Rugby World Cup Countdown - 244 days to go...
Graham Jenkins
January 25, 2007

The dawning of the new year means that the sport's next global showpiece is growing ever nearer and excitement is sure to intensify amongst players and fans alike as we build towards the kick off. Graham Jenkins reports

There is plenty of rugby to be played before France and Argentina get things underway at the Stade de France on September 7th but time is running out for players to impress and coaches to find the winning formula.

England will be hoping to make history when they launch the defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy following their memorable triumph in Sydney three years ago.

No country has ever retained the world title, and on current form, and with some major personnel changes the odds will be against them breaking that trend.

Any poll of so-called experts or fans conducted now would surely underline New Zealand's favouritism to claim the game's biggest prize.

The All Blacks have not lifted the World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987, but a final repeat of almost 20 years ago - with them once again taking on France - looks the most likely scenario come the tournament finale on October 20th.

The 2007 RBS Six Nations will provide the first key form guide this year.

Before their focus falls on the World Cup, England will be keen to restore the reputation of 'fortress Twickenham' and with three of their Championship games - against Scotland, Italy and France - at home there is a chance to build a morale-boosting platform for the rest of the year.

Ireland though, who were worthy Triple Crown winners last season, will be many people's favourites especially as France and England travel to Dublin and Irish rugby's new temporary international home of Croke Park while Lansdowne Road is developed.

Wales, the 2005 Six Nations champions, also cannot be discounted under new coach Gareth Jenkins, and their opening game against Ireland in Cardiff could prove a pivotal one for the whole competition.

After the Six Nations, summer tours - trips include England to South Africa and Wales in Australia - take centre-stage before a series of World Cup warm-up games see final plans hatched and squads announced.

We didn't have to wait long into the new year for the first big headline with World Cup implications. New England boss Brian Ashton named Phil Vickery as his captain - and summoned Jason Robinson from international retirement.

Wasps prop Vickery takes the leadership duties from Leicester's Martin Corry, whose 14 Tests in charge included the dismal autumn series earlier this season which produced Twickenham defeats against New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa and cost coach Andy Robinson his job.

Vickery's fellow World Cup-winner Robinson, meanwhile, returns to England duties some 15 months after quitting Test rugby. The 32-year-old Sale Sharks full-back won 39 caps before stepping down in September, 2005.

The Six Nations squad also includes uncapped Saracens centre Andy Farrell, London Irish fly-half Shane Geraghty and fellow rookies Tom Rees and Dan Ward-Smith, in addition to an injury-plagued Jonny Wilkinson.

On the appointment of 30-year-old Vickery, Ashton commented, "Phil is a player of massive experience who has been at the top of the world, and he has a great desire to lead England back there again.

"He showed in the autumn that he is back playing international rugby well, and both as a player and a captain, he is the right man to take England forward."

Elsewhere in Europe, France head coach Bernard Laporte has already pencilled in 20 names for World Cup duty - and he insists time is running out for those wanting to secure one of the 10 remaining places in the squad.

With only nine months left until the showpiece begins, Laporte is looking to finalise the group and he will be hoping the forthcoming Six Nations Championship provides him with some clues.

The 40-man squad for the Six Nations was revealed this week with four uncapped players making it into the party.

Those not selected - except for Frederic Michalak, the mercurial fly-half who is currently out injured - will struggle to make France's 30-man World Cup party.

And Laporte acknowledged there was not much time left to impress him and his backroom staff.

``If you take the squad of 40 that has been announced, and add some names we have mentioned in private, we are not far from the France team, at this moment in time,'' he said.

"It is a base we are working from.The door is not closed to anybody. But with the 20 players who are certainties - save for unexpected hiccups - to figure on the list of 30 (for the World Cup), there aren't many opportunities left.''

Biarritz centre Romain Cabannes, the Clermont duo of prop Laurent Emmanuelli and fullback Anthony Floch join Biarritz hooker August Benoit in the new-look squad.

France begin their Six Nations campaign against Italy in Rome on 3 February with Laporte set to rotate his entire squad through the Championship.

Australia's World Cup preparations got off to a shaky start with four players sent home from a training camp in Canberra this week after failing to meet fitness requirements.

Lote Tuqiri, Mark Gerrard, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Morgan Turinui were all sent packing from the Australian Institute of Sport and will undertake personal fitness programs in their home states.

"We set some standards for this camp at the end of the spring tour and the four players have been sent home for failing to meet those standards," Wallabies coach John Connolly said on Thursday.

He denied the sanctions would adversely affect the squad and said the move sent a strong message to those players harbouring ambitions of being part of the final squad to make the journey to France in September.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, USA Eagles Head Coach Peter Thorburn has officially announced the program that will be used leading up to the World Cup.

"I am really looking forward to these next nine months and the program we've prepared for the Rugby World Cup," Thorburn said.

"We have chosen an ideal mix of players for this for this first camp," Thorburn said. "There is a good blend of experienced and relatively 'new' players, which we hope will provide the newer players an opportunity to present themselves to the coaches.

"We will play two really tough international sides and two very good, physical sides at this World Cup," Thorburn said. "We will remain the underdogs going into it, which I think is a good thing."

In the Far East, Japan coach John Kirwan has set his sights on the pool matches against the Fiji and Canada and believes those matches could set the platform for his side to have a successful Rugby World Cup.

A World Cup-winner with the All Blacks in the 1987, Kirwan also was a member of the New Zealand team that made the semi-final in 1991 and then coached Italy in 2003.

Japan have won only once in 16 World Cup matches but the 42-year-old has gone on record that he wants two wins at RWC'07.

He has also set a target of trying to win the Pacific Nations Cup, which will kicks off in May and will feature Japan along with Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Junior All Blacks and Australia A.

"We have to start winning and start competing. We need to go down to the Pacific Nations and go down there and try to win the title," he said.

"It's important we don't get thumped by 60 at the Pacific Nations."

There remain two repechage places up for grabs at this year's Rugby World Cup and they are set to be decided over the next few weeks.

As runners-up in the Asian Qualifying competition Korea face Tonga over two legs for one of the two remaining spots.

The first leg of that clash has been confirmed for February 10th in Tonga.

Elsewhere, Portugal must play Morocco over two legs for the right to take on Uruguay for the the other repechage qualifying place.

The first leg of their clash will take place in Casablanca on January 20th with the second leg in Lisbon a week later.

RWC'07 Pools:

Pool A: England, South Africa, Samoa, USA, Repechage 2*
Pool B: Australia, Wales, Fiji, Canada, Japan
Pool C: New Zealand, Scotland, Italy, Romania, Repechage 1*
Pool D: France, Ireland, Argentina, Namibia, Georgia

*Repechage 1 will be the winner of the Uruguay v Morocco/Portugal
*Repechage 2 will be the winner of Korea v Tonga

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