All Blacks top the pile

New Zealand have arrived at the 2007 Rugby World Cup as clear favourites - and it is difficult to disagree with their status.

New Zealand have arrived at the 2007 Rugby World Cup as clear favourites - and it is difficult to disagree with their status.

Given the way they have played over the past two years, the All Blacks fully justify that tag.

While they maybe have not played as well this year as during the previous season, Richie McCaw's team remain the best side in the world.

Pressure though, is a funny thing, and the likes of France, South Africa and Australia all know they can beat the All Blacks on a one-off occasion.

Australia, if everything goes to plan from their perspective, will meet New Zealand in the semi-finals.

Given the Wallabies' memorable victory over them at the same stage four years ago in Sydney, it is exactly the time of the tournament when they would want to play them, and then you could have France against South Africa in the other semi, which would be one hell of a game.

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France know that every host nation, apart from Wales in 1999, has reached the World Cup final, and if they can handle such huge expectation then they are in with a great chance.

I feel that centre Yannick Jauzion and flanker Serge Betsen are such key players for them, while the half-back combination of David Skrela and Pierre Mignoni has shown it is capable of controlling a game. On top of that, there is no doubt France can handle the physicality.

South Africa look the most physically powerful team - they always do - and I don't believe they will deviate from their established power game.

The Springboks have a big defence and a big pack, although maybe in the 10 and 12 positions they haven't yet shown the creativity that will be needed in the key games.

As for the home nations challenge of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, then they are pretty much all in the same boat after under-performing during the recent round of World Cup warm-up games.

All four countries need to step things up, but this is the World Cup, and I am sure they will.

They have all got games in which to try to gel before facing the big matches in their pools.

A lot has been said and written about defending champions England, and next week's clash against South Africa will probably decide who finishes top of Pool A.

Whatever people might think about England and their World Cup prospects, on paper they possess the game to beat South Africa - a big pack and a great kicker in Jonny Wilkinson, although it is to be hope that his ankle injury will not keep him out for too long.

Wales coach Gareth Jenkins has always said that he should be judged on the World Cup, and his team must look to play with tempo and confidence.

There were rumours of unrest in the Wales camp when Steve Hansen was coach, then during Mike Ruddock's reign and now with Gareth Jenkins, but World Cups don't happen very often and it is up to everyone to rally around.

The players seem to think the world is against them for some reason, but when Wales won the Grand Slam in 2005 they looked a happy group. They played with smiles on their faces, and there needs to be that feeling of goodwill again.

Scotland were solid up front in beating Ireland last month, but then against South Africa they were found wanting defensively.

The Scots seem to lack a bit of confidence behind the scrum to finish things off, and they have to be more clinical in that area, especially as I think they will struggle to cope with the Italian pack during what is likely to be a winner-takes-all pool clash in St Etienne later this month.

Ireland's forwards will need to meet their challenge - but they have always answered those questions in the past - although I think it will be between Ireland and Argentina to see who qualifies with France from Pool D.

For me, it is South Africa, France, New Zealand and Australia in the semi-finals, with the prospect of a France versus New Zealand final in Paris on October 20.