In 1987, David Kirk, a rugby-playing Rhodes scholar from New Zealand held aloft the William Web Ellis Trophy that signalled the beginning of the first ever world cup for rugby. Since then the world cup has delivered some special memories including and spectacularly the spiritual unification of a nation (South Africa) under the charismatic South African Captain Francois Pienaar, and the appearance of Nelson Mandela in a Springbok rugby jersey. Jonah Lomu on the charge, Jonny Wilkinson delivering England its greatest sporting moment since winning the soccer world cup in 1966.
Rugby desperately needed a world cup. No longer was it good enough to be crowned European or Southern Hemisphere Champions, this was an opportunity for every rugby team in the world to pit themselves against the very best opposition, it had become the Olympics of the sport and would change the face of the game.
In 1995 the game of rugby union finally went professional with the IRFU dragged kicking and screaming in an era that would soon see pin-up stars dominate the game. Ironically the change to professionalism would deliver Irish rugby some of its greatest players, victories and coaches, and Irish players like Keith Wood and Brian O'Driscoll would be known and celebrated in the rugby world from Japan to New Zealand.
This year in France it will be another team or individual's chance to create rugby history. Perhaps it will be Ireland's Captain Brian O'Driscoll's turn to announce Ireland as a world rugby power, or perhaps it will be the host nation France that will join New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England as gold medal winners on a world stage. Remarkably over the last 20 years only Australia managed to win the tournament twice. This year in France things will be much more competitive with the Northern Hemisphere nations desperate to show that they can foot it with the traditional strong holds of the game from the South.
It will however signal a rift between the best teams in the world and ‘development' teams, with the possibility of a pre-qualifying tournament that allows smaller nations a fair chance. Professional rugby has produced bigger, stronger and faster rugby players than before, while the smaller largely amateur nations face potential humiliation at the hands of the bigger nations, it also brings into question the greater chance of injury to the smaller nations who have neither the finances nor the player base to compete in key areas such as the front row.
The lead up to France has been salivating, with many of the favourite teams perfecting their timing and starting to flex muscles that they may not have had last year. Ireland's brilliant wins last autumn against the Springboks and Australia and then their performance in the Six Nations Championship, especially against England, now seem a life time away and will bear little significance to this year's world cup finals. A few months ago Ireland ran a host of tries against Italy in the last game of the Six Nations, but last weekend Ireland struggled to beat the same country in a dubious and lucky win, just re-emphasising the fact that the form book will be thrown out the window when the opening game of the 2007 World Cup kicks off.
New Zealand remain hot favourites but even they will be feeling the weight of internal pressure to deliver their first cup since 1987, while Australia, South Africa and France also seem to be peaking at just the right time.
Ireland's journey will be a test of player resolve, fitness and could well depend on keeping their host of star players wrapped in cotton wool for their key Pool matches against France and Argentina.
In Lens in 1999 Ireland bowed out of the competition with a shock loss to Argentina, a defeat that shocked the nation and saw the demise of Ireland's then Kiwi Coach Warren Gatland who subsequently went on to Heineken and Premiership coaching success in England. After Gatland's shock dismissal his deputy Eddie O'Sullivan took over the reins. Since Lens, Ireland has grown in strength and stature with Triple Crown victories, once a rarity for Irish rugby suddenly becoming commonplace in both the public and teams expectations.
Ireland's lead up to this year's world cup has been shaky of late, and while the teams around them appear to be hitting their straps, Ireland has suffered in confidence in recent months. A poor tour to Argentina culminating in two losses, a loss to Scotland and a fist fight in Bayonne were followed by a lucky mistake-ridden win against Italy. Irish rugby fans are now questioning what will happen in this year's world cup after patriotic optimism just six months ago.
Ireland do have the quality players and a first XV that can match any in the world on their day, but the pool games against France and Argentina will stretch Irish resources to the limit, and should Ireland finish runner up in their Pool they meet a fresh faced All Black team in Cardiff – a difficult route to go. Alternatively a win against France and Argentina will see Ireland into the last 16 with a potential showdown against either Scotland or Italy in Edinburgh, no doubt the preferred route. Regardless this tournament will see the emergence of new stars and some tremendous rugby and we can hardly wait, roll on 7 September.