The 10th edition of the Rugby World Cup gets underway on Friday as host France faces New Zealand at the Stade de France in Paris.
As curtain-raising games go, this is about as big as it gets, pitting two of the best teams in the world against each other in front of a likely sell-out crowd of 80,000.
It will mark the first of 48 games taking place at nine venues across France, with the tournament concluding at the same stadium on October 28.
With kick-off looming, here’s everything you need to know ahead of rugby union’s showpiece event.
Where is it?
France, which previously staged the Rugby World Cup in 2007, was voted as the host of this year’s event in 2017 ahead of bids from South Africa and Ireland.
It comes at a time when the country is in the sporting spotlight with Paris hosting next year’s Olympic Games.
Organizers anticipate that 600,000 fans will travel to France for the tournament and announced last year that a record 2.6 million tickets had been made available for the tournament.
Matches will be staged at nine venues across nine different cities: Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice, Paris, Saint-Etienne and Toulouse.
The Stade de France will host the opening games between France and the All Blacks, two quarterfinals, the two semifinals and the final, while the Stade de Marseille is the only other venue hosting knockout games.
How to watch
In the United States, which has failed to qualify for the tournament for the first time since 1995, matches are being broadcast on NBC.
The tournament will be aired on Stan Sport in Australia, Sky in New Zealand and ITV and S4C in the UK.
A full list of international broadcasters is available here on the Rugby World Cup website.
Who is taking part?
A total of 20 teams have qualified for this year’s Rugby World Cup and they will compete in four pools of five teams each.
Many of the nations competing are tournament regulars. Ireland, defending champion South Africa, France and New Zealand are, in that order, the top-ranked teams in the world, and behind them Australia, England, Argentina, Wales and Scotland are all established forces in the game.
Fiji has enjoyed a strong build-up to the tournament, defeating England for the first time ever last month, while Italy, Georgia, Japan, Tonga and Samoa have been competing against – and sometimes beating – the world’s strongest rugby-playing nations for decades.
The likes of Uruguay, Namibia, Romania and Portugal are less experienced contenders at the top of the sport and seem unlikely to progress beyond the pool stage. Chile is the only team making its debut at the World Cup after defeating the USA by a single point across two qualifying matches last year.
What’s the format?
Each country plays the other teams in its pool once. The top two teams from each pool then qualify for the quarterfinals and compete in a knockout format.
The top team from Pool A then faces the runner-up in Pool B (quarterfinal four) and the winner of Pool B faces the runner-up of Pool A (quarterfinal two). The same happens with Pools C and D (quarterfinals one and three) on the other side of the draw.
In the semifinals, the winner of quarterfinal one faces the winner of quarterfinal two and the winner of quarterfinal three faces the winner of quarterfinal four. There will also be a third-place playoff on October 27 between the two losing semifinalists.
Who is in which pool?
Who are the favorites?
The previous nine Rugby World Cups have produced just four different winners – New Zealand, South Africa (both three times), Australia (twice) and England (once) – while France is the only other nation to appear in a final.
For perhaps the first time, four teams enter the tournament with a good chance of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy, two of whom have never won a title before.
“It’s probably the most open Rugby World Cup we’ve seen for a long time,” former England international Ugo Monye told CNN Sport.
“If you were to list the favorites to win the World Cup, it’s hard to ignore South Africa, they’re the champions. New Zealand are currently flying. Ireland are the number one side in the world, the [Six Nations] grand slam champions, and you’ve got France who are an incredible team.”
However, an oddity of the draw, which was made three years ago, means that two of those four teams will be knocked out of the tournament before the semifinals.
South Africa’s confidence will be high after convincing wins against Wales and New Zealand last month, while France has the home advantage and defeated Australia, Fiji and Scotland in its warm-up games. The host, however, has been blighted by recent injuries to fly-half Romain Ntamack, second row Paul Willemse, prop Cyril Baille and center Jonathan Danty, though some of those may be able to return later in the tournament.
Ireland, as was the case before the last World Cup, is at the top of the world rankings and will be looking to overturn the country’s disappointing history in rugby’s showpiece having never progressed beyond the quarterfinals.
The competition is less strong on the other side of the draw, potentially offering Australia, England, Argentina or Wales a route to the semifinals without meeting one of the world’s top-four teams.
“Whilst England underperformed over the last couple years … [its] route to success is going to be slightly more simple – if there is a simple route to success in the World Cup,” said Monye.
‘Pool of death’
On paper, Pool B is the most difficult group, handing Scotland – which has only twice before failed to reach the quarterfinals – early games against Ireland and South Africa.
Tonga, meanwhile, has benefitted from a change in eligibility rules since 2022, allowing players to switch allegiance if they qualify for another nation and haven’t been selected for three years. That has freed up several former New Zealand and Australia internationals to bolster Tonga’s squad ahead of the tournament.
“Scotland – let’s not beat around the bush, they’re in the pool of death,” former Scotland captain Stuart Hogg, who retired earlier this year, told CNN Sport.
“They’re against the current world champions and the world number one. But I’ve always said: ‘To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.’”
Who are the star players?
French scrum-half Antoine Dupont, voted player of the year in the men’s game two years ago, is guaranteed to light up games with his clever passes and darting runs, though he will be without regular half-back partner Ntamack, who sustained a knee injury ahead of the tournament.
Head coach Fabien Galthié still has plenty of star quality in his squad, namely powerful winger Damian Penaud and ball-carrying number eight Grégory Alldritt.
New Zealand, reeling from a 35-7 loss against South Africa last month, has named an experienced squad. Four players – Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett and Brodie Retallick – enter the tournament with more than 100 international appearances, while captain Sam Kane and hooker Dane Coles were also part of the All Blacks’ victorious team in 2015.
South Africa is missing three star players from its title-winning team four years ago – center Lukhanyo Am, fly-half Handré Pollard and second-row Lood de Jager – but does have plenty of firepower thanks to enforcer forward Eben Etzebeth and live-wire wingers Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi.
For Ireland, fly-half Johnny Sexton is set to make his final appearances in professional rugby before retiring aged 38. Forwards James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and Josh van der Flier, last year’s men’s player of the year, have been crucial to the country’s recent success.
Two other Northern Hemisphere fly-halves will also be vital for their teams: England captain Owen Farrell will return from a two-game ban midway through the groups stage following a red card against Wales last month, while Scotland will be hoping that Finn Russell can be at his dazzling best in a bid to qualify from the “pool of death.”
“I love watching Finn Russell,” said his former teammate Hogg. “Even when I was playing with him, I could stand behind him and watch him all day long. On his day, there’s nobody better.”
Russell isn’t the only supreme entertainer at the World Cup. Fiji is renowned for its fast, exciting style of rugby, which this tournament will likely be spearheaded by flanker Levani Botia and centers Josua Tuisova and Semi Radrada. The Pacific Islanders, fresh off their historic victory against England, could go far at this year’s World Cup.
CNN’s Aleks Klosok contributed to reporting.