“Rugby is a sport that transcends borders and unites nations.” – Jonah Lomu
Beginning under the Friday night lights on the outskirts of Paris we have a Rugby World Cup tournament as unpredictable as the bounce of a Rugby ball.
Having assimilated millions of data points the various supercomputers have four front-runners all with a suggested 20-25% likelihood of lifting the William Webb Ellis Trophy. By and large, the global bookmaking fraternity concurs, with the four aces in the current Rugby pack tough to split.
Four years on from South Africa denying England a second Rugby World Cup triumph in Japan, the two hemispheres collide once again as France faces New Zealand to open the tournament.
French power Serge not enough, as everything goes black
A relatively recent construct, the Rugby World Cup only began in 1987. The first three tournaments were fully amateur, and the first two renewals saw South Africa excluded during the days of Apartheid. In the absence of their main traditional rival, New Zealand (who co-hosted with Australia) took advantage to be the first team to add their name to the William Webb Ellis trophy, in 1987. The game of the tournament saw France edge New Zealand’s great rivals from across the Tasman, Australia in an epic semi-final, thanks to a late Serge Blanco try that followed countless phases, stretching the Australian defence from side to side before it finally reached breaking point. Those exertions took their toll on France, who proved no match for New Zealand in the final, and it was the All Blacks’ David Kirk who had the honour of lifting the trophy at Eden Park.
Four years later, it was the northern hemisphere’s turn to host Rugby Union’s jamboree, with the tournament jointly held by each of the Five Nations, as they were then. Geoff Cooke’s England side made it to the final and saw Australia take care of New Zealand in the other semi-final. It was Australia who got the decisions going their way in the tournament’s deciding match. Long England’s bête noir, Wallabies’ David Campese appeared to have committed a deliberate knockdown, denying England a tryscoring opportunity. While the home players bayed for a penalty try, Welsh Referee Derek Bevan only saw fit to give a penalty. Australia prevailed 12-6 and Scrum-half Nick Farr Jones hoisted the trophy.
Australia began the defence of their world title against hosts South Africa in the 1995 renewal. But it was the Springboks who ran out winners in that group game, and included Chester Williams in their line-up — the first non-white player to represent the Springboks in generations. That win proved to be the springboard for the Springboks to reach the final at their first attempt, where they faced bitter rivals New Zealand. The All Blacks suffered a bout of sickness prior to the big game — prompting theories that this may not have been an accident. Accident or something more sinister, New Zealand had to deal with South Africa, high altitude, and raucous home support. When the two sides couldn’t be separated after 80 minutes, a Joel Stransky drop-goal sealed the title for South Africa. The iconic moment when new South African President Nelson Mandela presented the William Webb Ellis Trophy to Captain Francois Pienaar was enormously symbolic. Mandela wore the Springbok jersey — for so long a symbol of white rule — on the podium, and he and his countrymen celebrated a first World Cup win. South Africa had won more than a Rugby tournament.
The greatest comeback since Lazarus
Four years later, New Zealand looked to be cruising to the World Cup Final — leading France 24-10 early in the second half of their semi-final. But they hadn’t reckoned on a second-half wave of French flair, as Les Blues ran out 43-31 winners. Once more, their semi-final exertions left little in the tank for France, as they succumbed to Australia in the final.
Wilko over and out
France had come close, but it was England who finally broke the northern hemisphere’s duck in the Rugby Union World Cup. Like South Africa, eight years before, England would need a drop goal to decide the issue. Their 20-17 win over Australia is still the only time a northern hemisphere team has won the tournament.
In 2007, New Zealand once again found themselves stymied by their nemesis, the French. France was the tournament host but had arranged for one quarter-final to be played in Wales, and ironically Les Bleus found themselves “at home” to New Zealand in Cardiff. They certainly got a few “hometown” decisions as they stunned the heavily favoured All Blacks. Again, France found the next game after eliminating New Zealand tough and England took advantage to book a place against South Africa in the final. But they were no match for the Springboks, who won the trophy for the second time.
The pressure was on New Zealand in 2011. The pre-eminent team in the sport, it had been 24 years since their only World Cup success, and now they were acting as tournament hosts. All looked to be going well until they suffered a crucial injury to star Fly-half Dan Carter. A whole nation held its breath, but their prayers weren’t answered, and the All Blacks turned to Stephen Donald, who hadn’t made the initial World Cup squad. Donald’s penalty was the difference as New Zealand ended their wait to reclaim the trophy, edging France 8-7.
The All Blacks retained their title four years later, in England. The tournament decider was the first meeting in the final between the cross-Tasman rivals, as Australia were defeated 34-17.
New Zealand’s hopes of a hat-trick were extinguished by England in the 2019 semi-final, but it was South Africa who were celebrating for the third time, as they beat England in the final. The tournament took place outside of the traditional SANZAAR and Six Nations countries, with Japan becoming the first Asian country to host the event, and the Brave Blossoms gave their fans plenty to cheer about in reaching the quarter-finals. So, New Zealand and South Africa, Rugby’s great rivals sit on three Rugby World Cup wins apiece, with Australia having taken home the William Webb Ellis trophy twice and a single win for England.
As a former empire game, it’s not surprising that Commonwealth countries — along with a few European nations — dominate the Rugby World Cup. However, the traditional so-called Tier One nations — those aligned to either the Six Nations or the Rugby Championship — haven’t always had things all their own way.
In 1991, Wales faced the country of Western Samoa. After the abject disappointment of Wales’ defeat by the small South Sea Island nation, the joke wrote itself: “It’s just as well they weren’t playing the whole of Samoa”
The biggest upset since David drew back his sling
Twenty-four years later, the tournament reminded us of its capacity to surprise. Prior to their group game with Japan, South Africa had been made 42-point favourites for the pool match. Few gave the Brave Blossoms much chance but an 84th-minute try from Karne Hesketh turned the Rugby world on its axis, as the (then) Tier Two nation triumphed 34-32. The victory for 40/1 outsiders Japan may not quite match the odds of James “Buster” Douglas when he defeated the seemingly invincible Mike Tyson, but they were close. However, South Africa didn’t suffer a knockout blow, as they still progressed from the group, while the Brave Blossoms were counted out in the pool phase.
Despite being the former head of the empire and originator of the game, the powers that be in English Rugby didn’t seem to fully grasp the importance of the World Cup. Consequently, England found themselves eliminated at the quarter-final stage by Wales in the inaugural tournament.
That chastening defeat to their rivals from across the Severn Bridge, and the fact that England was co-hosting the 1991 tournament gave England the impetus for a much-improved showing at home. Having lost a Grand Slam decider to Scotland in 1990, England won the Grand Slam in World Cup year — a feat they repeated in 1992 — and came into the tournament with high hopes. They beat the Auld Enemy Scotland in the semi-final and faced another traditional rival, Australia at Twickenham with the trophy at stake. While England fans will say they didn’t get the breaks in that 12-6 final loss, they had seen all the decisions go their way in a bad-tempered quarter-final with France, so perhaps the Rugby Gods were evening things up.
Having completed a third Grand Slam in five years in 1995, England travelled to South Africa optimistic of going one better. In the quarter-final, Rob Andrew’s injury-time drop-goal finally ended Australian resistance — a pattern that was to be repeated eight years later — but then England ran into a force of nature. Or rather the force of nature ran into them.
New Zealanders had known about the 20-year-old Jonah Lomu for a couple of years before the World Cup. By the end of their semi-final, England knew all about the six-foot-five winger. The prodigy scored four tries, swatting away English tacklers with ease, and using poor England Full-back Mike Catt as a doormat en route to the tryline, as England were defeated 45-29.
Get de Beers in
England suffered at the boot of an opponent in a different way four years later. Drop-goals had seemed to be a thing of the past, but during their 1999 quarter-final with England, Springbok Fly-half Jannie de Beer seemed intent on bringing them back into fashion in a big way. In 31 minutes, after half-time, he kicked five consecutive drop-goals and booted England out of the tournament by a margin of 44-21. In de Beer, the Springboks had found a diamond.
The Red Rose had managed a run of victories against the southern hemisphere giants in the lead-up to the 2003 tournament, however, their northern hemisphere rivals continued to frustrate Clive Woodward’s men. Firstly, in 1999, Wales (playing a home game at Wembley, while the Principality Stadium was being built) scored an injury-time try, as Scott Gibbs danced through the English defence in a 32-31 win. The following year, in the inaugural Six Nations, England had led early on against Scotland in their final game. In the second half, the taps came on and the wheels of England’s chariot came off, as Scotland won 19-13 at a rain-soaked Murrayfield. The 2001 tournament started in spring but didn’t finish until the autumn, due to a foot-and-mouth outbreak. England won the Six Nations title, but Ireland — inspired by Keith Wood, ended England’s Grand Slam dreams by a score of 20-14.
It was Ireland once again who stood between England and Grand Slam success a year later. But there was to be no repeat performance. England put up possibly their best-ever international performance, as they beat the boys in green by a 42-6 margin. Arguably, overcoming these disappointments to finally win the Grand Slam was integral to England taking the next step on the World stage.
