TORONTO - Are you ready for some football? The folks in New Zealand and around the world sure are, just of a different and, to people around the world, far more recognized variety.
In the wee hours of the morning here in North America, the focus of the sports world was on Eden Park in Auckland as New Zealand and Tonga opened the eighth Rugby World Cup.
It's common knowledge that rugby is a religion in the small nation of 4.4 million inhabitants that lies where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet. And they’ve begun to enjoy six weeks worth of the very best, culminating in the final back at Eden Park on Oct. 23 with 20 nations having arrived for the competition.
For local rugby fanatics, the 17-hour time difference will mean several late nights, early mornings, or if you dare, all-nighters as all 48 matches will be televised on TSN, TSN2, and TSN.ca.
For the opening round, the teams are separated in to four groups. Here's a brief look at how they stack up.
Canada: The Rugby World Cup usually consists of eight nations who are expected to contend for the title and 12 nations hoping to surprise their way into the quarterfinals. Count Canada in the latter category. After a dismal 2007 tournament, coach Kieran Crowley's boys hope for a better showing this time around. Wins over Tonga and Japan won't be easy but a realistic goal while good showings against New Zealand and France will at least be confidence boosters. Captain Pat Riordan will rely on James Pritchard and Phil Mackenzie to do much of their scoring. Should Taylor Paris get into a match, the 18-year-old will be the youngest World Cup performer ever.
New Zealand: The All Blacks are favourites because they're at home and let's face it, they're the All Blacks. From the colorful and intimidating haka before the match to their technical forwards and speedy backs, they usually wear down their opponents en route to easy and sometimes lopsided wins. But the reason they haven't lifted the trophy in 24 years is they've always run into a very motivated opponent in the knockout stages. The team boasts several of the world's top players including fly-half Dan Carter. Captain Richie McCaw will look to surpass 100 caps during the tournament.
France: Also expected to get by the group stage, they are in good form having gone 3-2 in the Six Nations in the spring and recently sweeping Ireland in a two-match series. Finalists in the World Cup twice in their history, Les Tricolores will be looking for another good finish.
Tonga: They come off a 2-1 record in the Pacific Nations Cup and a split of a two-game series against Fiji. Tonga went 2-2 in 2007 and come into this tournament number 12 in the world rankings, two spots ahead of Canada.
Japan: Sandwiched between Tonga and Canada in the rankings, the Japanese lost to Italy and beat the U.S. in recent internationals. Japan’s world cup history includes a 145-17 defeat to New Zealand in 1995 but have improved greatly.
England: 2003 hero Jonny Wilkinson is back for another go as the Six Nations champions look for another world cup finals appearance. In recent warmups, they defeated Ireland and split against Wales. They hope to better their fifth-place standing in the world rankings.
Scotland: Lost to their arch rivals at the Six Nations but have recent wins over Italy and Ireland to tune up for this tournament. They will immediately have a chance at revenge in the group when they face Argentina, who shocked them in the 2007 quarterfinals. They're currenly seventh in the world rankings.
Argentina: Los Pumas come into this tournament ranked ninth in the world. They may need a battle or two to get going as their only warm-ups have come against weak South American opposition
Georgia: The Lelos are best remembered for their 14-10 loss to Ireland in 2007, proving the former Soviet republic has come a long way in the sport. 16th ranked this time, they hope to pull off an upset or two.
Romania: The Oaks were 1-3 in the 2007 tournament. One of the stronger nations in Europe's second flight, they have competed in every world cup and are ranked 17th this time.
Australia: Two time champion Wallabies are obvious contenders. They dominated the recent tri-nations series against New Zealand and South Africa so they're raring to go. Lock Nathan Sharpe should sail past 100 international caps during the tournament.
Ireland: The Irish went 3-2 in the Six Nations including a win over England but lost to those rivals recently. The seventh ranked side have a long history and have been in every world cup but have never passed the quarter-final stage.
Italy: Rugby's version of the Azzurri have taken advantage of their 11 years in the Six Nations to improve their program greatly. They went 2-2 in 2007 and can challenge Ireland for second spot.
Russia: This is the world cup debut for the 19th-ranked Russians who have very little recent form to go by except for a mediocre campaign in the Six Nations B-pool tournament in the spring.
United States: The 18th-ranked Eagles were recently dominated by Canada in their two-match series. They went 0-4 in the 2007 tournament and while they should beat Russia, the remainder of their schedule is a very tall order.
South Africa: Currently ranked third in the world, the defending champion Springboks come into the tournament with plenty of experience led by captain John Smit (106 caps) and lock Victor Matfield (107 caps). They went 1-3 in the recent tri-nations with a win over New Zealand.
Wales: Second in Six Nations play with 24 titles, the best the Welsh have done at the world cup was a semi-final appearance in 1987. Their recent form includes a split with England and a win over Argentina. Fly-half Stephen Jones recently surpassed 100 caps.
Fiji: The Flying Fijians made the 2007 quarterfinals and currently sit 15th in the world rankings. They have made it to the quarter-final stage in the world cup twice. They have had mixed results against Pacific nations in recent warm-ups.
Namibia: Qualifying for their third world cup, the 20th ranked Welwitschias will be the longest shots to win a game. Their last international was a loss to Georgia in June.
Samoa: This nation has competed in every world cup and has two quarter-final appearances. They enjoyed a victory over Australia in July. They're a mature side who should be competitive.