MANCHESTER, England (AP) -- The date of the opening match of the Rugby World Cup -- Sept. 18, 2015. -- has been seared on the mind of Stuart Lancaster from the day he was hired, ahead of more illustrious names, as England coach 3 1/2 years ago.
Rarely seen in public without a diary under his right arm, this former school teacher quickly carved out a reputation as a meticulous, long-term planner. His aim? To go into a home World Cup with his team riding high in the rankings and boasting a projected 663 caps.
Things haven't exactly gone according to plan. Lancaster has reconnected the team with the English public, has ensured his players are proud of the white jersey again, and has gathered a deep, powerful squad with a bright future. But is England truly ready to win the World Cup?
"Is this team going to peak at this World Cup? I doubt it, to be honest," Rob Andrew, England's professional rugby director, said recently. "I suspect this team will get better over the next two or three years."
England features in what has been described as the toughest ever World Cup group -- also containing Australia, Wales, Fiji, and rank outsider Uruguay -- with a starting XV owning around 450 caps. The last four World Cup-winning squads had at least 600.
England is No. 4 in the world rankings, lower than No.2 Australia but higher than Wales. And preparation has been mixed, with an inconsistent game against France at home followed by a dismal performance in the return game in Paris, and then an encouraging win over Ireland. England has finished runner-up in the last four Six Nations tournaments, and has just one win over New Zealand or South Africa in the Lancaster era.
It hardly smacks of a World Cup-winning caliber.
Lancaster still believes, though, and he has one thing that can't be taken away from him -- the Twickenham factor. England is never a pushover at home, and has won its last seven matches there.
"This team is ready," Lancaster said boldly after England's last warm-up, a 21-13 win over Ireland. "There are six or seven teams who could win it, and whoever does win it will have to put together a run of six or seven performances on the bounce.
"That's our challenge as well, but playing at Twickenham ... we're a hard team to beat."
No host nation has ever failed to get out of its pool at a Rugby World Cup, but some are calling it a coin toss regarding who of Australia, Wales, and England will miss out.
England goes into the opening game against Fiji with a virtually untried center partnership, concerns about its lack of a genuine, scavenging openside flanker, and without two of its X-factor players -- Manu Tuilagi and Dylan Hartley -- because of disciplinary reasons. There are also question marks over the lineout, whether the set of forwards is as gnarly as the typically traditional English pack, and whether heart ruled the head over the selection of rugby league convert Sam Burgess at center.
The English have many things going for them, however. George Ford, now the first-choice flyhalf, is the attack-minded game-changer the team has needed at No. 10, winger Anthony Watson is a star in the making, and the consistent Chris Robshaw keeps growing in his role as captain.
The tickets are sold. There were never any doubts about the stadiums and infrastructure being ready. The public waits expectantly.
Now, it's over to the team to deliver.