Nothing casts scorn upon World Rugby's ranking system and the timing of the draw than this tournaments's 'Pool of Death'. Three teams all with realistic aspirations of making at least the semi-finals, one side who have reputation for pooping parties – much to the neutral's delight – and even the 'whipping boys' have a reputation for running through brick walls. This one should be fun.
Coach: Michael Cheika. Always looks like he'd be bang up for a scrap. Won the Super XV competition with the Waratahs and was rewarded with the national job last year. Dodgy start but has got his side looking ominously slick in this year's Rugby Championship, and – outrageously – they now look solid in the set piece after he brought in Argentinian legend Mario Ledesma.
Captain: Stephen Moore. Looks like humpty-dumpty but is a much, much tougher egg. Leads from the front, is physical, reliable and consistent – which aren't qualities you usually associate with a Wallaby front-rower.
Key Player: David Pocock. Yes, Israel Folau is the danger man out wide but the game will be won and lost in shadows, where Pocock and his two pet guns will be lurking. Now he's fit after a nightmare three years out with injury, he looks very, very sharp and – on form – there is no better ball-stealing openside in world rugby.
Watch out for: Will Skelton. Well, you shouldn't miss him. At almost 6 foot 9 and over 23 stone, he takes up most of the pitch and is one hell of a weapon for the Wallabies to have in their armoury. He hasn't looked great starting games but, as an impact sub, he's a nightmare.
Strengths: You can easily point to their outrageously talented and experienced outside backs but the back row should be the biggest worry for opponents. Cheika has started playing Michael Hooper and Pocock together and this forms an outrageously dangerous 'pincer attack' on the breakdown. It means nobody can afford to get isolated and forces opponents to chuck more numbers into the breakdown just to protect the ball.
Weaknesses: You would usually say scrummaging but Ledesma has got the scrum pretty solid now. Instead, I'm going to go for the half-back spots, which are usually an area of strength. Nobody has come forward and owned these positions for a good year now – Foley, Phipps and Cooper have all looked very flappy of late and Genia and Toomua can't seem to bring any consistency or authority to the role. If teams put them under pressure, they might crumble.
Prospects: They've started to come good at the right time, but Cheika's tinkering with a winning combination after playing the All Blacks has worried some Aussies, as has his decision to only take two scrum halves (harshly cutting Nic White) and two hookers. They'll be dangerous when they get on top but how will the set piece and fragile 9-10 axis cope under northern hemisphere pressure? I have a feeling they'll be pipped by England but continue their hoodoo over the Welsh.
Coach: Stuart Lancaster. Seems like a nice bloke. Does he have enough charisma and conviction to drive a team to World Cup success though? For all of England's promise and improved back play, he's still the head coach of a side that's defined by unrealised potential and one that's failed to win a trophy under his reign. Now would be a good time to change that.
Captain: Chris Robshaw. Maligned by the lazy as 'not a true openside' despite being statistically the best international 7 in the northern hemisphere by a stretch. Of course, if we want to get into the Steffon Armitage argument, that's another story, but either way he's a proper England skipper – 100% commitment and unbelievable workrate over the park, with a good all-round skillset.
Key Player: Tom Youngs. England do have players who can mix it with the world's best, such as Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes and Mike Brown, but the key man this tournament will be Tom Youngs. Part of the best set-piece in the country at Leicester, the question always remains why this doesn't translate onto the international scene. In all other aspects, he is world class, but if England want to progress they need the human square to perfect his role in the lineout and the scrum.
Watch out for: Jonathan Joseph. All of a sudden England have some outrageously gifted outside backs. Anthony Watson and Jonny May are both electric, but JJ is the man with star dust on his feet. With searing acceleration and a goose-step even Campo would be proud of, it's a refreshing change from the crash-bang-wallop centres that seem to dominate the game and it'll be interesting to see how the southern hemisphere teams deal with him.
Strengths: Hmm. You would usually say the scrum with absolute certainty, so let's treat the warm-up games as a bit of a 'blip'. Everyone has an off day. But over the last two years it's probably fair to say that England have had the best scrummaging pack in the world – that sounds boring, but when you have a dominant platform that denies one for the opposition, and an increasingly dangerous set of backs, that's a critical strength to have.
Weaknesses: Inexperience. It seems bizarre to say that, four years after Lancaster's initial 'clear-out' following 2011, England's squad still only boasts 3 players with more than 50 caps. Most of the first choice players seem to be hovering about the 20-30 cap mark, with several guys in single figures, the question of how they will react under the intense pressure of a home world cup and effectively knock-out rugby (even in the group stage) is one we won't know the answer to for a couple of weeks.
