England face Fiji in opening match of Rugby World Cup
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England get the Rugby World Cup underway on Friday with a potentially bruising encounter against Fiji, the hosts just one of a handful of teams with a realistic chance of winning the Webb Ellis Cup, currently held by favourites New Zealand.
The six-week tournament has been billed as the first billion dollar rugby festival, with 2.3 million tickets expected to be sold and tourists contributing some £869 million ($1.36 billion) to Britain's economy.
Almost half a million tourists are expected to visit Britain for the games, whose four dozen matches involving 20 teams will take in traditional rugby venues like Cardiff but also bastions of soccer such as Manchester and Newcastle.
The tournament highlights the sport's growing global appeal with Japan, the United States and Canada fielding sides, while Romania and Georgia complement the established European sides.
Uruguay will struggle to avoid last place in England's "Group of Death" but Latin America's rugby aristocrats Argentina should qualify from Pool C with New Zealand.
Namibia, Africa's other representative after the powerful Springboks of South Africa, could also struggle but the Pacific Islands of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, with their brand of fast-flowing, physical rugby are sure to be crowd pleasers.
The All Blacks, the world number one side, have never triumphed outside New Zealand and have some painful memories of previous European campaigns, particularly 1999 and 2007, when they were beaten by mercurial French sides.
New Zealand, seeking to become the first team to lift the Webb Ellis Cup three times, will be led by 2011-winning captain Richie McCaw, the most-capped player in rugby history.
His flyhalf Dan Carter, the game's highest points scorer, will hope for an upbeat finale to his international career after injury cut short his involvement in the campaign four years ago.
While Fiji will provide a stern physical test for England in their opening game, Pool A also features double world champions Australia and local rivals Wales, meaning one of the top five sides in the world will fail to make it out of the group stage.
That could give those in World Rugby who decided to make the draw three years ago, when Wales briefly slipped out of the top eight, some sleepless nights.
England will look to the Twickenham faithful to give them the edge and hope their powerful pack, seemingly off the pace in their warm-ups, can stifle the adventurous backline play of their two main rivals and restore the trophy to the country that invented the game.
Australia, as ever, appear to be peaking just at the right time and both their World Cup wins have come in Europe. They ended a four-year barren run against New Zealand last month to win the Rugby Championship while their much-maligned pack has suddenly started to look like a unit to be reckoned with.
Wales, who went agonisingly close to the final four years ago despite playing much of their semi-final against France with 14 men, look to be the pool outsiders, and late injuries to key players have cast a shadow over their preparations.
Ireland's best opportunity
Winning Pool A appears essential to winning the title as the runners-up are likely to have to defeat both South Africa – the second best team on the planet – and New Zealand just to make the final.
No team has ever lost a World Cup pool game and gone on to win the tournament.
The Springboks, twice holders of the cup, come into the tournament after an unimpressive Rugby Championship when, hard-hit by injuries, they lost to Argentina for the first time.
But they remain fiercely competitive at the breakdown and their backline, including inexperienced trio flyhalf Handre Pollard and centres Damien de Allende and Jesse Kriel, looks exciting.
South Africa's Pool B opponents Scotland have yet to turn their improved performances under Kiwi coach Vern Cotter into results. The Scots hope to secure the runners-up spot but must overcome Samoa, no easy task.
Ireland, along with Italy the only teams in the "big 10" never to have reached the semi-finals, have arguably their best opportunity of doing something special.
Back-to-back Six Nations champions and riding high at second in the rankings after beating Australia and South Africa last November, they have local opposition in the form of France and Italy in their pool and should they top it, a winnable last-eight meeting with Argentina is on the cards.
While it is hard to see any of the other sides making more than a one-off impact, outsiders will have a better chance than before, as the organisers have given the smaller teams similar rest periods to the big guns.