Pool C: Wallabies are all the rage
AUCKLAND, 1 Sept. - Pool C appears clear cut, with the buoyant Australians poised to run out winners.
After winning the Tri Nations with a 25-20 victory over Rugby World Cup favourites New Zealand in Brisbane, most pundits see the Wallabies as second favourites for glory.
But Australia must take heed of a wounded Ireland, who have suffered depressing losses to France, twice, and England heading into the tournament.
If the Irish can shrug off their poor form, they should easily finish second ahead of Italy, who they meet in Dunedin in their final pool match on 2 October.
The other Pool C contenders are USA and Russia. The Russians are in their first World Cup finals and should provide the USA with their only victory.
Australia have some mercurial backs in scrum half Will Genia, New Zealand-born fly half Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale, Digby Ioane and James O'Connor.
Stephen Larkham, who played fly half in Australia's 1999 Rugby World Cup-winning side, rates Genia as the most influential member of the Australian team.
Their forwards are no slouches either. Number 8 Radike Samo, at 35 the oldest player to represent the Wallabies in a Tri Nations match, raced 60m to score a crucial touchdown against the All Blacks in Brisbane.
Flanker David Pocock is a potential match-winner, new captain James Horwill is an imposing presence in the second row and prop James Slipper is earning a fearsome reputation in the set-piece.
Ireland, ranked No. 6 in the world, have reached the quarter-finals four times without progressing.
But former All Black wing Jonah Lomu rates them as the tournament's dark horses.
They clash with Australia at Eden Park on 17 September, knowing they have beaten the Wallabies only twice in their past 20 meetings.
Their squad has a wealth of experience in the likes of evergreen lock Paul O'Connell and some exciting younger players such as fly half Jonathan Sexton, prop Cian Healy and back row Sean O'Brien.
Captain Brian O'Driscoll had an unhappy trip to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions in 2005 when he was injured in a tackle in the opening minutes of the first Test, so he will be hoping to return with some better memories this time.
Italy coach Nick Mallett, who guided South Africa to a record 17 consecutive Test wins in the late 1990s, is hoping to steer his team into the knockout stages for the first time before he is replaced by Jacques Brunel after the tournament.
He has Sergio Parisse, one of the best number 8s in the world with 80 caps, leading his line-up, and fit-again Mauro Bergamasco bolstering the back row.
France, who suffered a 22-21 loss to the Italians in this year's Six Nations, will testify that they should not be treated lightly.
Former Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan is now in charge of USA and will be hoping to replicate the kind of success they have achieved in Sevens rugby.
The Eagles' best moments are often inspired by Zimbabwe-born Takudzwa Ngwenya of Biarritz, Saracens full back Chris Wyles and playmaker Todd Clever. Their best chance will be against Russia in New Plymouth on 15 September.
Russia, who qualified for their first Rugby World Cup by finishing second behind Georgia, last year beat New Zealand provincial sides Taranaki 33-24 and South Canterbury 31-7.
In their last encounter with USA, at the Churchill Cup in England in June, they lost 32-25.
In the same tournament, they lost to Italy 24-19 and Canada 34-18.
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