Prospects: Frustratingly England look as if they could beat anybody and lose to anybody at the same time, which isn't ideal going to a World Cup. Crucially, though, they are at home and I expect that will count for quite a lot, given their Twickenham form recently – especially against fellow northern hemisphere teams. If the set piece holds, and discipline remains in check, I think the hosts should have enough about them to squeak past Wales and Australia, as well as avoid the Fiji banana skin; though don't be fooled, that Fiji opening game will be as slippery as they come.
Coach: Warren Gatland. Grisly old Kiwi who has a Grand Slam, World Cup semi-final and successful Lions Tour under his belt. Has coined his own style of rugby ('Warren-ball') and has a big gob, tending to be accused of mind games. Which basically means stating what everyone is thinking, but is too polite to say.
Captain: Sam Warburton. Top bloke despite having a head like a crescent moon and, on form, a world class flanker. Hasn't been at his best at the breakdown over the last few years but his work rate and athleticism around the park makes him a huge asset. Hard to believe he's still just 26 – he's been skipper for 4 years and holds the Welsh record for most caps as captain.
Key Player: Samson Lee. Injuries have brought other names to the fore but Welsh fans will be praying on the return to fitness of the Scarlets prop. The big tighthead – with a frankly brilliant first name – is the only established international 3 in Wales' squad after the Hairy One (Adam Jones) took a pew, and even then he only has 12 caps. A solid scrummager and powerful presence in the loose, if he doesn't regain fitness, the Welsh set-piece will start to venture into the realms of the unknown, which is not ideal at a World Cup. Of course, since my original draft, poor Leigh Halfpenny has been crocked meaning Dan Biggar has to be the primary point scorer, with Liam Williams trusted to fulfil the 15 jersey with as much reliability as his predecessor.
Watch out for: Gareth Davies. As above, I've had change this since my original draft since Rhys Webb was my pick as the man to make an impact, but one man's misfortune is another's opportunity. Veteran Mike Phillips may have been called up as a replacement but, in my view, Gareth Davies now has a big chance to show what he's made of. Like Webb, he's electric round the fringes and knows where the line is – he was the Pro 12 top scorer in 2013-14 – but, unlike Webb, he's an unknown quantity at international level. And that just might make him one of Wales' most dangerous prospects.
Strengths: Power, power and more power. Once you've handled the likes of Toby Faletau and Alun Wyn Jones bludgeoning their way into you, the ball will go out to the backs – where they're even bigger. With George North and Jamie Roberts charging around, Wales have no shortage of carrying options but, in the form of Biggar and Scott Williams, still have men who can inject some subtlety into proceedings.
Weaknesses: Plan B. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Against England in Cardiff, Wales tried to play the power game but the English defence dealt with it easily – after which Gatland's men resorted to…the power game. They have the players to play with more width, or to just play for territory, but they seem reluctant to deviate from their tried-and-tested methods. If it works, great – if not, well, they're often a bit stuck for ideas. You can now add 'misfortune' to the weakness list too, as they're now without Lions duo Jonathan Davies and Halfpenny, as well as form-player Rhys Webb, for the whole tournament.
Prospects: Despite the loss of Halfpenny, Biggar is dead-eye shot off the tee and, with the power game they possess, they can just about beat anyone on their day. The loss of the likes of Webb, Halfpenny and Davies is, without doubt, huge – but they have the quality players to fill the gaps effectively and still pose a threat. The real problem for them is that they have a mental block when it comes to beating the Aussies and that they have to play England at Twickenham, which should be a huge advantage to the hosts. There's no doubt that the men in red can beat both their main rivals, but given the situation I think they may miss out narrowly on both occasions. And they have to avoid a repeat of a certain Fijian nightmare, too…
Coach: John McKee. Another gnarly Kiwi but this one likes to smile and apparently has a penchant for dodgy Fijian summer shirts. A bit of a journeyman, having coached at Cornish Pirates, Connacht, Montferrand, Central Coast Rays and Australia Under 20s, but since his appointment in 2014 he's used his experience to arrest the steady decline since 2007 and start to a build a team that looks more than capable of an upset or two again.
Captain: Akapusi Qera. Well known to Gloucester fans and, to be honest, most Premiership half-backs who would have been very relieved to see the powerful flanker depart for France. The Fijian skipper can occasionally go missing in games but, when he's on form, he's dynamite. Wonderful awareness of space and brutal physicality in contact make for a potent combination.
Key Player: Nemani Nadolo. You know when the word 'freak' is used to describe a player, that it's generally a semi-compliment created from a mix of fear and wonder – think Jonah Lomu, George North and Manu Tuilagi, who have all had the description levelled at them (from a safe distance). Nadolo has been lumped into the same category following a season where, as a 19st 10lb winger for the Crusaders, he regularly marmalised defenders and won games almost by himself. He plays in the centres for his country – this guy is the heartbeat of the team and pure X-Factor. Oh, and he kicks goals as well.
