This article was last updated on September 9, 2023
Ireland are the reigning Grand Slam champions, historic Kiwi conquerors – were spat out as marginal favourites, with a 21.7% likelihood of lifting the William Webb Ellis Trophy on 28 October.
Hosts France, humming with belief and a sense of destiny, were on 21.4%.
Defending champions South Africa and perennial powerhouses New Zealand followed close behind on 20.5% and 20.2% respectively.
Never before has a World Cup teetered so tantalisingly. As the megabytes expended proved, you can make a compelling case for all and absolutely no guarantees about what follows.
Ireland have cohesion and cunning, backed by Andy Farrell’s doorstop of a playbook, as thick, intricately plotted and full of deception as a Dickens novel.
Johnny Sexton, their 38-year-old totem, is dancing for the last time, with his rugby career ending whenever Ireland’s campaign does. Backed by Dan Sheehan, Hugo Keenan, Caelan Doris, Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose and world player of the year Josh van der Flier it is undoubtedly his best, as well as final, chance of glory.
There is no obvious weakness beyond a lack of experience at the business end of this tournament – Ireland, infamously, have never made it beyond the quarter-finals, in nine previous campaigns.
France have been deprived of fly-half Romain Ntamack, through injury, But Matthieu Jalibert, his replacement, has a similar buccaneering streak and the services of his captain and world’s best scrum-half Antoine Dupont close at hand. A silky backline is matched by a steely pack, who marry piano-lifter heft with the hands of concert-grade ivory-tinklers.
South Africa have added another dimension to their crash-and-bash stereotype, with the play-making skills of Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse unleashing Kurt Lee-Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe more regularly. A win over New Zealand at Twickenham in their final warm-up match last week was an ominous statement of their intent to retain what is theirs.
And, that defeat apart, New Zealand, for once neither champions nor leading favourites, are coming to the boil nicely. They trumped the rest of the southern hemisphere in this year’s Rugby Championship and in wings Will Jordan and Mark Telea have electrifying threat out wide.
So, any one of four could win.
England and Wales were safely ensconced in the world’s top four. Ireland were fifth. France were seventh.
Scotland’s team is perhaps the finest in a generation. Their back-row depth is such that Hamish Watson, a British and Irish Lion against South Africa two years ago, may well be on the bench.
But pitched into a pool with Ireland and South Africa, their hopes of a decent run have been badly compromised.
By contrast England, for whom expectations have been chilled by three defeats in four warm-up games after a third successive deflating Six Nations, can afford to lose their opener to Argentina (a very real possibility.
If they can see off a talented Fiji side and an Eddie Jones-led Australia that has ditched some of their own established names in search of consistency, top spot in Pool C is there for them.
Portugal’s play-off win over the United States means they return to the tournament for the first time in 16 years
This edition will also be filled with intrigue over a Tonga side studded with former All Blacks, an enterprising Japan team attempting to build on a home World Cup and first quarter-final appearance and whether Georgia can realize their best chance of causing an upset remains to be seen.
On the pitch, the clampdown on tackle height and the resulting blizzard of cards will affect matches. The breakdown laws are difficult for even a seasoned fan to define and understand. Reducing the risk of repeated head injuries is a priority.