Sydney - Australia and England are building nicely for next year's Rugby World Cup but champions New Zealand may be in danger of peaking too early, according to former Wallabies lock Nathan Sharpe.
Sharpe, who played in three World Cups over the course of a decorated 116-cap career, spoke to Reuters in Sydney on Friday as the Webb Ellis Cup toured the harbour city.
Australia are bidding to win their seventh match in succession against France at Sydney Football Stadium on Saturday, having taken an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series against the 2011 World Cup finalists.
England are bidding to avoid a 3-0 series sweep against the world number one All Blacks in Hamilton on the same evening, but have shown promising signs a year out from hosting rugby's global showpiece.
"At this stage there's probably about four teams that are capable of winning," Sharpe told Reuters in an interview at Sydney's tourist hot-spot Darling Harbour, one of the stops on the Webb Ellis Cup's Australian tour.
"Australia and England are building really nicely. You've got New Zealand and South Africa who are always there or there-abouts, particularly around World Cup time.
"Australia are in that position where they've got quite a few players that are getting a lot of experience.
"They know how to play big games. They are getting better at that. They've won six in a row now. Hopefully seven tomorrow and this year's really important leading into the World Cup.
"Every team who wins a World Cup has a very, very good year the year before."
The 1991 winners, Australia, became the first nation to win the World Cup twice under coach Rod Macqueen in 1999, when they beat France in the final at Cardiff's Millenium Stadium.
The Wallabies were famously left heartbroken in the final in Sydney four years later when England flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson kicked a drop goal in the final minute to seal England's first Webb Ellis Cup.
Ironically, England and Australia face a battle to even get to the knockout rounds next year, having been drawn with each other in a 'group of death' with Wales.
Sharpe said the hosts would still fancy themselves, however, and had drawn plenty of encouragement from their fighting losses on tour against New Zealand.
"I think England's a big chance at home, purely because all their games are at Twickenham or at least in England for them, but they are also playing with a lot of tenacity," said 36-year-old Sharpe, a Wallaby at the 2003, 2007 and 2011 World Cups.
"We've seen them against New Zealand, they performed well with what they call an undermanned team. That'll give them a lot of confidence going into the World Cup (but) they don't want to get too carried away too early."
Since winning their second World Cup in 2011, the All Blacks have maintained their superiority and completed a brilliant, undefeated season last year.
Only a shock loss to England stopped them from finishing with a perfect season in 2012.
New Zealand are bidding for a 17th test win in succession on Saturday, which would match the record amongst Tier One Nations held by the 1965-69 All Blacks and South Africa in 1997-98.
Sharpe said the only doubt remained over whether their veteran players like captain Richie McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter could continue to be a force.
"The All Blacks are always strong," Sharpe said.
"There's always that question mark, have they got the right calibre of guys? Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, those sort of guys.
"Have they reached their peak on the decent form there? That question remains to be seen and they are still the best team in the world at the moment.
"It's all about timing for the World Cup, so, they certainly have a lot of experience up there come this time next year."