LONDON: The conduct of the 2020 Rugby World Cup draw has resulted in the tournament having an oddly skewed appearance, with three of the sport's top five teams in the same pool, while one of the next five has a semi-final spot handy is guaranteed .
The early draw, made on the basis of dubious ‘administrative' requirements when the rankings looked wildly different, means two of the top four teams – Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and France – will not make it to the semi-finals. However, this also means that there will be meaningful encounters in the group stage and that the quarter-finals already seem difficult to reach.
In a sport where only five countries have reached a World Cup final since the tournament began 36 years ago, it is downright bizarre to see three of the world's top five pitted against each other in the preliminary rounds, prompting a change of schedule for 2027 led to the release in Australia.
For now, however, world number ones Ireland, defending champions South Africa and Scotland, who are in their best form in decades, will be battling for two spots.
The reward for the top two will almost certainly be a quarter-final against France or New Zealand, who should get the World Cup off to a flying start when they meet on September 8th.
On the other side of the draw, a group of teams starting the tournament in varying degrees of disarray can chart a realistic route to Paris and the semis.
There is a high probability that one of England, Argentina, Australia or Wales will reach the semi-finals, where anything can happen in a singles match against one of the high-flyers.
Ireland go into the tournament on a fabulous winning streak, having not only notched up big victories against the world's best, but backed it with replays.
The elephant in the room, however, is the fact that they are the only ones of the “Big Nine” who have never won a knockout match, and despite their unrivaled form, they face an immensely difficult challenge, this curse to end.
Even dropping out of their group will likely require a win over a resurgent Scotland. If they can do that, they will probably reach the quarter-finals against the hosts or New Zealand, regardless of whether they have already beaten or lost South Africa.
Three wins in their last four meetings with the All Blacks have removed any inferiority complex for Andy Farrell's side, but the three-time champions remain a team no one wants to face in the quarters, as Ireland know all too well from the 46-14 thrashing that they suffered at this stage four years ago.
Should Ireland finally make it to the semi-finals, as the history of the tournament shows, it is almost impossible for a team to go through four ‘showdown' games and still be able to win a fifth in the final.
South Africa have added variety to the powerful attacking game that gave them victory in Japan four years ago, but their startling attacking strength and depth was on full display in last week's remarkable 35-7 win over New Zealand at Twickenham.
They and Ireland should progress, although the Scottish defence, led by the bubbly Finn Russell, undoubtedly has the talent to beat either – though probably not both.
France are nominal favorites due to their talented and stable squad and a long run of winning ways in top form, but the draw undermines that position.
Losing flyhalf Romain Ntamack is a huge blow, but with Antoine Dupont as the key player at Scrumhalf and stable and powerful combinations across the team, they still seem to have more than enough to win the tournament after three losses in the final.
England, runners-up four years ago, could not be more different in the situation, with over half a dozen positions in question, let alone how they will play.
New coach Steve Borthwick was unable to build the forward machine he promised after replacing Eddie Jones and in warm-up, where they barely fired an attacking shot, they were absolute compared to the once again terrible Six Nations no progress to be seen.
They have lost six of their last nine games and come into the tournament after a first defeat against Fiji.
England start with a tough game against Argentina, but even if they lose it's hard to imagine them faltering against a Japanese team who are nowhere near the level of 2019. That would likely see Marseille's quarter-finals against Wales or, deliciously for Jones, Australia.
The Wallabies were similarly weak and Jones has made a left field selection but they have a knack for looking their best at the Worlds and like everyone else in this half of the draw they have real hopes of making it to the Round of final four Anything can happen.
Despite World Rugby's best intentions, the chances of an underdog reaching the quarter-finals remain slim.
Much-improved Fiji, along with Wales and Australia, appear best placed to fly the Tier Two flag and recent results for all three will give real hope to islanders.
Buoyed by their Twickenham triumph, they will also evoke memories of their famous win over the Welshmen the last time France hosted the tournament in 2007 and the last time Fiji reached the quarter-finals.
However, Fiji is now in seventh place, ahead of England, Australia and Wales. So who can say what a surprise is?