Despite finally ruling the roost at home and having regularly beaten the SANZAR nations in recent meetings, England began the 2003 Rugby World Cup tournament as 13/8 second favourites behind New Zealand, who were sent off the 11/8 market leaders. Having laid down a marker by avenging their loss against South Africa during the group phase, Wales and France were vanquished before England faced Australia in the final. England’s scrum had looked to be in the ascendancy but not in the view of South African arbiter André Watson. The penalties he awarded kept Australia in the game, and England failed to take advantage of a guilt-edged chance to create a decisive lead when Second Row Ben Kay knocked on with the tryline gaping. With the game moving into extra time, Jonny Wilkinson had failed to convert three drop-goal chances. But at the fourth attempt, with his “weaker” right foot, Wilkinson booted England to victory by a score of 20-17.
England’s fall from the top of the Rugby mountain was quicker than their ascent. Poor performances in the Six Nations since 2003 meant England travelled more in hope than expectation to France, in 2007. Pre-tournament odds of 33/1 suggested that even hope was thin on the ground. After the second game of the group phase, it seemed that hope had been extinguished. Brian Ashton’s side was demolished 36-0 by South Africa. Although qualification was still possible, it seemed unthinkable that England would make much progress in the knockout phase. For the fourth time in five World Cups, Australia hoved into view. England — led by Loosehead Prop Andrew Sheridan — dismantled the Aussie scrum and led 12-10. With nearly 78 minutes on the clock, Stirling Mortlock had an opportunity to win the match for the Wallabies, but his kick sailed wide left, and England prevailed. In the semi-final, England faced hosts France — fresh from their shock win over the All Blacks. It was to be Le Crunch, a violent semi-final and one that saw Josh Lewsey score the opening try inside 80 seconds. England narrowly prevailed 14-9 to set up a rematch with South Africa. The final was much more of a contest than the group phase encounter, but South Africa ruled the lineout and Percy Montgomery kicked four of the Springboks’ five penalties, as a try-less final went the way of the Springboks by 15-6.
“Rugby player drinks beer, shocker”
Captain of England’s winning team in 2003, Martin Johnson was the man to oversee their 2011 campaign in New Zealand. As badly as England performed on the pitch, they behaved even worse off it. Mike Tindall was fined £25,000 following an incident on a night out in Queenstown. Other players were questioned about harassment of a hotel employee, and Courtney Lawes and Delon Armitage picked up bans during the tournament. Oh, and Manu Tuilagi was detained by Auckland police after jumping off a ferry — before it had docked. Johnson’s response during a Press Conference to one of the many episodes of ill-discipline was “Rugby player drinks beer, shocker”, which didn’t go down well. On the field, having narrowly advanced from the group with Argentina, at the expense of Scotland, England fell to France by a score of 19-12. England Coach Johnson said he felt that this England team’s best days were ahead of it.
Briefly, it looked as if Johnson’s comment had been prescient — the one about their best days lying ahead, not about a Rugby player’s love of alcohol — when England stunned the All Blacks 38-21 at Twickenham, a year later. That win got interim head coach Stuart Lancaster the job on a permanent basis. But with the draw for the World Cup taking place three years in advance, it came too late to prevent England being drawn with Australia and Wales in the group phase. At least England had home advantage in the tournament. Against their rivals from across the Severn Bridge, both teams exchanged three-pointers in the early going but a try by Jonny May opened a 16-6 lead for Lancaster’s team. But the boot of Dan Biggar kept Wales in the contest before a Gareth Davies try and another Biggar penalty put Wales ahead with six minutes remaining. Trailing by three points, England neglected to kick a penalty to tie the scores, instead opting for a lineout. Wales’ defence held firm, and England suffered a 25-28 home defeat. So, England had to beat Australia to avoid the ignominy of being eliminated from their own World Cup before the knockout phase. England never led at any stage as — inspired by their Fly-half Bernard Foley — Australia knocked England out, with one game still to play, by a score of 13-33. The Red Rose had well and truly wilted.
New Head Coach Eddie Jones gave many of the players who had underperformed in 2015 the opportunity to make amends when he took the job. They repaid his faith with a Grand Slam in 2016 — the last time England achieved that feat. England was starting to see the benefits of the development of a group of young players who had come through at the Under-20s level. Having never won a Junior World Cup to that point, England won the Under-20s World Cups of 2013, 2014, and 2016, and made the final in 2015. Gelling well with England’s veteran core, these youngsters helped England reach the knockout stage in Japan in 2019. A New Zealand team, seeking a hat-trick of World Cup wins stood between the Red Rose and the final. Despite England having two tries ruled out, Manu Tuilagi dotted down and the boots of Owen Farrell and George Ford did the rest, as England reached a fourth RWC Final. But, as in 2007, the Springboks proved too strong for England. Eddie Jones’ team had no answer to the Springboks’ physicality, set-piece, and their depth off the bench. The final score of 32-12 didn’t reflect how tight the game was, but South Africa ran out deserved winners.
Nine World Cups have seen the country that invented the game win one tournament and finish as runners-up three times. In 1995, they got as far as the last four, with three other quarter-final exits, and one group stage departure. That invention of the sport is credited to William Webb Ellis, whose name is on the trophy. A pupil at Rugby School, it is said that, while playing Football, Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it in the style of modern Rugby, though this may be more steeped in fiction than fact.
So, whose name is on the trophy this year? Well, of paramount importance is the draw. It’s a curious feature of the Rugby World Cup that tournament seedings are determined three years in advance — the ballot for this 2023 event took place in December 2020 and the seedings reflected the relative merits of teams dating back to New Year’s Day 2020. Having the draw so far in advance is something World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont has said will be reviewed prior to Australia hosting the next tournament in 2027.
The timing of the draw, in 2020, worked out well for England, who had reached the 2019 RWC Final. Having exited the last global tournament at the group stage, the timing was not so good for Scotland. So, despite the Scots currently sitting three places ahead of the Auld Enemy in the latest world rankings, England is a top seed, and the Scots find themselves as the third-ranked team in their group. Teams that progress from Pools A and B will face each other in the quarter-finals, with qualifiers from Pools C and D meeting in the last eight. From the semi-finals, however, teams from the stronger half of the draw will play opponents from the weaker half — the winner of Pool C/runner-up in Pool D will play either the Pool B winners or the Pool A runners-up etc. While any combination of finalists is possible, this draw means there will be head-to-head games between the likes of France and New Zealand and Ireland and South Africa as early as the quarter-final, and we’ll begin our look at those groups with two powerhouses headlining Pool A.
Les history boys
No Northern Hemisphere team has ever gone into a Rugby World Cup tournament as the favourites. Even England’s eventual champions were 13/8 second favourites in 2003, behind the All Blacks. A month ago, France was joint favourites, but currently find themselves second in the betting behind New Zealand. Les Bleus have reached the final of the Rugby World Cup on three occasions, only to be denied by a Southern Hemisphere superpower on each occasion. They were never closer than in the 2011 renewal. Facing New Zealand — in Auckland — the French lost 8-7, with New Zealand’s Penalty kicked by Stephen Donald, a fly-half not selected in the All Blacks’ original squad who was drafted into the starting XV when superstar Number 10 Dan Carter was injured during the tournament. France even provided the Man of the Match, with Captain Thierry Dusautoir recording 38 tackles and scoring France’s only try in a herculean effort.
Les Bleus finished second to Ireland in the 2023 Six Nations and find themselves third behind Ireland and South Africa in the latest world rankings.
The future looks extremely bright for France’s national team, due to the recent period of unprecedented success for Les Bleus at Under-20 level. Before 2021, France had never won a Junior World Cup. Over the past three years, they have won all three. Of those successes, there is little doubt that the most recent team created the greatest impression.
After many years when the attritional nature of France’s domestic Top 14 competition was blamed for Les Bleus’ poor performances in the northern hemisphere’s Rugby championship, France hasn’t finished outside of the first two in the Six Nations since the last World Cup. They narrowly lost a series in Australia in 2021 but it was Fabien Galthié side’s 40-25 win in Paris against New Zealand that autumn that was the breakthrough moment. Les Bleus recorded a national record 14 straight wins until they lost in Dublin in February.
Shortly after assuming the role, and with a home World Cup in mind, French coach Fabien Galthié went for a full reset, taking a long-term view, even bringing a third-string side — who had only 68 caps between the starting XV — to face England (who had 813 international appearances) at Twickenham in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup Final. This foresight has helped France build great squad depth, a point reinforced when they won all their Autumn Internationals, despite having 16 players out through injury.
France has won 20 of their last 22 fixtures. Quite often in Rugby World Cup warm-up games, teams will play home and away against the same opponents. In most cases, there seems to be a tacit agreement that teams will play close to their strongest team in the home match but will give an opportunity to players who are on the periphery of selection in the away game. Consequently, one of France’s two recent losses came away to Scotland last month. The only other time the French have seen their colours lowered was against Ireland in Dublin, in February. Their last outing saw them run out comfortable winners in a 41-17 victory over Australia.
