The whistle for the opening match between Japan and Russia has been delivered by two cyclists who travelled to Japan from London[/caption] The world’s top rugby nations are poised for the start of the Rugby World Cup with the outcome as uncertain as any of the previous eight editions. New Zealand have won the past two World Cups, but Ireland are currently ranked as the best team in the world. A resurgent South Africa won the Rugby Championship earlier this year, while Wales took the Six Nations in March. England have won 10 of their last 14, while Australia’s minimum target is a repeat of their 2015 run to the final. Argentina, semi-finalists in two of the last three tournaments, talented Scotland, Fiji and France teams and hosts Japan are among those hoping to derail the title ambitions of the leading contenders. “I think this is the most open World Cup we’ve had for a long time. There are six or seven teams capable of winning the World Cup,” said Wales coach Warren Gatland. “You always need a little bit of luck. You get to the quarter-finals and then take it one game at a time.” North to be exposed once again? If one of the home nations is to bring home the William Webb Ellis Cup for only the second time, and the first since England landed the prize in 2003, they will need to break a southern-hemisphere stranglehold. Between them New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have won the other seven titles since the inaugural event in 1987. Over that time England, Wales and Scotland have filled only seven of the 32 semi-final spots on offer, with Ireland never progressing beyond the last eight. At the last Rugby World Cup in 2015, eventual winners New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina contested the semi-finals. However, the last time the two hemispheres’ best met – during 2018’s autumn internationals – there were indications that this year’s tournament might be more closely contested. Admittedly with home advantage, England beat South Africa, Wales beat Australia,Ireland beat New Zealand and Scotland beat Argentina on successive weekends. The home nations have been helped by knowledge from overseas with New Zealander Gatland leading Wales, compatriot Joe Schmidt in charge of Ireland and Australian Eddie Jones coaching England. Scotland’s Gregor Townsend is building on foundations laid by another Kiwi – Vern Cotter – who he took over from in 2017.