Rugby World Cup Countdown - 318 days to go...
January 25, 2007

This time next year the dust will be settling on Rugby World Cup 2007, the ticker-tape will have been swept up, mementos will be on offer on auction sites around the world and most importantly the fate of the Webb Ellis Cup will be known. Graham Jenkins reports

This time next year the dust will be settling on Rugby World Cup 2007, the ticker-tape will have been swept up, mementos will be on offer on auction sites around the world and most importantly the fate of the Webb Ellis Cup will be known.

Only one team will be able to claim the game's most-prized trophy and with it the title of 'world champions' while others will be left to pick through the pieces of a fruitless assault on the crown.

But who will be parading the cup around Stade de France? And whose fans will still be celebrating this time next year in St Denis, throughout Paris and around the world?

The bookmakers' favourite to be take that honour is New Zealand with hosts France a distant second but fans and pundits have plenty of rugby to analyse between now and then to cement opinions, starting with next month's busy international schedule.

Graham Henry's announced his touring party this week and as expected Richie McCaw will lead a squad full of familiar names against England, Wales and perhaps most significantly France (twice).

Similarly there were few surprises from Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan when he announced the squad that will take on Australia, South Africa and the Pacific Islanders.

Further indicators as to who may be lining up in France next year will come later this week with squad announcements from Wales and England and key decision reagrding captaincy set to grab the headlines.

Few would doubt the All Blacks' favouritism at this stage but haven't we all been here before?

Coaches, players, media and fans will feast on the international rugby that is set to be served up over the next month or so in what will be a dress rehearsal for when the world's best gather in Europe next year - where a much bigger prize will be on offer.

In other news, the International Rugby Board confidently proclaimed this week that Rugby World Cup 2007 is set to set to be the most successful in Rugby World Cup's 20 year history.

Operational planning, venue logistics, and the commercial and ticketing programmes are all on target for the Tournament which kicks off on September 7 when host the host nation France plays Argentina in the opening match at Stade de France.

This popularity is clearly reflected by public ticket sales surpassing the 1 million mark, which the IRB claim 'is a strong endorsement of the Organising Committee's ticket sales programme' that to date has offered affordable city and team packages to the public worldwide via the Internet.

The next phase of the programme begins on November 9 when individual tickets go on sale for the pool stages and depending on availability the quarter-finals.

In addition, the IRB Rugby World Cup commercial programme now incorporates six Worldwide Partners: Visa International, EDF, Peugeot, GMF, Societe Generale and SNCF; and Official Sponsors - Heineken, Vediorbis and Capgemini, which the sport's governing body insists further highlights the tournament's strong global appeal.

All but five places at Rugby World Cup 2007 have been filled as the Qualifying process nears its conclusion. By the end of November a further three qualifiers will be known - Africa 1, Asia 1 and Europe 3. Finally in 2007 the last two teams will qualify from the Repechage process when Europe 4, Africa 2, Asia 2, Oceania 3 (Tonga) and Americas 4 do battle for these last places.

The road to Paris started in 2004 when Andorra hosted Norway. By the time Rugby World Cup 2007 kicks off a remarkable 86 countries will have played in 192 qualifying matches.

In August last year the IRB announced a PS30 million strategic investment programme designed to increase the competitiveness of the Game around the world with the financial success of RWC underwriting the unprecedented programme.

The recent success of Italy and Romania means that all but four of the 20 places at next year's World Cup are taken.

The two sides join the automatic qualifiers (RWC 2003 quarter-finalists) England, Australia, New Zealand, France, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and Wales; plus those already qualified: Samoa (Oceania 1), Fiji (Oceania 2), Argentina (Americas 1), Canada (Americas 2) and USA (Americas 3).

In Pool A defending champions England and South Africa have been joined by Samoa and the USA with one side set to join them from the repechage rounds.

Australia and Wales have been joined in Pool B by Fiji and Canada with the winner of Asia's upcoming round-robin between Japan, Korea and Hong Kong to join them.

In Pool C Italy and Romania join New Zealand and Scotland with one more side to come from the repechage, while arguably the toughest pool of all, D, still awaits two teams. France, Ireland and Argentina will be joined by Europe 3 and the winner of the two-leg African final between Morocco and Namibia.

RWC'07 Pools:

Pool A: England, South Africa, Samoa, USA, Repechage 2
Pool B: Australia, Wales, Fiji, Canada, Asia 1
Pool C: New Zealand, Scotland, Italy, Romania, Repechage 1
Pool D: France, Ireland, Argentina, Europe 3, Africa 1

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