We look at five stories to keep across throughout the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, including Ireland’s greatest team, Les Bleus as favourites, England to go far? Fijian darkhorses, and Springbok aims.
Ireland: Their greatest team, but toughest draw?
Andy Farrell’s Ireland enter the World Cup as the world’s No 1 ranked side, and on a run of 13 consecutive Test victories.
Many are tipping them to achieve something special, but if they are to do so, they are going to have to come through the mother and father of all routes to do so.
Off the back of a dismal World Cup record, which has never seen them progress beyond the quarter-finals, Ireland are in 2023’s Pool of Death, alongside defending world champions South Africa and world No 5 ranked Scotland, the latter of whom are playing their best rugby in years.
If Ireland are to come through that, then their quarter-final will likely see them face either hosts France or three-time winners New Zealand, before a potential semi-final meeting with the much weaker (on paper at least) side of the draw where England, Australia, Wales, Argentina and Fiji lie.
The men in green could not be in better form, though, having clinched a sensational Six Nations Grand Slam in 2023, in addition to a 2-1 series Test victory against the All Blacks on Kiwi soil, and victories over South Africa, Australia and Argentina in Dublin.
Put simply, this is Ireland’s greatest ever squad but their toughest ever World Cup draw. Another quarter-final exit is more than possible, but so is them going all the way.
Is it finally France’s time? | Dupont the player to watch
Looking back at Rugby World Cups in 1987, 1999 and 2011, France finished as runners-up on each occasion, in addition to three further semi-final exits, with Les Bleus never having won rugby’s greatest prize.
England remain the only northern hemisphere nation to lift the World Cup, doing so in 2003, and it is arguably France who have experienced the most heartache of any side.
France defeated co-hosts and fancied Australia to make the 1987 final, only to lose heavily to the All Blacks, and beat overwhelming favourites New Zealand in a stunning 1999 semi-final, only to lose the final to the Wallabies. In 2011, they faced hosts New Zealand in the final, and were the better side, suffering defeat due to the refereeing of Craig Joubert to a large extent.
Past failures and disastrous campaigns in 2015 and 2019 are well forgotten about on the eve of this tournament, though, as France enter it under Fabien Galthie as favourites, with home advantage sure to be key.
In Antoine Dupont, they have the premier performer in the world, and a scrum-half who led them to a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2022, and Test victories over New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina.
Borthwick’s floundering England: Might they go far?
Eddie Jones had reached the end of his spell in charge of England by most people’s reckoning when he was dismissed in December 2022, but in terms of results and performance, there’s a strong argument Steve Borthwick has done even worse.
The 43-year-old’s 2023 Six Nations campaign saw no improvement on Jones’ displays as they finished fourth after defeats to Scotland, France and Ireland. They also suffered disastrous World Cup warm-up defeats last month to Wales, Ireland and Fiji – the latter a history-maker at Twickenham which saw them slip to eighth in the world rankings.
Yet, for all their poor form and negative brand of rugby, the luck of the draw has meant England could have a relatively straightforward run to the semi-finals, bizarrely.
Drawn in the weakest World Cup group, Pool D, England need only see off Japan – who are a shadow of their 2019 side – and Samoa to progress alongside Argentina. Beat the Pumas and England will likely face Wales in the quarter-finals, whose form has been even worse than England’s over the last couple of years.
Even if England lose to Argentina but progress, they will likely face Australia, who have hardly been in great nick themselves under the aforementioned Jones, losing heavily to New Zealand, South Africa and France recently, and at home to Argentina.
Therefore, England may be producing displays the worst of which many supporters have ever seen at Twickenham, but they could quite feasibly make the World Cup semi-finals, and at that stage, who knows?
Fiji a dark horse?
When the pool stage draw was made for this World Cup around 1,000 days ago, and Fiji were placed into Pool C with Australia and Wales, there would have been long odds on the Islanders being the highest-ranked side of the three on the cusp of the tournament.
Yet, while Jones’ Wallabies and Gatland’s Wales have lost regularly, Fiji have steadily climbed the rankings to now sit seventh in the world, after victories over Tonga, Samoa, Japan and England, in addition to pushing France in eventual defeat.
Australia have slipped to ninth in the world, and Wales a place lower in 10th.
Some of the talent Fiji have at their disposal in backs Semi Radradra, Josua Tuisova, Waisea Nayacalevu and Selesitino Ravutaumada, as well as forwards Levani Botia, Viliame Mata and Albert Tuisue, mark them out as an exceptionally dangerous side, and one to keep an eye on, for sure.
Indeed, there was growing consensus they were going to progress from Pool C, but the enormously untimely knee injury suffered by influential fly-half Caleb Muntz may check that a touch. Even still, don’t write them off. Their opening clash against Wales in Bordeaux is set to be huge.
Can South Africa retain the crown?
The Springboks may be the joint-most successful nation in Rugby World Cup history – level with New Zealand on three titles each – but 2023 would be an altogether different achievement.
There can be no denying that though South Africa had massively talented squads in 2007 and 2019 en route to victories, their paths to success were kind.
In 2007, they faced an unheralded Fiji in the quarter-finals and Argentina in the semis, before beating a distinctly average England in the final. In 2019, having lost to New Zealand in the pools, they were fortunate to land Japan in the quarters, and then a Wales side riddled with injuries in the semis, before producing their best display of the entire tournament to beat England in the final.
Even in their 1995 World Cup triumph on home soil, the Boks faced Western Samoa in the quarter-finals, and ultimately a New Zealand side which had suffered a bout of food poisoning the night before in the final.
In 2023, they are on the tough side of the draw, and must get past Ireland, Scotland and one of France or New Zealand to even make the semi-finals. A vastly different proposition. Can they do it?