Martin Johnson believes any one of seven teams can win the Rugby World Cup - and he places England right at the heart of the pack.
England tackle France in the quarter-finals at Auckland’s Eden Park tomorrow, immediately after Wales clash with Ireland in Wellington. The winners will meet in a mouthwatering semi-final.
On Sunday, Tri Nations champions Australia meet South Africa for a chance to face either New Zealand or Argentina in the last four.
Of all those ties, Johnson reckons only the Pumas can be considered outsiders. The rest are 50-50, which makes for arguably the most exciting World Cup yet.
“It’s do or die, isn’t it? It’s a World Cup quarter-final. You’ve got to start big. There’s no holding yourself back for anything,” Johnson said.
“I think more than ever it is anyone’s tournament.
“New Zealand are still obviously very strong. The loss of Dan Carter is a big blow, but they’re still a very strong all-round team.
“But it’s a fascinating tournament. Every game this weekend is going to be interesting.
“You probably couldn’t have said that four years ago - although you wouldn’t have thought England would have got through the quarters and made the final.
“I think it’s going to be a tough game for Argentina but you can see seven of them getting there.”
England’s minimum target is an appearance in the semi-finals and Johnson yesterday sprung a significant surprise when naming his side to play France.
The England manager opted to start with Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood together for only the second time in his tenure, stressing it was an “exciting combination” and not a “gamble”.
Johnson had previously abandoned plans to use a second playmaker in favour of a powerful ball carrier after experimenting with Olly Barkley and Shane Geraghty at inside centre.
But England have chosen this week to reverse that policy in a selection which mirrors in many ways what Clive Woodward did before the 2003 semi-final, also against France.
The week before that game, Mike Catt had come on to help Wilkinson as England struggled against Wales and was retained in the team for the semi-final at inside centre at Mike Tindall’s expense.
Last week, Flood was sent on and played a decisive role as England battled to victory over Scotland and he too has been retained at inside centre at Tindall’s expense.
Tindall has been struggling with a dead leg but had England been desperate to use the Gloucester centre, Johnson confirmed they would have.