England's World Cup-winning hero Jonny Wilkinson has predicted the tightest ever tournament in Japan and says he hopes the trophy will return to Northern Hemisphere hands.
Wilkinson's ice-cool, injury-time drop-goal back in the 2003 final against Australia etched his name in history as the English held on for a 20-17 victory to become the World Cup's first and only European winners.
New Zealand are the two-time defending champions and Wilkinson still fancies them as favourites ahead of the tournament's start on Friday, despite their drop to second in the world rankings.
"This tournament will be the most open we've ever seen," said the former fly-half, who racked up 1,179 points in 91 Tests for England and a further 67 points in six outings for the British and Irish Lions.
"New Zealand remain favourites but there are some really very strong European teams. Ireland, Wales and England have strung some wins together, Scotland and France are very dangerous teams in the World Cup," he told AFP.
"The most important thing is to have these European teams in the semi-finals, it's the line after which everything changes... then maybe we could dream of another European name etched on the trophy."
Wilkinson, who spent 12 seasons at Newcastle in the English Premiership before joining big-spending Top 14 giants Toulon in 2009, said he had better hopes for England this time around.
In the last World Cup, on home turf, England became the first host country not to make it out of the pool.
- '95 percent mental' -
"My role was to be there as a friend and support, someone who's there to help others find what is better in themselves. I'm not part of the backroom staff, so I could be completely objective, or even subjective as far as the players go," he said.
"It's interesting because 15 percent of the work is physical and the rest is mental. I have the impression that the more you work together, the more the mental side becomes important. At the end of one's career, I think it's five percent physical and 95 percent mental."
But Wilkinson warned England would need all their mental fortitude to qualify from a Pool C that includes France and Argentina, as well as Tonga and the United States.
"They're in a pool with some huge challenges -- Argentina and France -- a pool everyone wants to get out of," he said.
"That said, playing big matches in pool action can be a good thing for a team that qualifies for the quarters."
Wilkinson, whose sole experience of Japan as a player was a 2005 tour with Newcastle during which he was hospitalised for appendicitis, added: "England have prepared well but I can't say any more than that.
"Sometimes it's just a question of restarting from zero, physically and mentally. In 2003, we arrived at the tournament with the idea that we already had our hands on the trophy and we needed to survive.
"In the quarter-finals, we almost lost the match against Wales (3-10 at half-time, 28-17 at the whistle). There was a reason to that: there was one team that was completely over-excited and another one that tried to control it.
"When you restart at zero, you only see the possibilities. France and England are at zero. It's up to them to decide the next step."
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