TO paraphrase Gary Lineker’s footballing assessment of Germany – ‘Rugby union is a simple game. Thirty men chase a ball around for 80 minutes, and then New Zealand win’.

Having previously been billed as serial underachievers because of their failure to translate their dominance of the international game into World Cup titles, the All Blacks have thrown off their ‘bottler’ tag in emphatic fashion by triumphing in the last two editions of the tournament. They might have ceded top spot in the world rankings in the last 12 months, but when the latest World Cup begins in Japan tomorrow morning, Steve Hansen’s side will start as worthy favourites to defend their crown.

Their recent form has been somewhat patchy, but that can be attributed to Hansen’s desire to try out a few last-minute tweaks ahead of the tournament that marks the final chapter in his eight-year odyssey in charge of the All Blacks.

Expect normal service to be resumed in Japan, with Beauden Barrett, the world’s best fly-half, returning to his preferred position and Ben Smith slotting back in at full-back. As ever, Hansen has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, but he will need to get the make-up of his backline right. Wingers George Bridge and Sevu Reece are relatively untried, but could easily turn out to be stars of the tournament.

We should get an indication of how New Zealand are shaping up as early as Saturday morning as the vagaries of the World Cup scheduling process means they start their Group B campaign with a seismic showdown against South Africa, the team that can claim to be the form side in the world at the moment after winning a truncated version of the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship.

The Springboks were not in the world’s top four when the draw was made more than two years ago, hence why they find themselves in the same pool as the All Blacks. They are now though, and while both sides will qualify for the quarter-finals with a minimum of fuss, their opening-weekend meeting could set the tone for the rest of the tournament. It would be no surprise at all if the game was to be repeated in the final in Yokohama on November 2.

For once, South Africa head into a World Cup with a unified squad, devoid of division or dissent. They boast a formidable pack, strong set-pieces and a world-class scrum-half in Faf de Klerk. Watch out too for flying winger Cheslin Kolbe – think a stockier version of Springbok great Bryan Habana – who should get plenty of opportunities to showcase his fleet-footed talent.

Which of the northern hemisphere sides are best placed to prevent the final becoming a tussle between two teams from the opposite side of the world? England, probably, with Eddie Jones’ four-year mission about to reach its climax in the nation that gave him his greatest moment as a rugby coach.

Having led Japan to a remarkable World Cup victory over South Africa in Brighton, Jones was selected to lead England’s recovery after they flopped as hosts four years ago, failing to even make the knockout stage after defeats to Australia and Wales.

The Australian enjoyed considerable success at the start of his reign – England won the 2016 Six Nations grand slam, whitewashed the Wallabies in Australia and won all 13 of their matches in Jones’ first year in charge – and while there have been some alarming troughs since, there is a sense that Jones has his players peaking at the right time.

England boast formidable strength in depth, as well as a blend of pace and power that can make them an extremely hard team to stop on their day. World-class talent is sprinkled across the squad, with Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola dominating the pack, Owen Farrell pulling the strings at fly-half, Manu Tuilagi providing the heft in the centre and Jonny May waiting to swoop on the wing.

Inconsistency remains an issue, and with the failures of the last World Cup still not completely eradicated from the memory bank, there is a lingering concern that a lack of leadership means clear-headed thinking goes out of the window when things are not going to plan. Amid the pressure of a crucial knockout match, will England’s players make the right calls?

As was the case in 2015, the draw has not been kind, with England finding themselves in a group with France and Argentina. One of the ‘tier one’ sides will go out, and while it should not be England, Jones’ side will have little room for error once they have eased into the tournament with games against Tonga and the United States.

Two of the northern hemisphere big boys face each other on Sunday morning, with Ireland lining up against Scotland in Yokohama. This time last year, the Irish were being touted as potential champions. They still fit that bill, but their star has waned somewhat in the wake of some disappointing warm-up results and a raft of injuries. Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy will play no part in the tournament, Robbie Henshaw is not available tomorrow, Rob Kearney and Keith Earls are carrying knocks and Jonny Sexton always seems to be hobbling. Keeping their key players fit will be integral to Irish hopes.

Scotland have been building nicely under Gregor Townsend, and while they tend to wilt when the pressure is cranked up, this is one of the most exciting Scottish squads for quite some years. Ultimately, though, a lack of heft up front could prove decisive.

Wales? Warren Gatland’s side were Grand Slam winners this spring and boast an experienced core that have proved themselves as serial achievers. The betting scandal that resulted in forwards coach Rob Howley being sent home in disgrace should not prove too much of a distraction once the action begins, but the absence of Taulupe Faletau, Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Webb could be more of an issue. A lack of depth could be Wales’ biggest handicap.

Their pool meeting with Australia should be one of the stand-out games in the group phase, and there has to be a chance that the Wallabies, 14-1 with most bookmakers to win the trophy, have been written off too readily.

Any team featuring David Pocock, Will Genia and Samu Kerevi commands respect, and unlike a number of their rivals, Australia have a proven record for peaking on the World Cup stage.

The fact they head into the tournament as dark horses underlines the open nature of the competition. New Zealand remain the likeliest winners, but it is possible to make a compelling case for at least nine teams to make the semi-finals - hopefully with the likes of Fiji and host nation Japan springing a few surprises along the way.