zealanders, that in spite of his own heroic performances in the 1995 and 1999 World Cups, Jonah Lomu never came out of either tournament with a winner's medal?
So how do the major players for 2015 stack up?
World Ranking: 1
Coach: Steve Hansen (A)
Captain: Richie McCaw (A+)
Goal kicker: Dan Carter (A)
Going into the tournament, the New Zealand squad appears to be without any major weaknesses. Under Coach Steve Hansen, the All Blacks have enjoyed an incredible 89% win ratio since 2012. In Richie McCaw, they have a previous World Cup winning captain who may go down in history as the greatest player of all time, and in Dan Carter they possess the man who has scored more points than any other player in international rugby. The big issues for New Zealand are the age of their squad and Carter's current susceptibility to injury, but if they can hold together throughout the tournament, they are a hard team to bet against.
Overall Rating: A
World Ranking: 2
Coach: Jo Schmidt (A)
Captain: Paul O'Connell (A)
Goal kicker: Jonny Sexton (A)
While in previous tournaments Ireland have failed to live up to expectations, 2015 may prove to be a different story. The Irish are currently riding a high, with the current Six Nations champions having moved up to 2<sup>nd in the world rankings. This ranking is no fluke, with the Irish putting together a formidable 82% success rate since New Zealander Jo Schmidt took over the reins in 2013. In Paul O'Connell, they have an inspirational captain who starred in three British Lions tours, and in Jonny Sexton they have the best Fly Half in the world who isn't named Dan Carter. They may not be the most expansive team in the world, but they have shown that they know how to win when it counts.
Overall Rating: A
World Ranking: 3
Coach: Michael Cheika (A-)
Captain: Stephen Moore (B)
Goal kicker: Bernard Foley/Matt Giteau (B)
Since the last world cup in 2011, the defining feature of Australian rugby has been their unpredictability. Able to beat anybody on their day, Australia's great weakness has been their inability to string consistent performances together.
Despite their good form in 2015, seeing off the All Blacks to win the Rugby Championship, this lack of consistency still appears to be Australia's Achilles Heel â a trait reflected in their key personnel. Coach Michael Cheika is undoubtedly qualified (having one major club titles in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere), but is still in his first season as an international coach. Likewise, Stephen Moore is new to the captaincy (named as captain in 2014 before suffering a season-ending injury), while a month out from the first game there is still an uncertainty over who the first-choice goal kicker is.
Certainly they have the potential to go all the way â but can they pull together five consistent performances throughout the tournament?
Overall Rating: B+
World Ranking: 4
Coach: Heyneke Meyer (B+)
Captain: Jean De Villiers (A-)
Goal kicker: Handre Pollard (A-)
South Africa have not had a happy 2015 to date, losing all three Rugby Championship fixtures, before saving face in a warm-up match against Argentina in Buenos Aires. In many ways South Africa appear to be New Zealand-lite. Like New Zealand, they are an experienced team that have enjoyed a consistency of personnel since 2012. However, unlike the All Blacks, they have not enjoyed the same consistent success. In coach Heyneke Meyer and captain Jean De Villiers, South Africa have a capable foundation. But to date their record has not matched up to their reputations.
Overall Rating: A-
World Ranking: 5
Coach: Stuart Lancaster (B+)
Captain: Chris Robshaw (B+)
Goal kicker: Owen Farrell (B+)
According to most of the bookies, England are the second most likely team to win the Webb Ellis Trophy (behind New Zealand). But are they really that good? Looking at the key personnel, England look good, but not great. Since 2012, Stuart Lancaster has held a 61% winning record â good, but not great. As a captain and player, honest toiler Chris Robshaw is reminiscent of former All Black captain Reuben Thorne â good, but not great. And finally, Owen Farrell as a playmaker and goal kicker has all the physical skills to excel, but at this stage is still only a good, not a great, player. Make no mistake, England are a good team â but not good enough.
Overall Rating: B+
Wales: Have a good coach in Warren Gatland, an experienced captain in Sam Warburton, and a metronomic goal kicker in Leigh Halfpenny, but must first overcome their uncanny ability to lose to Australia from any conceivable situation.
France: Made it to the final four years ago effectively without a coach, so anything is possible.
The Rugby World Cup is one of the great sporting events. History will be made at Twickenham in October.
Tim Newman lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He holds an MA in History and is currently working as a ministry intern at Cornerstone Church.
Tim Newman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-newman.html