Traditionally strong at scrum time, it comes as no surprise that France possesses an excellent pair of starting props. Loosehead Cyril Baille is both a powerful scrimmager and an effective player in the loose and then there’s Uini Atonio, the tighthead who weighs in at 149kg. He has been a cornerstone of the La Rochelle side that has won the past two renewals of the European Champions Cup. Between the two Hooker Julien Marchand was ever-present during France’s Six Nations campaign. Thibaud Flament is a much-improved second row and will likely start now that South African-born Paul Willemse will miss the tournament through injury. The athletic Cameron Woki — an excellent lineout exponent — has been given the number 5 jersey, while François Cros will start against New Zealand on the blindside. Former captain, Charles Ollivon offers fine skills as a jackler, while being another option at lineout time. Number 8 Grégory Alldritt, who could have opted for Scotland, was voted to the 2022 Rugby World Dream Team of the Year.
Joining him in that line-up, Scrum-half Antoine Dupont is arguably the world’s best player and has been named Six Nations Player of the Championship in three of the past four years. Romain Ntamack, the son of former French three-quarter, Émile, had seemed to be the answer to France’s troublesome puzzle at fly-half. But a ruptured ACL against Scotland has ended his tournament before it even began. At least France has Matthieu Jalibert, another mercurial fly-half, who has been vying for the number 10 shirt in recent years to step into the breach. Damian Penaud, also the son of a former French international — finished as the top Tryscorer in this year’s Six Nations — dotting down five times. He also shared that spot in the 2022 northern hemisphere championship with among others Gabin Villière — the diminutive winger known as the electric matchstick. Goalkicking has often been a problem for Les Bleus but the Six Nations’ top point scorer, Thomas Ramos, looks to have changed all that. No one is likely to mispronounce the surname of Jonathan Danty, as dainty — the 110kg wrecking ball gets France over the gainline. Alongside him is Gaël Fickou, an important defensive cog, but also a player who can glide past defenders. The French midfield has the cudgel and the rapier, though the cudgel will miss the tournament’s opener against New Zealand with a hamstring problem.
All this, and who knows how many exciting bolters could make the leap to the senior side from France’s most recent Under-20 world champions.
Formerly a world-class Scrum half in his playing days, Galthié has done a fine job as head coach and can call upon one of the finest defence coaches in the business. France recruited Shaun Edwards after his outstanding service with Wales, and the former Rugby League legend has shored up France’s defence.
A settled team, a settled coaching staff, outstanding recent form, and home advantage, leave France in fine fettle. That home advantage will see La Marseillaise echoing around the stadia — one of the many hymns and arias traditional in Rugby Union. Such was the noise at one recent home game that French Hooker Julien Marchand couldn’t hear the lineout call as he was about to throw the ball in. Perhaps, as well as the “please respect the kicker” notices, we need “please respect the thrower.”
For years, Les Bleus were dogged by inconsistency — the hackneyed phrase regularly trotted out by commentators was: “You never know which France is going to turn up.” Les Bleus were often partial to an ill-timed loss of discipline at a vital moment too. But under the stewardship of Galthié, Edwards et al their consistency and discipline have been better than most of their tournament rivals.
Galthié’s side will get a stern examination of their credentials in the opening match against tournament favourites, New Zealand — arguably the biggest opening game since South Africa were admitted to the tournament for the first time and hosted defending champions Australia, in 1995. The draw hasn’t been kind, with the All Blacks in the same group and a strong likelihood of either South Africa or Ireland on deck after that. However, it would be a major shock if the two top-ranked sides didn’t progress from Pool A. Thereafter, it’s knockout Rugby all the way as France hopes to avoid the feeling of déjà vu that comes with a World Cup Final defeat.
World prepares for All Black backlash
Walk down any high street in the bigger cities of New Zealand and you will find a sports shop emblazoned with the name, Champions of the World. While not currently holders of that title, the All Blacks have been the pre-eminent Rugby Union team throughout most of the sport’s history. If Football is a passion in England, and Cricket is a religion in India, then Rugby Union performs the same role in Aotearoa.
The ubiquitous sign outside New Zealand sports shops was factually correct in 1987, 2011, and 2015, as the All Blacks lifted the William Webb Ellis Trophy. Four years ago, their attempt to land a hat-trick of world titles was derailed by England in the semi-final. Even in the rarified atmosphere of matches against southern hemisphere rivals South Africa, Australia, and Argentina — who were added to The Rugby Championship in 2012 — New Zealand boasts an impressive record in Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship fixtures. They have amassed 100 wins, suffered just 31 defeats, and two draws.
It’s unusual to see the All Blacks side which was the number one-ranked team in Rugby Union for a decade between 2009 and 2019 down in fourth place in the world rankings. They did briefly fall to fifth in the pecking order last year — their lowest position since those rankings began.
Form-wise the men in black have won 12 of their last 18 matches, with five defeats and one draw against England at Twickenham. The Bledisloe Cup remains in New Zealand’s hands, courtesy of a 2-0 series win over Australia. For 58 minutes the opening encounter between the Trans-Tasman rivals was a contest, with the All Blacks possessing a 19-7 lead. But New Zealand turned on the after-burners to run out 38-7 victors, and this despite having a try ruled out after Mark Telea failed to tap the ball correctly during a moment of quick-thinking. They spotted the Wallabies a 14-0 start in Dunedin before a strong second half-showing saw New Zealand run out 23-20 winners. The ABs won handily in Argentina, with a 41-12 scoreline reflecting their superiority. But it was their most recent outing that created shockwaves.
New Zealand 7 South Africa 35.
Long the greatest rivalry in the sport, South Africa inflicted New Zealand’s heaviest-ever defeat at Twickenham in the last hit-out for both teams before the Rugby World Cup begins.
New Zealand received some better news on the eve of the tournament for some members of their tall timber. Second Row Brodie Retallick looks set to be fit for the opening game after an injury. Fellow Lock Scott Barrett escaped further sanction for his red card at Twickenham and he too will be available for selection. That said, one of their likely starting props, Tyrel Lomax misses the tournament’s opening match after requiring 30 stitches in a leg injury suffered against South Africa.
In his absence, New Zealand’s depth in the propping department will be tested. At least they will be able to call on the front-row experience of veteran Hooker Codie Taylor, who has 75 Caps to his name.
There is also a wealth of experience in the second row with Sam Whitelock having played 146 times for his country. The long-time Crusaders’ stalwart was picked for World Rugby’s 2022 Dream Team Of The Year. With Retallick and Scott Barrett set to be available, the All Blacks have enviable depth in the locking department.
Shannon Frizell has provided more dynamism in the back row and could well start at six. Captain Sam Cane will be crucial at the breakdown. Ardie Savea — whose brother, Julian, also played for his country — was part of World Rugby’s 2021 Dream Team Of The Year and will bring breakdown help, athleticism, and ball-carrying ability to the number eight role.
Aaron Smith will be playing in his third World Cup and is likely to start at scrum-half, though Cam Roigard was one of the few bright points on a black day for New Zealand when he came on at Twickenham. Richie Mo’unga is likely to win his 50th All-Black cap against France and seems to have the Number 10 shirt in safekeeping. If the team that started at headquarters is anything to go by, Mark Telea and Will Jordan will start on the wings for the All Blacks against France. Jordan has rattled up 23 Tries in 25 Tests as an All Black and has been selected for the last two Rugby World Dream Teams Of The Year.
It’s a family affair
With Scott Barrett cleared to play, it will be a family affair for New Zealand during the World Cup. Scott’s brothers Beauden and Jordie look set to see playing time at fullback and inside centre respectively. Jordie is likely to be joined in the centres by Rieko Ioane, who played against the British and Irish Lions in 2017, and whose brother, Akira, has also represented New Zealand
New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern quit the job citing the pressure of the role. Who could blame her for declining to continue in such a pressurised position, after the pandemic? It could be worse. Imagine being the head coach of the New Zealand Rugby Team. The man in the spotlight is Ian Foster. New Zealand Rugby seem to have taken a leaf from Liverpool’s book during the 1970s and 1980s, promoting someone from the boot room to ensure coaching continuity. Sir Graham Henry oversaw a World Cup win in 2011 and was succeeded by his former Assistant Sir Steve Hansen. Once he stepped aside, his former right-hand man, Foster took over the reins.
However, it has been far from plain sailing since Foster took over, and he has frequently found himself under pressure during his reign. New Zealand Rugby opted to stick with the longtime coach of the Chiefs’ franchise and chose instead to reshuffle his backroom team.
I’m not sure anyone is taking Foster’s comment after losing to the Springboks too seriously. He told reporters: “No one’s going to rate us now which is quite nice. We’ll just go and get stuck in.” The bookmakers don’t seem to have New Zealand flying under the radar, though, as at the time of writing they remain 11/4 favourites to land a fourth William Webb Ellis trophy.
When New Zealand suffered a shocking loss at home to Argentina a year ago, they played Los Pumas a week later. New Zealand got their revenge by a score of 53-3. An All Black backlash is quite a thing.
Have reports of Italy’s Rugby death been greatly exaggerated?
