Taking place among eleven cities in the host country, the tournament consists of four “pools” of five teams each, and comprises some of the best rugby teams or "unions" from around the world – including those from the “Six Nations” tournament and the “Tri Nations” group, which features Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Teams vie for the Webb Ellis trophy, as the cup is also known. It’s named for William Webb Ellis, the 19th century Anglican minister who is believed to have invented the game while a student at the Rugby School in England.
A highly physical game that in many ways loosely resembles American football, rugby uses an oblong, egg-shaped ball, which is a bit larger and more rounded than a typical American football. As in football, one can score points by kicking through uprights situated at the far-lengths of the field through so-called “drop goals,” and players can also run the ball into the goal, called a “try” as opposed to the American football “touchdown.”
However, there are also significant differences. Rugby uniforms offer little in the way of physical protection, and the game doesn’t include anything resembling the number of clock stoppages that American football, with all its “plays” and “time outs,” utilizes. Rugby and football teams each feature “flankers,” “half-backs,” “fullbacks” and “centres;” but trying to compare rugby and football “fullbacks” would be like comparing the football “huddle” to the rugby “scrum.” They may appear similar, but that’s where the comparison ends.
In this World Cup setting, all of the nations play four in-pool games – one each against their fellow pool opponents. Point and other systems are used to gauge rank during the tournament, which have been established by the International Rugby Board (IRB). The winner and runner-up of each pool then enter what is called the “knock-out” stage, which consists of quarter-finals, semi-finals, and a final match. The so-called “Bronze Final” matches the losers of their semi-finals matches against each other to determine a third-place finisher.
In the six quadrennial tournaments held so far, Australia and South Africa each own two titles, and England and New Zealand have one cup apiece.
The USA team has quietly qualified for every RWC tournament since 1987, and though they’ve had mixed results in past appearances (they’re 2-15 overall in that time), their present team includes eight former alumni of the University of California at Berkeley and promises to be one of the strongest they’ve yet fielded.
The USA team captain, flanker Todd Clever - who plays professionally for the Suntory Sungoliath of the Japanese Rugby Football Union - is cautiously optimistic about the Americans’ chances within Pool C, which also includes Russia, Ireland, Italy and Australia. “We want to start off strong, but it’s a huge ask against Ireland. Four short days later we’ve got Russia. That’s going to be a tough game, but it’s one that we’re picking out to get a victory from - and Italy as well.” Russia, it should be noted, is playing in its very first World Cup.
Tonga, with a current population of 105,000, is the smallest country represented - this being its sixth RWC appearance overall. It is one of numerous Pacific teams, including the host New Zealand All-Blacks, that begin each match with a ritual. The Sipi Tau, a traditional song sung prior to matches, accompanies the Kailao - a war-dance meant to display the team’s discipline, obedience and skill. Tonga rounds out a complement of three strong Pacific island teams, including Fiji and Samoa.
Of all the nations competing, Namibia may have the most to prove. It has been to three Rugby World Cups (1999, 2003 and 2007) where it finished 19th of 20 teams in 1999, and a rock-bottom 20th in each of the latter two. The team's main goal, it would seem, is to qualify for the next World Cup cycle. They are currently ranked 20th in the world; but nearly thirty “ratings points” behind perennial powerhouse New Zealand. And speaking of the host team, if one goes purely by the organization of the pools and world rankings, there is an excellent chance of New Zealand and South Africa facing off in the semi-finals, with that winner potentially meeting Australia in the final – with other strong teams like France and England looking to pounce at the first sign of weakness.