IT’S the game they play in heaven, and its eighth World Cup is underway over in England.

The Men in Black from the Shaky Isles will be defending their title in earnest after saluting in 2011, however this time round there be many a European challenger holding a glint in their eye that they instead may be taking home William Webb Ellis’ tumbler.

The Rugby World Cup is the third largest international tournament behind the association football equivalent and some athletics carnival out of ancient Greece respectively. This year’s rendition has already kicked off with a whopping upset and come the eisteddfod’s pointy end in four weeks’ time the sport on display will be mesmerising.

New Zealand took home the showcase last time round with their excess of unbeatable talent, yet almost lost it all due to a combination of national pressure and an uncanny habit for self-asphyxiation.

Other than the usual choke displayed every four years somewhere around the knockout stages, the All Blacks are still the supreme dominance in world rugby. Dripping with stars and with depth the envy of all nations, despite this being a northern hemisphere event they rightly deserve to be short-priced favourites.

Sure, they didn’t win the Rugby Championship (the old Tri-Nations until we let the Argentinians in), the Wallabies did, but when it mattered most, when the prestigious Bledisloe was up for grabs the true form of what the Kiwis can do was on show.

Make no mistake, they are by far the best team in world rugby, but as those nifty Japanese showed against South Africa on the weekend, the silverware ain’t handed out on the strength of names on paper.

The Springboks look to be the weaker of the three southern powerhouses at this World Cup and there’s no greater validation of that than by losing to a combination of sumo wrestlers and Tokyo Racing Club jockeys in their opening pool match.

Even if the ‘Boks are to progress at the top of their group, which despite the f*#$ up they still should, they appear to be not one of the real worthy threats to New Zealand when the whips be a cracking.

Maybe the rival comes indeed from a Six Nations entrant. Ireland, the winner of the 2015 championship in our Autumn were ever so impressive, showing their credentials as a side to be reckoned with come the global contest six months later. They have a great line-up and deserve much respect.

Mind you, the culmination of the Six Nations proved three sides can really take it up to their southern combatants.

Going into the last day of the championship, Ireland along with England and Wales all stood mathematic chances of holding the trophy aloft.

Wales played first on that final Sunday and required a win, and by some margin, to put themselves in as clubhouse leader. They were magnificent, scaring the bejesus out of the other two by crushing Italy 61-20 and indeed taking top spot before Ireland had to battle with Scotland.

Just as impressively Ireland stepped up to the plate and accounted for the Scots 40-10, a huge result and it snuck the Irish back on top of Wales in the standings by point differential with it all now being asked of the English.

England needed a 26 point winning margin over France and in an epic advertisement for the game produced a heartbreaking yet pulsating 55-35 win, resulting in Ireland holding on in what was a truly great day in rugby.

The efforts and lengths of the performances by the three victors on that eventful Sunday in March showed the game and quality that the North might be able to produce.

England, former winners, on home soil, they have developed a highly attacking game which will test the defence of the southern hemisphere teams more so than they’d be expecting. This gives them a real chance this World Cup, a huge chance.

The English were scratchy in their opening night win over Fiji but their real tests come against Wales this weekend and Australia the weekend after. Both games are at Twickenham and one win, minimum, will be acceptable. Two is far from unlikely. To lose both will be a national disaster.

The plucky Welsh have all the tools at their disposal, albeit injuries may inevitably be their downfall. So close four years ago in making the semi-finals, on their day they are the most attractive and dangerous side to the southern teams yet the proof is yet to be found in the pudding.

When it’s all said and done, it will come down to how they battle England in London, a venue which scares no-one in red, the Welsh have winning form their this last decade. And as for tackling the Wallabies, they’ve been so close yet so far, to say they’re due for a green and gold scalp is an understatement.

Of the three, England and Ireland pose the greatest threat to New Zealand, Wales will probably be an injury too many to go all the way. But what about those Wallabies?

The Bledisoe Cup was lost like Tony Abbott at a leadership spill, highly predictable yet still really embarrassing, however the performance to clinch the Rugby Championship was actually of some merit. 

No question it was the best an Australian side has looked against New Zealand in so many years and even the most cynical of Wallabies fans would have been thinking, maybe, just maybe, the All Blacks will be gettable in England?

No. 

The Rugby World Cup is about tradition, history and prestige. And it’s not who wins the World Cup these days, it’s about who will be so lucky to be on the receiving end when the Merino Fiddlers decide to play their joker and collapse, disappointing everyone back home that they threw it away again.

In the case of a Kiwi choke, who might then be so lucky? One need look no further perhaps than the luck of the Irish…

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