Stage is Set for Epic Encounters

Jill Menghetti wonders who will be the heroes in the Rugby World Cup kicking off in September

Twickenham. The biggest rugby stadium in the world. The home of the game. The stage that for more than a century has been the setting for thousands of great battles and epic clashes. The hallowed turf that every rugby player dreams of playing on.

At 4pm on Saturday 31 October, the 30 battle-scarred men left standing after six weeks of physically demanding and emotionally draining competition will kick off the Rugby World Cup final. They will be cheered on by a crowd of 82,000 and watched by millions across the world. A hard-fought campaign of pool matches, quarter-finals and semi-finals will have whittled down 20 teams from all four quarters of the world to just two line-ups. These will be the warriors in the iconic arena, vying for glory and the greatest prize in the game: the Webb Ellis Cup.

This is the eighth staging of the tournament, which began in 1987 as a competition for 16 invited teams and was won by hosts New Zealand beating France 29-9 in Auckland. The trophy was named in honour of Rugby School pupil William Webb Ellis who, the story goes, in 1823 was the first player to pick up the ball and run with it. The new game spread, notably by boys taking it with them when they left the school. Clubs sprang up all over Britain and in the colonies, where it became something of a religion in Australia, South Africa and cup holders New Zealand, being seen as a character-forming game that calls for hard men to show their courage as well as their fitness and skills.

Over the past 28 years the Rugby World Cup has grown rapidly in status and importance to become established as one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events, behind the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. In 1995 it featured one of the most moving and symbolic moments in sporting history. South African president Nelson Mandela, decked out in a Springboks jersey, presented home captain Francois Pienaar with the trophy at Ellis Park in Johannesburg after a narrow extra-time 15-12 win over New Zealand. The two men had developed a remarkable relationship while South Africa battled against the odds to a place in the final against the All Blacks. The inspiring story was later made into the blockbuster film Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

Another unforgettable moment – for England supporters at least – came in Sydney in the 2003 final when England famously lifted the cup for the first time. It was down to hero Jonny Wilkinson taking his chance and keeping his nerve to kick a dramatic last-ditch drop goal for a 20-17 victory over their hosts. Wilkinson, who retired from international rugby four years ago, scored a total of 277 points in the 19 World Cup games he played, an impressive record that still stands.

Sydney 2015 Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour

And now, after crashing out in the quarter-finals against France in 2011, England will be looking to find new heroes if they are to emulate the Wallabies, South Africa and the out-and-out favourites New Zealand, and win the cup for a second time. At present ranked fourth in the world, England must first get out of Pool A, a pool in which they could well drown. It has been dubbed the Pool of Death because it contains four teams currently ranked in the world top 10: alongside England there are Australia (fifth), Wales (sixth) and Fiji (10th). The other team in the pool is Uruguay (19th), likely to end up as whipping boys as the rivals fight for a top two place in the pool.

Led by captain Chris Robshaw, England kick off the Rugby World Cup action at 8pm on Friday 18 September when they start their campaign by taking on Fiji at Twickenham. As the team with home advantage, England will be heartened by the fact that in the previous seven tournaments the hosts have reached the final five times and won it three times. However, it’s equally true that the pressure of home expectations can make the strongest men buckle…something they can’t afford to do against their next two opponents. They meet Wales and Australia, also at Twickenham, on Saturday 26 September and Saturday 3 October respectively. The following weekend England move north to play their final pool game, against Uruguay at Manchester City’s stadium.

Meanwhile New Zealand’s defence of the trophy will begin with – on paper – an easier route to the knockout stages. Their Pool C matches are against Argentina ranked eighth, Tonga 13th, Georgia 14th and Namibia 21st. The All Blacks go into the contest with an amazing record since they won the cup four years ago, having won 38 of their 42 Test matches.

Second in the world South Africa head Pool B. They will play Samoa ranked ninth, Scotland 11th, Japan 12th, and the USA 16th. In Pool D France, ranked seventh, will face a tough test against Ireland, third. Their other opponents are Italy 15th, Romania 17th and Canada 18th.

England 2015 is set to be the biggest Rugby World Cup yet with 2.3 million tickets sold and a global audience across 207 territories. More than 20,000 home fans applied for volunteer roles and after 10,000 interviews 6,000 were chosen to welcome the world to the 13 match venues in 10 host cities. As well as Twickenham and Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, games will be played at the Olympic Stadium, Wembley, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Leicester, Exeter, Gloucester, Birmingham, Brighton and Milton Keynes.

Excitement has been building up for supporters around the world with the Webb Ellis Cup being showcased on an international tour. This is being followed by a 100-day countdown tour of the UK and Ireland. The trophy’s UK tour recognises increasing involvement in the game at all levels and ages, male and female. The cup is being seen in shopping centres and schools, at family fun days and beach events, hospitals, castles and cathedrals, in addition to rugby clubs and festivals of sport. Its itinerary even includes going up in Zipworld in the mountains of Wales and down in a submarine to be photographed with naval rugby teams. For details of these events see rugbyworldcup.com/trophy-tour.

A rugby match is always a thrilling spectacle with bravery, speed, discipline and of course talent on show. Upsets are bound to happen and, despite the All Blacks’ prowess, it would be a brave pundit who would forecast the team that will hold the cup aloft at the end of the final 80 minutes. So whether you’re watching at home or are lucky enough to have a ticket, you’re guaranteed an epic contest.

For ticket availability, visit tickets.rugbyworldcup.com.

The following could go in a panel

Behind the scenes at Twickenham

You can take a guided tour of the Twickenham stadium, including the royal box, a breathtaking view of the arena from the top of the stand, the players’ tunnel and finally a pitchside walk.

The price includes admission to the World Rugby Museum, where you can discover a whole world of rugby – more than 25,000 objects are on display – and relive some of the greatest rugby moments on interactive screens.

Book at englandrugby.com/twickenham/world-rugby-museum/ or phone 020 8892 8877.

Captions for images

Rugby Cup

Stirring stuff: Prince Harry launches the Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour at Twickenham

Rugby Harry / Rugby Harry crop

Royal supporter: Prince Harry shares his love of the game with schoolchildren at Twickenham

Rugby Jonny Wilkinson

Unforgettable: Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal is celebrated on tickets for the final

Rugby Sydney

The old enemy Australia: Sydney Harbour Bridge forms the backdrop for the Webb Ellis Cup

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