Participants in all nine World Cups, Italy has yet to progress beyond the group stage in any of them, despite winning two matches in each of the past five renewals. Incorporated into the Six Nations in 2000, the Azzurri have ended each of the four Six Nations Championships since the last World Cup with the Wooden Spoon. However, just as the obituary writers were sharpening their pencils, the last 12 months have seen Kieran Crowley’s side record wins over Australia — who admittedly played a weakened side — and Wales.
Having lost to both Scotland and Ireland in matches since the Six Nations, the Azzurri comfortably beat Romania, and completed their World Cup preparations with a decisive 42-21 victory over Japan. Nevertheless, Italy have dropped to 13th in the latest world rankings, behind the likes of Fiji, Georgia, and Samoa.
Star Fullback Matteo Minozzi has missed considerable playing time on the treatment table and isn’t in the squad. Ditto English-born Back Row Jake Polledri, who has suffered a wretched run of luck with injuries. Monte Ioane missed the Six Nations after his former club, Super Rugby side, the Rebels, refused to release him but showed what Italy missed with a try against Scotland and will start on the wing. For all their indigenous talent, for many years, Italy’s Rugby resources were supplemented by invaluable additions from Argentina, including the likes of Sergio Parisse, Martín Castrogiovanni etc. Without that influx of talent, the Azzurri are deficient in many areas.
These are the headaches facing former All Black Kieran Crowley — a member of New Zealand’s champions in the inaugural World Cup. He has overseen Italy’s progress since 2021, but progression in this tournament is unlikely. The Azzurri find themselves pitched in against the World Cup’s two market leaders, hosts France and New Zealand, who historically set the standard in international Rugby. Consequently, it looks as though Italy will be saying Arrivederci to the tournament at the Pool Stage once again.
If Pool A resembles the World Cup’s “group of death” then for makeweights Uruguay and Namibia, it looks like the group of certain death.
It won’t be the first rodeo for either of these sides, who have 10 Rugby World Cup appearances between them. Uruguay is ranked 17th in the world — one spot ahead of the United States — and they beat Namibia 26-18 last month. Most of Los Teros’ squad plays their Rugby in the domestic league, with a smattering plying their trade in France’s Pro D2, or the American Major League Rugby competition. Their meeting with Namibia on 27th September will be the game that Esteban Meneses’ side will have circled.
To put things into context, when Namibia played New Zealand in the 2015 renewal, they started the match between 77 and 79-point underdogs against what was essentially an All Black team comprised of their squad players. Generally, the gap between those at Rugby’s top table and those who are making up the numbers has closed slightly in recent years but anything other than two heavy defeats to France and New Zealand would be a big surprise. Back in the amateur days of Rugby Union, the men from Southern Africa did record four victories against what would now be considered Tier One teams — with two wins apiece against admittedly-understrength Irish and Italian sides, back in 1991. Win number five, in France, is unlikely.
Will Irish eyes be smiling?
This year, Ireland completed the fourth Grand Slam in their history — and the third in the Six Nations era and remains the world’s number-one ranked team. Between 1905 and 2013 Ireland lost every meeting with New Zealand. But after breaking their duck against the All Blacks at Soldier Field in Chicago, in 2016, the men from the Emerald Isle have now won five of the last eight meetings between the two sides. South Africa, Australia, and France have all been beaten at the Aviva Stadium in recent years.
However, there is a real dichotomy in Ireland’s international Rugby Union performances. Six Nations successes, summer tour series wins, and autumn achievements but what about the World Cup? Ireland has played in all nine World Cups and has never reached the semi-final stage. While this is undoubtedly a small sample of results, this sustained inability to progress must raise the question of whether Ireland benefits from being able to wrap their top players in cotton wool during the season, allowing them to be in a strong position to outperform their opponents during the Six Nations and Autumn internationals. With more of a level playing field at the World Cup, that advantage evaporates.
Nevertheless, Ireland’s efforts in recent seasons are undeniably impressive. The boys in green have been trending in the right direction in the Six Nations championship. After finishing third in 2020 and 2021, they were runners-up to France in 2022 and won the title this season.
After a 33-17 win in their first warm-up game against Italy, and comfortably beating England 29-10, Ireland had to survive a major scare against Samoa, eventually overcoming the South Sea Islanders 17-13, in Bayonne. Those victories took Ireland’s winning sequence to 13 in a row, since losing the First Test against New Zealand in July last year. Andy Farrell’s team have won 25 of their past 28 matches, with France (twice) and New Zealand the only sides to lower their colours. Ireland has beaten all four of the Rugby Championship nations in that time, including recording a first series win in New Zealand,
Ireland possesses several world-class players, not least 2022 World Player of the Year, Back Row, Josh van der Flier. Tighthead Prop Tadhg Furlong is among the best in the world at his position. Dan Sheehan has been a very consistent performer since replacing Rory Best as Ireland’s first-choice hooker. The days of props walking from scrum to scrum are long gone and the fitness levels displayed by Loosehead Andrew Porter in playing 364 of a possible 400 minutes during Ireland’s Grand Slam triumph was highly impressive. The depth in Irish front row play means the loss of long-time Loosehead Cian Healy to injury will not be felt too badly. British and Irish Lion, Tadhg Beirne made World Rugby’s Dream Team Of The Year last year, while James Ryan is likely to be his partner in the second row.
Van der Flier is ably supported in the Back Row by Blindside Peter O’Mahony — who should reach 100 Caps during the tournament — and by Caelan Doris at number 8.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there was a pre-tournament concern around Fly-half Johnny Sexton, ahead of what would be his final World Cup. Unusually it was a potential ban, rather than an injury that had threatened the fragile number 10’s participation. While Ross Byrne’s improvement has given Ireland some confidence should Sexton be unavailable at any stage, Sexton’s experience would still be missed. New Zealand-born Jamison Gibson-Park looks set to begin the tournament at scrum-half. Centre Garry Ringrose will start at 13, and Bundee Aki looks favourite to start one position inside him. Full-back Hugo Keenan has been excellent during Ireland’s recent historic run and is likely to be joined by two southern hemisphere converts in the Back Three. James Lowe — joint-top tryscorer in the 2022 Six Nations — and Mack Hansen will likely complete the line-up.
Being dismissed by England as assistant coach following the disappointment of failing to get out of the group in the 2015 World Cup, must seem like a distant memory for Andy Farrell. The former Rugby League legend has built on the strong foundations left by former coach Joe Schmidt, as Ireland has continued to tick items off their Rugby bucket list.
For all these positives, the draw hasn’t been kind to Ireland. Three of the top five teams in the latest world rankings will be vying for just two quarter-final spots. France and New Zealand have been the only teams to beat Ireland in recent years and the boys in green will have to buck that trend if they are to reach a first World Cup semi-final. The weight of history is against them.
South Africa needs to Boks clever to avoid early elimination
South Africa has won three of the seven World Cups they participated in since their exclusion from the sport came to an end. The Springboks’ last two defences of the World Cup ended at the semi-final and quarter-final stages. A recent uptick in form has seen the Springboks leap to second in the latest world rankings.
The Springboks’ Rugby Championship results had a bit of everything. They pummelled Australia 43-12 in their opener, before seeing their chance of lifting the trophy ended by a 35-20 defeat to the All Blacks in Auckland. Their last game saw a very narrow victory over Argentina by 22-21, and they repeated the dose in an additional fixture against Los Pumas in Buenos Aires. The three-time RWC champions put up an eye-catching performance in hammering Wales 52-16 at the Principality Stadium, but it was what happened next that really grabbed the headlines.
Most observers felt that the Springboks vs. All Blacks match at Twickenham would be a tightly contested affair. But nothing could have been further from the truth. South Africa inflicted New Zealand’s heaviest-ever defeat, with a 35-7 victory (South Africa’s biggest previous win over their bitter rivals was by 16 points).
That victory over the old enemy takes South Africa to 10 wins from their last 13 games. After not taking part in the COVID-affected Southern Hemisphere championship in 2020, South Africa has been unable to topple New Zealand in the last three renewals. The Springboks have finished third, second, and second again over the past three seasons. They did however record a 2-1 series win over the touring British and Irish Lions in 2021.
A player who made a valuable contribution to that series win against the Lions, Centre Lukhanyo Am has been ruled out of the tournament through injury. Inspirational captain Siya Kolisi has won his battle to be fit for the tournament and South Africa’s squad could include as many as 21 of the 23 players who defeated England in the final in Yokohama four years ago.
The word most associated with South African Rugby is physicality, and that starts with the current front row. The former Stormers’ pair, Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe provide the strong scrummaging platform you’d expect from a South African team — Kitshoff will play for Ulster next season. Hooker Malcolm Marx has been selected for the World Rugby Dream Team Of The Year in the last two seasons and, as well as his efforts in the set piece, his breakdown work is like having another back row forward on the pitch. Joining Marx in the 2021 World Rugby selection was giant Second Row, Eben Etzebeth. With 113 Caps to his name, he remains the Springboks’ enforcer, though who will start alongside him is less certain. Ex-Gloucester player, Franco Mostert and 6 foot-9 behemoth RG Snyman are the principal contenders. After a bad run of injuries, South Africa’s home win over Australia was Snyman’s first appearance in a Springbok jersey since the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final. The best openside in the world, according to World Rugby in 2021, inspirational captain Siya Kolisi looks to be returning to match fitness at the perfect time. Pieter-Steph du Toit brings another lineout option and strong carrying and defensive work to the blindside, and South Africa has the powerful Duane Vermeulen who was selected to the 2019 Rugby World Cup Team of the Tournament at the base of their scrum.