Watch out for: Leone Nakawara. The second row isn't a name that's particularly well known outside of Fiji…or Glasgow (where he plies his trade)…but he's one hell of an athlete. At 6 foot 6 he has a gangly frame, but regularly seems to weave his way between tacklers and use his go-go gadget arms to get away seemingly impossible offloads. Also has a knack of sniffing his way to the tryline, too, with 4 tries in his last 3 tests.
Strengths: Sevens. Well, we all know that they're one of the best Sevens sides in the world and, although they have certainly tightened up their discipline and set-piece, there's no doubt that their spatial awareness, ball handling skills and natural athleticism makes them one of the most dangerous sides in the world in a broken field. With power and pace all over the park, Fiji can, and often do, hurt anyone.
Weaknesses: Fitness. There's no doubt that there's a higher level of fitness these days, given that almost all of their front-line players play in the top European leagues or in Super Rugby, but they still don't seem to be able to put together an 80 minute display, particularly against Tier 1 opposition. If an opponent grinds them down in the setpiece and retains possession for long periods, Fiji will – more often than not – still be in the game after 60 minutes. It's the last 20 where legs regularly seem to wobble and concentration slips.
Prospects: Fiji are on a bit of a high after winning the Pacific Nations title, for the third consecutive year, but we all know that there is a big difference between the Pacific Nations and a World Cup. They will quite rightly be targeting England as a potential scalp – especially as the first game of the tournament, thinking back to Argentina's win against France in 2007 as the hosts buckled under the pressure, but Wales will probably be the team primarily in their sights, having won one of the all-time great World Cup games by 4 points in 2007 (before being hammered by 66 points in a revenge display 4 years later) and knowing that Pacific Nations sides have a decent record against the men in red. They'll be competitive and score some cracking tries, I'm sure, but I suspect they will struggle to go the full 80 against the 'big 3'.
Coach: Pablo Lemoine. Uruguayan rugby legend who was part of a side that won their first World Cup game in their very first appearance in 1999 against Spain. Had massive club success with Stade Frances throughout the naughties and won 49 caps for his Country, so he knows his onions. He also probably eats a lot of them too (possibly deep fried), judging by his size.
Captain: Santiago Vilaseca. Big, lean, aggressive lock who typifies what Uruguayan rugby is about. Is experienced with 32 caps but has never been to a World Cup before and plays amateur rugby for the Old Boys Club in his home country. Which is still fifty times harder than anything I have played.
Key Player: Felippe Berchesi. The fly half is just one of only four who play professionally in Europe, plying his trade for those European giants, er… Carcassonne in the French Pro2. The playmaker is a reliable kicker and has an eye for a gap, as he showed whilst plundering 75 points in just 5 games during the Americas/Repechage play-offs.
Watch out for: Agustin Ormaechea. A second generation Uruguayan World-Cupper who has a lot to live up to – his father Diego captained his country at the 1999 event and still holds the record for being the oldest player in World Cup history, aged 40 years and 26 days. But Agustin has a chance to make a name in his own right – the scrum half is one of the few professionals in the squad (playing for Stade Montois in French Pro2) and is a former sevens-specialist, so he brings explosive acceleration and sharp footwork along with his rugby pedigree.
Strengths: Aggression. The Uruguayans might be, literally, a bunch of amateurs (mostly), but they won't take a backward step against anyone – they certainly didn't in their previous World Cup outings. The South Americans love their physical contact and they won't shirk the chance to ruffle some feathers, so keep an eye out for some big contact and some enthusiastic, if occasionally questionable, ruck clean-outs.
Weaknesses: Professionalism. As set out above, only four of these lads play professionally and, although many of them will have bags of raw talent in terms of skills and physical ability, it won't have been attuned to the extent it has for any of the professional players they'll be playing against. Even if these guys work solidly at their rugby skills outside of their day jobs, it still won't match up to the time, effort, support and money that goes towards the development of professional players. And that, in a World Cup, will be a huge difference.
Prospects: Without seeming patronising, Uruguay will fill the 'happy to be here' role. Don't get me wrong – they impressed in qualifying with their aggregate win over Russia to show that they are no mugs – but they, realistically, won't be picking up any wins against their opponents in the 'Pool of Death'. That said, they'll be delighted to have a chance to prove themselves on the biggest stage at the World Cup against some of the best teams on show, and so they'll certainly put themselves about and cause a few bruises and, if Fiji get off to bad start, they may even target a scalp… but I think, instead, we'll be seeing the South Americans on the wrong end of some big scores, albeit looking like they're loving (almost) every minute of it.