The seventh Rugby World Cup will likely proceed to a script which is well-rehearsed, but not without surprises.
The plot revolves, principally, around New Zealand's unfulfilled quest for a second Rugby World Cup title, the game's greatest prize.
Since winning the tournament when it was last held in New Zealand in 1987, the All Blacks have been denied a second title in a series of cliffhanger endings. Their loss to South Africa in the 1995 final is now integral to the plot of a movie, Invictus.
Chief organizer Martin Snedden added a dramatic element when he said the future of the Rugby World Cup might depend on New Zealand providing a better spectacle than the last tournament in France. Many matches at that event failed to live up to expectations in this part of the world, including the tryless final won by South Africa over England.
Sound of Silence
The vuvuzelas which provided the droning soundtrack to last year's football World Cup of Soccer in South Africa are unlikely to make a big noise at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
The ubiquitous plastic trumpets are among several items banned from World Cup venues.
Also included on an eclectic list are whistles, umbrellas, roller blades, gang insignia, furniture and, remarkably, auto parts.
Leave your carburetor at home.
Tournament officials are also given "absolute discretion" to prohibit other items that might "cause injury, public nuisance or inconvenience" or possibly conflict with tournament sponsorship arrangements.
— The Associated Press
"If that were to become the norm for Rugby World Cups, then I think it would cause serious problems for the continuing popularity of the event," Snedden said. "I think the perfect scenario would be that the rugby itself is exciting, but that eventually New Zealand and Australia funnel their way through to the final at Eden Park on Oct. 23.
"That would be really delicious. Also, because of the style of rugby that both teams play that would almost guarantee a gripping final and something befitting a World Cup final."
There was something of a curtain raiser to Snedden's grand scheme last week, but it didn't come with a happy ending for New Zealand.
A loss last weekend surrendered the Tri-Nations title to archrival Australia, meaning the All Blacks go into the Rugby World Cup on back-to-back losses to the Wallabies and Springboks, ranked No. 2 and No. 3 behind them, respectively.
Other elements of the central story involve the attempt of a young and highly talented Australian side to become the first country to win the Rugby World Cup three times. South Africa, with a cast of more senior performers, hopes to become the first team to win back-to-back titles.
Then there are the somewhat faded, but not forgotten, stars of the northern hemisphere. They come into the tournament as underdogs but not without a chance of disrupting the southern hemisphere's grip on the Cup, disrupted only by England's title in 2003.
England's chance of repeating that success, even of reaching the final for a fourth time, is not rated highly. The English are coached by Martin Johnson, who was captain eight years ago, and are still calling on Jonny Wilkinson, who was their lynchpin in 2003.
Ireland, though not at the peak it reached when it won the Six Nations in 2009, should also progress to the quarter-finals from Pool C, which is headed by Australia. Only its Six Nations rival, Italy, would threaten Ireland's progress to the quarter-finals, which it has reached on four occasions, but beyond which it has never gone.
Wales has been drawn in Pool D — the most challenging group — with South Africa, Samoa, Fiji and Namibia. The South Africans will likely claim top spot and Wales will vie for second place with Samoa, to whom it has lost twice, and Fiji, to whom it has lost once at World Cups.
France may be the strongest of the northern chances, though its form since it hosted the last World Cup and reached the semifinals has been mixed.
In the past, France has been cast as New Zealand's nemesis, eliminating the All Blacks in 1999 in the semifinals and in 2007 in the quarter-finals. But it is drawn this year in the same pool as the hosts, avoiding a clash with New Zealand early in the knockout rounds.
If there are to be upsets, they are most likely to be achieved by the teams from the Pacific Islands. A World Cup in New Zealand is, in essence, a Pacific tournament — almost a home tournament for the island sides.
Auckland has the largest conglomeration of Polynesians in the world and the first matches at the tournament to sell out after the final and New Zealand's group clash with France involved Samoa.
Tonga, Samoa and Fiji will have their strongest teams at this World Cup, including players who earn their livings in New Zealand, Japan and Europe.
Concerned that the International Rugby Board does not always act in the best interests of the Pacific — Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegao called the IRB "a most unfair organization" — the island teams hope their form in New Zealand will serve as a plea for greater consideration.
Pacific teams reached the quarter-finals in 1987, 1991 and in 2007 and strong performances would give leverage to their demands for more regular access to their top players, for a revision of rugby's residency rules and a review of revenue sharing.
Questions remain over whether New Zealand will deliver a successful World Cup. It will almost certainly be the last small nation to try it solo. The hosting fees now demanded by the IRB place the tournament outside the reach of all but the wealthiest nations.
When New Zealand bid for the World Cup five years ago, it promised "a stadium of four million," suggesting the nation's entire population would be caught up in the event. Recent newspaper surveys show public interest is less general and as many as one-third of New Zealanders are not looking forward to the tournament, although the samples have been small and, of course, the show is yet to begin.
New Zealand taxpayers will have to meet $30 million US of the $40-million loss which will be made on the tournament, even if organizers reach revenue targets through ticket sales. Those sales have been sluggish in recent weeks and some 200,000 tickets recently remained to be sold.
The overall cost to New Zealand, when taking into account infrastructure projects needed or brought forward for the Cup, will be much greater. Economists predict as many as 95,000 tourists will visit New Zealand and could spend around $750 million US. So far, realized sales of tickets and travel packages do not reflect those estimates.
Interest will likely build when the matches begin and a last surge in ticket sales is expected to fill New Zealand's generally small stadiums. The venue for the final, Auckland's Eden Park, has been upgraded but holds only 60,000.
No doubt followers of rugby will look to this tournament to furnish new stars or to consolidate the reputation of established players. Each of the five previous tournaments has produced those figures.