Mini Hercules, Faf de Klerk, remains a key player at scrum-half, and South Africa hopes that they have settled on his half-back partner. Manie Libbok has always had the creativity and running threat to play international Rugby and in recent matches, there has been a big improvement in his goal-kicking. Playing Libbok allows the Boks to field Willie le Roux at fullback. One of several South African players now plying their trade in Japan, le Roux gives the Springboks another distributor in the backline. All this creativity needs finishing and South Africa have the men for the job. On one wing, they have the lightning-fast Kurt-Lee Arendse, and on the other Makazole Mapimpi. The latter’s six tries in the last Rugby World Cup included one against England in the final. The other South African Tryscorer in the final, Cheslin Kolbe will definitely have a role to play at some stage in the tournament. In An’s absence, South Africa will probably field Jesse Kriel alongside 105kg, Damian de Allende — picked for the 2022 Rugby World Dream Team Of The Year — in the centres.
Bomb Squad capable of an explosive impact
The Springboks bench was a big factor in securing the last World Cup. South Africa has been at the forefront of using a six-two split among their substitutes, with an extra forward and one less back. In fact, against New Zealand at Twickenham, the Springboks became the first side to have seven forwards on their bench. In 2019, the forward replacements came to be known as The Bomb Squad, and the likes of Vincent Koch, Snyman, and Bongi Mbonambi certainly had an explosive impact.
One interesting selection is that of Lock Jean Kleyn. Originally capped by Ireland, for whom he was eligible on residency grounds, the Springboks have taken advantage of a rule change to usher him back into the South African fold. World Rugby has decreed that a player can switch nationalities — provided they pass the other criteria — if they haven’t represented a former country for three years. Kleyn hasn’t been selected by Ireland in that time and has made the Boks’ World Cup squad, probably with the intention of getting some insights into an Irish team which is now the world’s top-ranked side and South Africa’s main competition in Pool B.
A former Springboks’ Assistant Coach, Jacques Nienaber took over the top role in 2020. To emulate his predecessor he will need to steer the Boks through a group that contains not only Ireland but an improved Scotland team. Qualification means a meeting with either France or New Zealand, so the road to a fourth William Webb Ellis trophy won’t be easy.
Laying ghosts to rest in the Scottish play
Having reached the semi-finals, as co-host in 1991, Scotland has failed to reach that stage in the subsequent seven World Cups. Fourth in three consecutive Six Nations Championships between 2020 and 2022, a third-placed effort this year has helped them move up to fifth in the world rankings. After many years in the doldrums, Scotland has made steady improvement in recent years. They have won 11 and lost 10 of their last 21 contests. Over their two recent games against France, they outscored Les Bleus 52 points to 51. However, before that, they made hard work of beating Italy, with a late try giving them a somewhat flattering 25-13 win.
Former Captain Stuart Hogg made the surprise decision to retire from all Rugby in July and will be a big loss. Another man missing through injury is Second Row, Jonny Gray, who has been ruled out after suffering a dislocated kneecap. However, Back-Row Rory Darge and Winger Darcy Graham returned in a recent game against Italy, having missed the Six Nations, and both are included in the 33-man squad
Once a limited team whose best hope of success was getting opponents into a low-scoring arm wrestle, these days Scotland is a much more potent scoring threat, even without Hogg. Mercurial Fly-Half Finn Russell is a top-class performer, as is fellow British & Irish Lion, Duwan van der Merwe, whose combination of strength and speed can be lethal. The Scots are less prolific in the set piece and lack world-class forwards.
Part of their transformation into a more entertaining side has been down to their Head Coach, Gregor Townsend. A centre of great flair in his playing days, Townsend has built a side in his own image and will be one of the longest-tenured coaches in the tournament, having been in charge of Scotland since 2017.
The draw hasn’t been kind to the Scots, though in fairness their improved form came too late to influence their seeding. Making it out of the group at the expense of either Ireland or South Africa will be a tall order but not impossible.
Although the lowest ranked of the three South Sea Island nations, Tonga have qualified for every Rugby World Cup tournament, bar 1991, but is yet to reach the knockout phase. Toutai Kefu played 60 times for Australia but has now returned to his homeland to coach Ikale Tahi. Sitting 15th in the latest world rankings, a win over Scotland would be a feather in the Sea Eagles’ caps. A victory against either of Pool B’s highflyers really would be something to write home about.
Romania’s record of having participated in every Rugby World Cup came to an end four years ago, when they were disqualified from the tournament for fielding ineligible players. The Oaks’ match with Tonga is unlikely to be a classic but represents their best chance of a victory. Six times the Stejarii have managed to win one group game and, for the team ranked 19th in the world, adding another to that number would represent a fine achievement.
Rennie fails to settle things down
World Cup winners in 1991 and 1999, it has been 24 years since Australia last lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy. Australia’s decline in recent times is thrown into sharp relief by their record against New Zealand. Each year, the two rivals have competed for the Bledisloe Cup, and you have to go back to 2002 for the last time the Wallabies wrested the trophy away from New Zealand hands.
In the three Rugby Championship tournaments since the last World Cup with all four teams present, Australia have been getting progressively worse. In 2021, they won four and lost two to place second. A year later they slipped to third with a 2-4 record. This year’s truncated renewal saw Australia finish with the Wooden Spoon, with losses to each of their rivals. Perhaps of even greater concern was the nature of those three losses. They were beaten 43-12 in South Africa, lost 31-34 at home to Argentina, and found themselves on the receiving end of a 38-7 drubbing by their rivals from across the Tasman.
They fell to New Zealand again by a narrower margin of 23-20 in Dunedin but were comfortably beaten by France in Paris by a score of 41-17, making it five losses in a row, and eight defeats in their last nine outings.
Australia will be without Captain Michael Hooper, as the openside will miss the tournament through injury. Prop Allan Ala’alatoa, who has 66 Caps, is also set to miss the Rugby World Cup. In the backs, prospective starter Len Ikitau has also been ruled out through injury.
For many years, Australia has fielded an underpowered scrum that has been bested by the world’s top scrummaging units. With just 15 Caps to his name, Hooker Dave Porecki, of the Waratahs looks set to start, alongside Angus Bell at loosehead. The Tongan Thor, Taniela Tupou, is the pick of their front row on the tighthead. Will Skelton would not be a surprise name on the team sheet, as he has been a huge part of the La Rochelle side that has won the past two renewals of the European Champions Cup. But he was a shock pick to captain his country. Who joins him in the boilerhouse is uncertain, with Nick Frost and Richie Arnold the front-runners. If things are uncertain in the second row, they are even more up in the air in the back row. Rob Valetini can be inked in at Number Eight — his 35 caps are likely to be more than both his running mates combined. Perhaps Langi Gleeson and Fraser McReight are the likeliest pairing at flanker.
Reds’ Scrum-half Tate McDermott may edge out veteran Nic White in the number nine jersey and things are pretty clear-cut at 10 where 22-year-old Carter Gordon, with a grand total of five Caps, will start. At least the rest of the backline possesses some quality. The bolter in the Australian squad four years ago, Jordan Petaia may get the start in the midfield in the absence of Ikitau. 108kg centre, Samu Kerevi, will be the man to get Australia over the gainline and he made World Rugby’s Dream Team Of The Year in 2021. Former Rugby League superstar, Marika Koroibete, has become one of the biggest names in the sport since switching codes. He will start on one wing with Mark Nawaqanitawase likely to start on the other side. Fullback Andrew Kellaway made a flying start to his international career with nine Tries in his first year and looks to be the starting 15.
The Australian Rugby Board had brought Dave Rennie in to calm things down after some turbulent times for the national team. The New Zealander faced numerous injuries and when the Wallabies lost to Italy, it was with a hugely understrength team, and Australia did have a kick to win that match. He paid the price for a string of disappointing efforts as the ARU dispensed with Rennie.
Charged with reviving Australia’s fortunes is a familiar face, former England coach Eddie Jones. It will be Jones’ second stint in charge, and he has had a rollercoaster coaching career. Success at a provincial level in Australia got Jones the country’s top job and he led the Wallabies to the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final, only to fall to Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal in extra time. From there he took over the Queensland Reds and promptly finished bottom of the Super Rugby ladder in his first season. Resigning from that job, he then helped to pilot South Africa to World Cup glory in 2007, as an advisor to Jake White. Domestic success in Japan with the Suntory Sungoliath, led to him taking the national job. There he masterminded Japan’s shock win over South Africa in the 2015 RWC. Then England came calling and at first, things went well. Although they failed to maintain the initial momentum of their 2016 Six Nations Grand Slam, Eddie said: “Judge me on the World Cup”, and England beat New Zealand en route to a runner-up spot. But things tailed off from there and the RFU removed him from the role.
