Two teams with ambitions of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup headline a pool whose winner could be decided on the opening day of the tournament.

France’s clash with the All Blacks at the Stade de France on Friday is as showbiz as Rugby World Cup kick-offs come. 

It could bring the home nation to a standstill. After all, French fans who have seen their country finish as runners-up three times will be well aware that this is their best-ever chance to win the thing. 

Expectations are high for good reason; Les Bleus head into the tournament boasting a backline bursting with speed, creativity and flair and a savvy pack that offers brute force and physicality. 

In Antoine Dupont, widely regarded as the world’s best player, they have a captain and a star who can inspire a nation.

That was what the scrum-half did when he led France to a first Six Nations Grand Slam in 12 years in 2022 as the reigning world player of the year. 

They may have since lost that crown to Ireland, but Les Bleus still head into their home World Cup in formidable form, winning 20 of their last 22 games. 

That said, head coach Fabien Galthie hasn’t had his problems to seek in the build-up, losing first choice fly-half Romain Ntamack and lock Paul Willemse to tournament-ending injuries. 

The question, of course, is how this French side will cope with the pressure of expectation – and that will be tested from the first kick of the tournament against New Zealand. 

When it comes to delivering on the biggest stage, the two nations stand in stark contrast – while France have lost each of their three finals, the All Blacks have won a joint-record three world titles from four finals. 

But it wasn’t long ago that the Kiwis were considered – by their sky-high standards – to be in a slump. 

Four defeats in 2022 – and an overall form run of six losses in eight - resulted in a slide to an all-time low of fifth in the world rankings.

That prompted the head honchos to make the call in March to send head coach Ian Foster packing after the World Cup, when he will be replaced by Crusaders coach Scott Robertson. 

Foster wants to go out swinging, though, and positivity was restored with a flawless Rugby Championship title defence this year and a run of 11 games without defeat. 

However, a record 35-7 defeat to South Africa at Twickenham in their final warm-up game sounded alarm bells once again about their vulnerabilities.

With or without a billing as favourites, Foster’s squad resembles a who’s who of some of the finest rugby talent on the planet. 

Try machine Will Jordan could light up the tournament, while the likes of Beauden Barrett, Ardie Savea, Rieko Ioane and Richie Mo’unga are among the finest players in the game, but an injury to influential prop Tyrel Lomax has been a setback. 

Although the two big dogs will suck up most of the headlines around Pool A, the rest will be eyeing earth-shaking upsets. 

The likeliest of the three to provide one is Italy, who have shown great improvement under Kieran Crowley – another coach who will depart after the tournament. 

Impressive wins over Wales and Australia last year were achieved with a youthful, exuberant side playing fearless rugby, led by the dancing feet of world breakthrough player of the year Ange Capuozzo.  

Even a 2023 Six Nations whitewash offered one reason for hope, as the Azzurri pushed France agonisingly close in Rome, leading in the final quarter before succumbing to a five-point defeat. That performance might lead to some French nerves ahead of their pool-ending clash in Lyon. 

Uruguay earned a place in Rugby World Cup folklore in 2019 by stunning Fiji with a famous victory, and the South Americans will once again be hoping to prove a thorn in the side of their more illustrious opponents, with lively Castres scrum-half Santiago Arata at the centre of their hopes. 

Namibia have lost all 22 of their previous World Cup matches. However, they have made the most of the change in eligibility rules to bring in new faces like former Australia backrower Richard Hardwick, and are led by an ex-Springboks coach, Allister Coetzee. 

Who to watch

Will Jordan – The All Blacks flyer is heading to his first World Cup and is likely to capture the attention of any casual fans yet to recognise him as one of the world’s best back three operators. 

Jordan heads to France boasting a record of 23 tries in 25 tests and could well be one of the frontrunners to finish as the tournament’s top try scorer. 

Match of the Pool 

France v New Zealand - No contest. The opening night will provide fireworks aplenty and have a big knock-on effect for the rest of the tournament – whoever loses out here will likely meet the winner of an outrageously competitive Pool B featuring rei