PARIS, September 7 – Profiles of leading teams ahead of Rugby World Cup 2011, which kicks off in New Zealand in one year's time:ARGENTINA
Stunned the 2007 World Cup with their run to the semi-finals and an eventual third-place finish, a performance which finally opened the door to being accepted into the elite Tri-Nations southern hemisphere club from 2012.
That heady victory was followed by two sub-standard outings in June when the Pumas suffered back-to-back defeats against Scotland.
But count them out at your peril as Six Nations Grand Slam winners France discovered when they were crushed 41-13.
Drawn in a tough Pool B at the World Cup alongside England and Scotland, Argentina will again look to the silky skills of Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Hernandez to lead the way.
The Wallabies might just be timing their run-in to the World Cup to perfection, their current squad boasting a nice blend of young players, particularly in the backs, bursting with ability and speed.
As has been the case in recent seasons, their weakness is based around their front five, specifically the front row, something that will need to be remedied if they are to produce a real charge for the crown.
If that happens, one can only imagine the increased scope of gameplans that will be handed to instrumental half-backs Will Genia and Quade Cooper.
With Matt Giteau at centre and an attacking back three, it would be a brave pundit to write off the Australians.
Whether Martin Johnson will be in charge of England come the World Cup is a moot point given his appalling record since taking over as coach.
Johnson was the rock around which England won the 2003 World Cup, their sole success in the tournament’s history, but he has come aground trying to motivate an England team lambasted for their boring and at times negative play.
However, the English should never be counted out, as was shown in the 2007 World Cup in France.
They had failed to impress in their pool matches (and suffered a humiliating 36-0 thrashing from South Africa) but went on to edge Australia and France in the knock-out phase before just losing out to the Springboks in the final.
Johnson must look to giving a glut of young, promising players such as Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton more game time before nailing down the gameplan he wants his team to impose.
Traditionally the strongest Pacific rugby nation, Fiji lost to Samoa in the final of the Pacific Nations Cup in June, which came off the back of a heavy defeat to Australia.
They will attempt to put that behind them as their World Cup build-up starts with a three-match European tour in November that sees them play France, Wales and Italy.
While their recent form has been unpredictable, Fiji are capable of causing an upset, as they did in 2007 when they knocked Wales out of the World Cup with a late try in a 38-34 win.
They also took eventual champions South Africa all the way in a 37-20 tussle in the quarter-finals.
The Fijians, who also made the quarters in 1987, are pooled with Wales and South Africa next year, along with Samoa and Namibia.
Les Bleus are fresh from having won their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2004 last season. But it was a tournament where they exploited the many weaknesses of their respective opponents rather than showcase their own excellence.
Coach Marc Lievremont was much pilloried early in his role for blooding numerous young players, only for them to disappear after one or two games.
But the detractors have been proven wrong, with Lievremont having carved out a backbone of gifted backs and hard-nosed forwards for his team, led magnificently by captain and flanker Thierry Dusautoir.
Not much should be read into a heavy loss to Argentina on tour at the end of a gruelling domestic and international season in the summer: France will always be in the running for a last-four berth at the World Cup.
Went into the 2007 World Cup full of confidence having lost out on the Six Nations title only on points difference to France, but defeats to the French and Argentina condemned them to a first round exit.
Clinched Grand Slam in 2009 and were second to France in the 2010 Six Nations.
In New Zealand, Declan Kidney’s side are in Pool C with Australia and Italy as well as the minnows of Russia and USA.
Recent form has suggested struggles ahead after a 66-28 defeat to the All Blacks was followed by a 22-15 loss to the Wallabies. New Zealand put nine tries past them, highlighting major defensive frailties.
Japan’s coach John Kirwan, who helped them end a 13-match World Cup losing streak when they drew with Canada at the 2007 event, is ambitiously aiming for a top-10 finish in New Zealand.