Now Jones is back with Australia. And back falling out with people. In the past, Jones has been known to deliberately rile the opposition prior to big games — his less-than-flattering comments about Ireland and Wales didn’t impress the Celts — often as a means of deflecting the pressure from his own players. Recently, he had a public spat with one reporter who questioned his latest selections. But maybe the most controversial development has been Jones’ decision to leave mercurial Fly-half Quade Cooper out of his squad altogether — leaving the Wallabies with only one recognised 10. Given that Cooper is apparently refusing to take Jones’ calls, it doesn’t take Cervantes to figure out that something has gone on behind the scenes. From a coaching standpoint, it also can’t be ideal that Attack Coach Brad Davis left the role — due to family reasons — less than a month before the start of the tournament.
Given their recent form, injuries, and the issues around the coaching setup, some would be quick to put a line through the two-time champions. Welcome to the weaker part of the draw, which means no one is ruling anything out. Wales are rebuilding, Fiji are a danger, and Georgia would love to upset the applecart, as Jones’ Japanese team did eight years ago. But the likes of New Zealand, South Africa, and France who have schooled the Aussies in recent seasons will not hove into view until the semi-finals. A quarter-final against a similarly dishevelled England, an Argentinian side who recently beat them by only three points, Jones’ former employers, Japan, or the unpredictable Samoans is much more inviting than what lies along the opposite pathway. From the semi-finals onwards those bigger fish will lie in wait, but the Wallabies will cross that bridge if/when they get to it.
This summer saw Australia retain the Ashes, though not in the crushing manner of previous teams to wear the Baggy Green. Initial results in Jones’ second stint in charge haven’t bowled anyone over. But qualification for the last four and a free hit against New Zealand or France would be positive news, given where the Wallabies have been recently. A loss to his former employers, England, is unlikely to do much for Eddie’s mood. At the very least, Australia needs to escape Pool C, though, after Fiji’s recent heroics, the Aussies are unlikely to be caught off guard by the dangerous South Sea Islanders. A group stage exit and Jones will likely find himself run out of town.
Morgan/Lake looking to make a successful leap
A country with an almost unmatched passion for the game, despite having yet to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy, Wales has recorded the third-most wins across its nine renewals. Third in the inaugural tournament, Wales came close to reaching the final but were narrowly beaten by France in 2011, after the controversial sending off of Captain Sam Warburton, and filled the same position four years ago. Nine World Cups: three semi-finals, three quarter-finals, and three exits at the pool stage.
The lowest point in those tournaments came in their 1991 loss to the small nation of Western Samoa. In truth, that was an early warning of what was to come from the talented and unpredictable nations of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, and another of the Tier One nations might fall to one of their number this time around.
Wales have finished fifth in three of the past four Six Nations titles, with the glorious exception being their championship win in 2021. With a win and four losses in the past two renewals of the northern hemisphere championship, and some patchy results elsewhere, Wales have dropped to tenth in the world rankings, just one place higher than group opponents Georgia. Having lost four Six Nations games — all by at least 10 points — The Dragons split their two warm-up matches with England — although they outscored their rivals from across the Severn Bridge by 37-28 over the two legs. A reality check was quickly provided by the Springboks who doused their fire by 52 points to 16, leaving Wales with two wins and six losses in 2023.
In May, Welsh fans received the news that they had long expected and dreaded. Talismanic Lock Alyn Wyn Jones called time on an illustrious career that included a world record total of 158 Caps. The Dragons will also be without Ken Owens, the former British & Irish Lions hooker through injury, and Rhys Webb — another former Lions tourist, who might have been in contention for the squad — hung up his boots at the end of May.
The tight five looks to be the weakest area for Wales, with a few positions up for grabs. Up front, given he has been named co-captain it looks like Dewi Lake will start in the number two jersey. It could be an all-Ospreys Front Row with Nicky Smith and Gareth Thomas as the two props, though veteran Tomas Francis is a contender at tighthead.
Once an area of strength and depth, Wales’ second row arguably lacks both. Will Rowlands, now plying his trade in France with Racing, looks likely to call the lineout, with Dafydd Jenkins in line to add to his seven caps.
From this point onwards, Wales has distinctly more quality (and quantity) at their disposal. Co-captain Jac Morgan looks likely to start on the openside, with Aaron Wainwright on the blindside. A veteran of three British & Irish Lions Tours, Taulupe Faletau will bring excellent carrying and offloading skills, and considerable experience to the number eight role.
Wales have several first-rate scrum-halves but have elected to take just two to the tournament, with Tomos Williams a marginal favourite to start ahead of Gareth Davies. Twice a Lions’ tourist, Dan Biggar brings 109 caps worth of experience to the fly-half role. The backline has some exciting elements to it. George North and Liam Williams have eight Lions appearances between them. These days, North operates at outside centre with Williams manning the fullback spot. Having burst onto the scene a few years ago, Rhys Lightning, Louis Rees-Zammit, has developed into an accomplished finisher. Rio Dyer looks the likeliest candidate to start on the left wing, with Johnny Williams the marginal favourite to partner North in the centre, ahead of former England Under-20 World Cup winner, Nick Tompkins.
Wayne Pivac paid the price for defeats to Italy and Georgia in 2022, ushering in the return of former coach Warren Gatland. Few coaches can match the Kiwi’s experience but there is a question mark as to whether Warrenball — Gatland’s preference for a game built around the crash-ball and gain line success — works against the world’s elite.
One of Gatland’s key decisions was who to make captain. Arguably, you would need two players to replace someone of the legendary status of Alyn Wyn Jones. Gatland agreed and appointed co-captains: Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake. It will be interesting to see how the Morgan/Lake (not to be confused with the Team GB high jumper) axis works.
At least Wales are emphatically on the right side of the draw. They share Pool C with an Australian side with many issues and a new — or newly reappointed — head coach, a Fijian side that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and Georgia, who beat them last year. The top two sides will go through to face a similarly unpredictable opponent from England, Argentina, Japan, or Samoa.
Wales have several weaknesses, not least a scrum that could come under pressure and a defence which failed to hold any of their Six Nations opponents, bar Italy, below 20 points.
However, there is a sense that Wales are free-rolling, after a disappointing spell over the last couple of years. Given the draw, all things are possible for Wales, from a repeat of their semi-final appearances to another ignominious first-round exit. At least if that happens again, it won’t be as easy for the joke writers as it was with Western Samoa.
The national sport of Fiji is Sevens, rather than Rugby. However, it’s not too surprising that the nation that has been duelling with New Zealand at the Sevens summit for decades is capable of putting together a powerful side in the fifteen-aside game.
For years Fiji was hamstrung by French (and English) club sides being reluctant to release Fijian players during the international windows. It can’t have been easy being the Fijian coach when you have no idea who is going to turn up for training in the lead-up to matches. Things have improved somewhat in that regard and in any case, the Rugby World Cup creates more of a level playing field. Another fillip for the South Sea Islands nations is the edict from World Rugby, allowing players to change nationalities — if they have the correct qualification — if they haven’t played for another nation in the past three years. Historically, New Zealand and Australia have lured numerous talented players from Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga over to the big smoke with scholarships to their top schools. Many have then been selected to represent their adopted countries but found themselves surplus to requirements and unable to go back to representing the country of their birth. Hopefully, this rule change will have its desired effect and allow these South Sea Island nations to field their most talented players.
Good things come in threes, and the third positive for Fiji since 2022 has been the incorporation of Fijian Drua into the Super Rugby Pacific competition. Although Fijian sides have competed in Australia’s National Rugby Championship, Super Rugby provides a better platform.
With all this positive news in the background, it’s not a surprise that results on the field have improved. Fiji proved their status as the leading team in the Pacific Rim last month. They beat Tonga 36-20, won 33-19 in Samoa, and comfortably defeated Japan 35-12. There was also no disgrace in losing 34-17 to France. And then it happened.
England 22 Fiji 30.
Egregious for England, fabulous for Fiji, and a first win against the country that invented the sport.
18 of their 33-man squad hail from Fijian Drua, but their most famous name plied his trade in Bristol until recently. One of the world’s great three-quarters, Semi Radradra is the team’s superstar. He possesses the sort of broad skill set you’d expect from a man who has played Rugby League, Sevens, and fifteen-a-side Rugby. On signing the South Sea Islander, Bristol’s Director of Rugby, Pat Lam gushed: “There is no doubt that Semi is one of the best players in the world – he’s truly a world-class performer.” At the last World Cup, the Fijian star averaged 100 metres made per game and dotted down twice against Georgia.
Far from a one-man team, Fiji has a number of other stars though and, as you would expect, the majority of these are in the backs. Arguably their lone forward star is Levani Botia, who has been outstanding as an openside for a La Rochelle team that has lifted the past two Champions Cups.
Behind the Scrum, Radradra is joined in the centres by Toulon’s Waisea Nayacalevu, who scored the Fijian’s first Try at Twickenham and is likely to captain the side. Of the home-based contingent Vinaya Habosi is an excellent option at centre or wing. There are plenty of other stars in the backline including Josua Tuisova — who has spent a decade plying his trade in France, most recently with Racing — and Jiuta Wainiqolo.
