PARIS (AFP) - New Zealand will be made to fight all the way for a third consecutive title as a ground-breaking Rugby World Cup gets under way in Japan next week with half a dozen teams confident of jockeying for the William Webb Ellis trophy.
While the bookmakers have the All Blacks as clear favourites, they will not be the No. 1-ranked team at the Sept 20-Nov 2 tournament, Ireland having taken that mantle after two warm-up wins over Six Nations Grand Slam champions Wales.
But there is no doubt about the strength in depth of Steve Hansen's New Zealand, a side that features three former World Rugby Players of the Year in skipper Kieran Read, influential lock Brodie Retallick and playmaker Beauden Barrett.
The All Blacks' win percentage since winning the inaugural 1987 tournament, alongside with those in 2011 and 2015, is a staggering 84 per cent and it will take an outstanding performance to dislodge them from their path to a fourth title in the first World Cup to be held in Asia.
They kick off on Sept 21 with what promises to be a humdinger of a Pool B match against an ever-improving South Africa. The two-time champions are skippered for the first time in a World Cup by a black player, flanker Siya Kolisi.
Italy, Namibia and Canada make up the pool, so that match against the Springboks will very likely decide the group winner, who will go on to play the runner-up in a Pool A that features Ireland, Scotland and Japan.
"We love the draw because it's meant we've turned up and there's no excuses, no waiting for us to get used to the intensity - it's right there in front of us," said All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster.
"We're about to face a very confident South African team, but they're going to face a very determined All Blacks team - we know South Africa are going to be 100 percent prepared and we've got to make sure we are too."
Ireland, twice winners over New Zealand in recent times (in 2016 and 2018), headline Pool A which also includes Six Nations rivals Scotland, hosts Japan, and Russia and Samoa.
There is no doubt that Ireland's Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt, whose pedigree includes a Top 14 title with French club Clermont, two European Cups with Leinster and back-to-back Six Nations titles with Ireland in 2014 and 2015, has girded a solid team capable of dreaming of going beyond the quarter-finals for a first time in their history.
Key to that is current World Rugby player of the year Jonny Sexton.
The 34-year-old playmaker makes Ireland tick, but they need him to regain the masterful form he has struggled to find in recent months.
"Yes we would love to make that semi-final and I don't set goals," Schmidt admitted.
"So it is not even a goal, it is a dream I have that I would love to see come to fruition."
Home fans meanwhile will be hoping that Japan can recreate their famous 34-32 win over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup, the biggest upset in the sport at elite level.
The Brave Blossoms also notched up pool victories over Samoa and USA four years ago, becoming the first team to win three group matches and not progress to the quarter-finals.
The coach of Japan in 2015 was the canny, much-travelled Australian Eddie Jones, now in charge of Pool C headliners England, the sole northern hemisphere winners of the World Cup, back in 2003.
Owen Farrell will lead an English team featuring the skilful likes of hooker Jamie George and ubiquitous lock/blindside Maro Itoje, desperate to banish memories of 2015, when they became the first host nation to not qualify for the quarter-finals following defeats by pool rivals Australia and Wales.
Their path to the knockout stages is by no means straightforward, however, with France and Argentina having been drawn in Pool C, along with the United States and Tonga.
France have reached six World Cup semi-finals, but have been beset for the past three years by a number of poor performances.
Coach Jacques Brunel, aided by Fabien Galthie - who takes over full-time after the World Cup - has shown faith in a raft of young guns such as Toulouse half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack and fullback Thomas Ramos, and exciting Clermont wing Damian Penaud.
Pool D has shades of 2015 about it as Wales, twice champions Australia and Fiji are again drawn together, along with Georgia and minnows Uruguay.
Wales coach Warren Gatland, who like Hansen, Schmidt and Brunel will step down after the tournament, predicted a wide-open tournament in the battle to take the title from holders New Zealand.
"I think this is the most open World Cup we've had for a long time. There are six or seven teams capable of winning the World Cup," said Gatland, who has guided Wales to four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and the 2011 World Cup semi-final in his 12-year tenure.
"You always need a little bit of luck. You get to the quarter-finals and then take it one game at a time."
It could be argued that lady luck has not looked fortunately on teams from the north: only 13 of the 32 semi-finalists in the eight World Cups to date have been from the Six Nations, and that includes France six times.