The All Black legend, who has coached the Brave Blossoms since early 2007, steered his team to the Asian Five Nations title in May, which qualified them for New Zealand, before a third-place finish at the Pacific Nations Cup.
But the order next year seems tall with Japan, the only Asian country to have played in the World Cup, still only boasting one win, one draw and 18 defeats from their previous six tournaments.
They are pooled with the host nation, France, Tonga and Canada.
The All Blacks undoubtedly have a squad of players that can win the World Cup, a sentiment echoed every four years before rugby union’s showpiece event.
However, New Zealand have fluffed their lines on numerous occasions and must now look to outstanding captain Richie McCaw and playmaker Dan Carter to guide them through on home soil under scrutiny from a rugby-mad home nation.
The team has been on fire in the Tri-Nations, its heady mix of iron defence, solid set-piece and counter-attacking ability proving too much for defending world champions South Africa and Australia.
The November internationals will allow coach Graham Henry to further blood up-and-coming youngsters and nail down the scrum-half berth, seemingly the only real weak point in the team at the moment.
After making the quarter-finals in 1991 and 1995, the Samoans failed to spark at the 2007 World Cup, beating only the USA, which forced them to go through qualifying for New Zealand next year.
They did so comfortably, crushing minnows Papua New Guinea, and they have since staged a mini resurgence, clinching the Sevens World Series title in May and winning the Pacific Nations Cup in June.
Most of the squad plays in the northern hemisphere, meaning they don’t spend much time as a national team, but a European tour in November, when they play England, Ireland and Scotland, will give them a chance to gel.
In New Zealand, they are drawn in Pool D, with South Africa their key hurdle. They also face Fiji, Wales and Namibia.
Having finished second last in the Six Nations, Scotland, with former England coach Andy Robinson in charge, clinched back-to-back wins over Argentina, winning 24-16 and 13-9.
The Scots are in the same pool as the Pumas in New Zealand, but there are concerns over their backs’ lack of a cutting edge with only three tries scored in five Six Nations matches.
That statistic will place even more pressure on the dead-eye kicking of Dan Parks who accounted for 57 of his team’s 83 points.
Defending champions, the Springboks have a well-established squad of players, many of whom featured in the France campaign, but suffered a disastrous Tri-Nations.
While age might not be on the side of players such as captain John Smit and lock pairing Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, there is no doubt that on their day they are top-class.
Coach Peter de Villiers will need to find a steadying hand at scrum-half and midfield to boost the capability of his team, which enjoys a particular embarrassment of riches in the back-row.
Add to that the boots of the unrelated Steyns, outside-half Morne and full-back Francois, and South Africa are serious challengers to defend their title.
The Sea Eagles have played in four World Cups but are yet to go beyond the first round, although they almost beat eventual champions South Africa in 2007 in one of the most memorable games of the tournament.
Their recent form has been dismal, finishing bottom of the Pacific Nations Cup this year, losing to Samoa, Fiji and Japan.
They start their build-up for the World Cup at the America’s rugby championships in Buenos Aires later this month with games against USA, Argentina and Canada.
But Tonga will go into the next year’s showpiece in New Zealand as rank outsiders, with the All Blacks and France awaiting them in Pool A, along with Japan and Canada.
They open the tournament against the All Blacks on September 9.
Six Nations Grand Slam winners in 2005 and 2008 sandwiched a desperately poor 2007 World Cup which saw Wales humiliated 38-34 by Fiji and dumped out in the group stages.
In New Zealand it won’t get any easier with Warren Gatland’s side placed in Pool D along with defending champions South Africa, Fiji and Samoa.
Wales have won just five of their last 15 internationals including a 52-9 mauling against the All Blacks in June in the first Test. However, they regrouped and were only beaten 29-10 a week later.
The likes of James Hook, Shane Williams, Martyn Williams and Tom Shanklin all missed that tour while great things are expected of exciting new backs Dan Biggar and Tom Prydie.