Georgia on my mind
The fourth seeds in Pool C are Georgia. Traditionally a team associated with a strong scrum — in recent years many a Top 14 side has recruited Georgian forwards into their tight five — the former Soviet Republic will be looking to enhance their claim for Tier One status. Whenever Italy have struggled in recent years, Georgia have often been looked at as the next cab off the rank should the Six Nations be looking for another European team to replace the Azzurri. Georgia has won 12 of the 17 European Championships — a tournament confined to the continent’s sides that don’t play in the Six Nations — including each of the past six renewals.
Georgia took a huge step forward last year. They began by recording a first-ever win against a Tier One nation, beating Italy by 28-19. Even more consequential was their 13-12 victory in Cardiff over Wales. Luka Matkava belied his 20 years to keep his nerve and convert the 78th-minute game-winning penalty. The former Soviet Republic seem to be producing a fine crop of young players — their under-20s won two of their three group matches at this year’s Junior World Cup.
Ranked 11th in the latest world rankings — sandwiched between Wales and Samoa — The Lelos hammered Romania — once thought of as Italy’s Tier One replacement — 56-6, and comfortably beat the United States 22-7 in their first two RWC warm-up games. A trip to Scotland proved a bridge too far for Levan Maisashvili’s men, as they were downed 33-6 at Murrayfield. Nevertheless, any opponent can expect a tough day at the office against Georgia’s pack, and they will be hoping to add to the five wins they have recorded in the last five Rugby World Cups.
Portugal — ranked 16th in the world — will be making only their second appearance on Rugby’s biggest stage, and their first since 2007. They will sit out the first pair of fixtures — as there are five teams per group — and begin their campaign against Wales in Nice.
Well and truly bunkered
If you’re an England Rugby Union fan and you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past year….. stay where you are, as there has been nothing but bad news, while you’ve been away.
England have only won three of their games in 2023, beating Italy at Twickenham, and two wins over Wales. Their build-up to the tournament has been overshadowed by potential suspensions of key players, and they have suffered injuries to other important members of the squad. All this against a backdrop of problems within the domestic league, which has seen Wasps, Worcester, and London Irish banished from domestic Rugby competitions owing to financial problems, and since the last World Cup, Saracens were briefly relegated into the second tier, due to breaking Premiership rules.
It’s 20 years since Jonny Wilkinson’s right boot connected with a drop-goal to make England World Champions. Since then, two RWC Finals have been reached, but England has also produced some pretty dire performances. Currently eighth in the world — three places below Scotland — England’s last three Six Nations have resulted in fifth, third, and fourth-placed efforts since they won the 2020 title. Their Autumn internationals last year had a bit of everything. A resounding 52-13 win over Japan and an encouraging 25-all draw with the All Blacks, a disappointing 27-13 reversal against South Africa, and a second head-to-head defeat in their history against Argentina.
These results saw Eddie Jones replaced after seven years in charge, by his former assistant Steve Borthwick. But there was to be no new coach bounce, as England lost for the third time in a row against Scotland and fell 29-16 in Dublin. Though they beat Wales and Italy, a 10-53 defeat at home to France showed how far they are behind the world’s top sides. Their World Cup warm-up matches have if anything seen a further downturn in form. They split the games with Wales but were outscored 37-28 in the process, before losing 29-10 in Dublin. Worse — far worse — was to come, as Borthwick’s side suffered a first-ever defeat against Fiji — a country with a population of less than 1 million people.
Captain Owen Farrell will miss England’s first two games against Argentina and Japan. He initially received a yellow card against Wales for a high tackle. The RFU has instituted a new in-game review “bunker” and officials there upgraded Farrell’s punishment to a red card, which would bring with it a suspension. A further review reduced the sanction, which would have allowed England’s Captain to play in the opening two matches. However, World Rugby’s independent panel upgraded the sanction back to a red card, so Farrell will miss Argentina and Japan. When it comes to cards being dished out, fans should get used to yellows becoming reds and vice versa — like a set of traffic lights.
Billy Vunipola’s absence was a more straightforward one after he was sent off at the Aviva. The number 8 will also miss England’s tussle with Argentina.
Borthwick named his 33-man squad last month and many of the omissions from the squad were Exeter Chiefs. Lock Jonny Hill, centre Henry Slade, and winger Jack Nowell missed out. Borthwick seemed to have some reservations about the Chiefs. Loosehead Mako Vunipola and Number Eight Alex Dombrandt were also omitted, as was former Under-20 World Cup winner, Charlie Ewels, who missed out in the second row. One risk taken was that Billy Vunipola was the only true specialist number 8 to make the plane. Now he has suffered a suspension, England will need to press other back rows into service until he can return. Those who missed out would be advised not to plan any holidays — an average of just under two replacements get called up per World Cup squad, so some of those who were overlooked might still feature.
England have lost hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie to injury. Although Jamie George brings experience and top-notch lineout throwing, he lacks the Exeter man’s contribution in the loose. Traditionally strong in the set piece, England hasn’t really had a menacing scrum for several years, though Props Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler contribute heavily in the loose. Sinckler may find his Tighthead starting spot is given to Will Stuart or veteran Dan Cole. Maro Itoje looks nailed on for a second-row spot — the former British & Irish Lion has been one of England’s standout players, despite a propensity for giving away penalties — with Leicester’s Ollie Chessum likely to join him in the boilerhouse. England lacked natural scavengers at the breakdown for many years, but have improved in that department in recent seasons, and will be hoping Tom Curry can stay fit to help in this area. Curry was one of three Englishmen voted to the Team of the Tournament during the last World Cup. At least British & Irish Lion Courtney Lawes adds another lineout option and will bring 100 caps worth of experience to the number six shirt. It’s impossible to fault the work rate of either Ben Earl or Lewis Ludlam, who will also feature heavily in the back row, while Billy Vunipola should start from game two, onwards.
Jake van Poortvliet had been in pole position to start at nine, but an ankle injury means veteran Ben Youngs may get the nod at scrum-half. Marcus Smith brings creativity at ten, while Owen Farrell is still a fine goal-kicker and has been confirmed as Borthwick’s captain. There are plenty of x-factors but few certainties in the back three. Formerly a member of England’s under-20 Rugby World Cup winning team, Max Malins is skilful and versatile but lacks prototype speed or size. Another Junior World Cup winner, Joe Marchant is an elusive runner who could play in the centres or on the wing. When he’s been unavailable — which has been a lot of the time, Manu Tuilagi’s power and offloading ability has been missed. At least England has another powerful centre option in Ollie Lawrence to play alongside, or instead of Tuilagi. Freddie Steward has been named England Men’s Player of the Year for the past two seasons. Rock-solid under the high ball, he had looked one of the few certainties in the England side, but he may shift to the wing, with Smith coming in at fullback. It will be interesting to see how much playing time human highlight reel, Henry Arundell gets.
England’s scrum hasn’t been dominant, and England has struggled with a lack of discipline in recent years. They have improved at the breakdown, but are still not a match for the world’s best in this domain.
Anything is possible in their half of the draw. England can’t afford to take anything for granted against Argentina, Japan, or Samoa. Los Pumas beat England the last time they played them, Japan escaped the group in the last World Cup, and Martin Johnson’s 2003 World Champions were trailing Samoa at half-time in 2003. That said, England has been spared a meeting in the group phase with any of the tournament’s super heavyweights. A potential quarter-final encounter with Australia, Wales, or possibly Fiji, looks winnable, even given all the Red Rose’s problems. In 2007, England turned things around after a 36-0 defeat to South Africa in the group to become surprise finalists. Eight years later, they suffered their only group stage exit, at home. Which outcome this year’s tournament will more closely resemble is hard to say.
Pumas ready to pounce
While England fans might have been forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief at having avoided the tournament’s big hitters, Pool D is littered with potential banana skins.
Argentina against England at a World Cup. While it’s not quite the same as the Football equivalent, showcasing the best and worst of Diego Maradona, and the fall from grace and redemption of David Beckham, the meetings of these two nations in any sport add a certain frisson to things.
Participants in all nine previous renewals, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Los Pumas have twice made the Rugby World Cup semi-finals. In 2007, eventual winners South Africa ended Argentina’s journey, and eight years later, it was Australia who said adios to Los Pumas. They have escaped the group in four of the past six tournaments.
For many years, several of Argentina’s most talented players ended up singing the anthems of other nations. Great Fly-half Diego Dominguez became Italy’s top international points scorer. Aware that their own scrum lacked power, Australia imported some Argentinian beef to augment it. Enrique “Topo” Rodríguez starred for the Wallabies at the inaugural World Cup after being part of Australia’s Grand Slam-winning tourists of 1984. Unlucky with injuries close to World Cups, Patricio Noriega was another World-class prop who helped Australia to a rare Bledisloe Cup triumph in 2002. Since then, Italy has plundered one of the world’s greatest number eights in Sergio Parisse and mighty Prop Martín Castrogiovanni.
Over the past decade, Los Pumas have managed to retain their most gifted players. It has helped the national side that since 2012 they have been able to test themselves against the SANZAR nations in the Rugby Championship. Sadly, after joining Super Rugby in 2016, the Jaguares franchise found itself disbanded when South African teams left the competition led to a reshaping of the tournament. Nevertheless, Argentina’s Rugby diaspora remains a talented bunch.
And so to the current crop of Los Pumas. Their recent performances in the Rugby Championship provide plenty of encouragement. They beat Australia 34-31 in Sydney, and came within a point of South Africa, before succumbing 22-21 in Johannesburg. It was only a breakaway try that gave the Springboks breathing space. Even then Los Pumas gamely battled back with two tries before succumbing 22-21. Had it not been for Cheslin Kolbe rushing Santiago Carreras into a missed conversion, Argentina would have won. They were unable to exact revenge a week later in Buenos Aires, losing 13-24, but completed their build-up with an expected victory against Spain, winning 62-3, in Madrid. All of which leaves Argentina sitting sixth in the world rankings, two places ahead of England and more highly ranked than either Australia or Wales.
Julián Montoya will Captain the side from his hooker position. In the second row their top performer is Tomás Lavanini, who has 82 Caps and plays his club Rugby for Clermont in France’s Top 14. Blindside Pablo Matera could win his 100th Cap during the tournament if Argentina progressed, and he was the lone Argentine to make World Rugby’s Dream Team of the Year for 2022. Another player plying his trade in France, Facundo Isa is a big ball-carrying number eight.
Nicolás Sánchez pulls the strings from fly-half while Los Pumas possess two electrifying wingers. A star of the Sevens circuit, Rodrigo Isgro is likely to start opposite the similarly speedy Newcastle Falcon, Mateo Carreras. Though Sánchez can handle the kicking duties, Argentina can also call on Fullback Emiliano Boffelli in that department. Former Captain Agustín Creevy first represented Argentina way back in 2005 and — like Sánchez — will be playing in his fourth World Cup, though his role is that of a substitute these days.
The man making these selection decisions is Coach Michael Cheika. The Australian enjoyed a successful spell with Leinster between 2005 and 2010 and was in charge of The Wallabies between 2014 and 2019.
Argentina faced England in the 2011 finals, in what turned out to be a close-fought group. England edged the head-to-head encounter 13-9 but Argentina joined them in the quarter-finals courtesy of another tight encounter — a 13-12 decision over Scotland. Swapping Japan for Scotland, things could look very similar this time around and Los Pumas will hope they can progress, and that could set up a quarter-final between Michael Cheika and his mate Eddie Jones.
Japan will be hoping to throw a spanner in the works. And spanner throwing is something the Japanese have excelled at in recent Rugby World Cups.
In 2015, they became the first team not to make the knockout stages after winning three out of four group games — including their historic win over the Springboks. But with home advantage four years ago, they were not to be denied. Their fairy-tale ended at the hands of eventual champions South Africa at the quarter-final stage. That effort does reflect their only qualification out of the group but, having won only one game during their first seven RWC appearances, they have now posted seven victories over the past two renewals.
After that tournament, there were widespread calls for Japan to be welcomed into World Rugby’s inner sanctum — for them to be granted Tier One Nation status. Essentially, this would have required them to join the other Tier One teams in either the Six Nations or The Rugby Championship. Four years on, while their upgraded status continues to be discussed, to some extent they remain on the outside looking in, with neither of those competitions able to accommodate them. The game in Japan did receive a shot in the arm when, in 2016, the Japanese Sunwolves franchise was admitted to the Super Rugby tournament. They competed in the tournament until 2020 when financial difficulties brought an end to their participation (which was being made logistically difficult by the COVID pandemic in any case). At least the Japan National League has gained traction, though many teams are populated by foreign imports.
Ranked fourteenth in the latest world rankings, two places behind group rivals, Samoa, and one spot behind Italy, the reluctance to afford them Tier One status means they are left to arrange fixtures against the best of the Tier Two sides. They narrowly lost 24-22 in a dress rehearsal for their group clash with Samoa, edged Tonga 21-16, but were soundly beaten 35-12 by Fiji. Their only World Cup warm-up game saw them fall to a third defeat in four games — 42-21 against Italy.
While a team nicknamed the Brave Blossoms might not be the sport’s most intimidating moniker, no one should be underestimating Japan.
Neither should anyone underestimate Samoa. As well as stunning Wales in 1991, it should be remembered that the England team of Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Johnson et al were trailing the South Sea Islanders for over 50 minutes of their 2003 group stage match, before narrowly prevailing.
Japan and Argentina may have lost their Super Rugby franchises, but Samoan players are getting exposure to top-class Rugby in that event, playing as part of the Moana Pasifika franchise.
Although they proved no match for Fiji in the Pacific Nations tournament, Samoa comfortably beat Tonga, 34-9, and narrowly bettered Japan 24-22. They were close to pulling off a huge upset in Dublin, only losing 17-13 against the world’s number-one-ranked team. These results have helped them maintain their 12th place in the world rankings, with an almost identical score to Georgia, who sit one place above them. A hard-hitting outfit, no one will be underestimating the South Sea Islanders, though reaching the quarter-finals for the first time since 1995 would be a major achievement.
Chile likely to find Pool D too hot
Tournament debutants Chile round out Pool D and will be England’s third opponent in the tournament. The lowest-ranked team travelling to France — sitting 22nd in the latest rankings — recent form suggests they are roughly on a par with tournament also-rans Namibia and Uruguay. Los Cóndores suffered a narrow 28-26 loss against Namibia and were defeated 26-25 in Uruguay. Anything other than an early flight home for the Condors would be a major surprise.
All outcomes are possible in the Rugby World Cup. At the semi-final stage teams from what looks to be the easier half of the draw can end up facing the behemoths from the other section. In a relatively wide-open heat, it’s difficult to plot out the tournament if things “go to form”. Who would be the form selection: hosts France or New Zealand? The world’s top-ranked team, Ireland, or the resurgent Springboks?
One thing is for certain, the Rugby World Cup remains the greatest spectacle in the sport. The Six Nations will always have a special place in the hearts of its participants. The camaraderie and history of the tournament surpass that of the World Cup. The Lions Tours have an important place in international Rugby too — touring parties have always had a special role to play in the sport. As much as each Lions Tour, every four years, is huge for the teams from these isles, an opportunity to host the series, every 12 years, makes it an even bigger spectacle for the Antipodean nations. But it is just a three-game series and many of the game’s greats never get to play in it. The northern hemisphere teams must test themselves against the Antipodean heavyweights if they are to prove themselves on the global stage. You can see the tournament’s elevated kudos in the way that Eddie Jones said: “Judge me on the World Cup” — he knew it was the event that really mattered.
The powers that be in Rugby are seeking to push a new World League, with an intended launch date of 2026. This biennial event would feature the Six Nations and SANZAAR countries facing one another in a competition that would replace each nation’s summer tours and the Autumn Internationals. The term coined around this proposed league that will rankle with the Tier Two nations is ring-fenced, i.e., we want to keep you out.
Tier Two but first class
At least the Rugby World Cup provides a platform for the Tier Two teams. Otherwise, we would have been denied the spectacle of Samoa stunning Wales and Japan’s historic victory over South Africa. So many of the Rugby World Cup’s greatest moments have been provided by players from outside of Rugby’s traditional elite. In 1995, Samoa’s Brian Lima dotted down after a tremendous team move against the Italians; Fiji’s Rupeni Caucaunibuca ran rings around the Scots in 2003; born in Zimbabwe, but representing the United States, Takudzwa Ngwenya showed the great Bryan Habana a clean pair of heels four years later; Canada’s DTH van der Merwe showcased his strength and speed in a memorable try against Italy in 2015; and Kotaro Matsushima dotted down after a great Japanese move against Scotland four years ago. Tier Two, but definitely first class.
Sir Bill Beaumont went all John F. Kennedy when saying of France hosting the tournament: “It is no longer simply a case of what France can do for the Rugby World Cup, but what the tournament can do for France.” As well as the economic benefits of hosting such a global showpiece — and testing security infrastructures ahead of next year’s Paris Olympics — sporting success can help heal social wounds. Although Rugby will never have the same place in French hearts as Football, victory for the national team would provide a welcome relief from social tensions, just as the World Cup triumph of Zizou and co in 1998 came against a backdrop of social division.
Only once since 1987 has a northern hemisphere team won a Rugby World Cup. With Ireland ranked world number one and a powerful French team hosting the event, will this be the year that changes? Will the Eiffel Tower be turning red, white, and blue for Les Bleus; or will the Rainbow Nation be celebrating a fourth title? Will Irish eyes be smiling? Will England make the final, or be home before the postcards?
We began with a quote from World Cup-winning captain John Eales. The former Australian skipper was a player without flaws. As a result, his nickname was Nobody, because nobody’s perfect. None of this year’s World Cup contenders are perfect, all have flaws and doubts surrounding them. Now is the time for heroes and legends to emerge. The stage is set.