The Rugby World Cup kicks off in France on Friday with pundits pointing to a wide-open contest between four teams that are a cut above the rest. A skewed draw has placed all four sides – France, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa – in the same half of the competition, meaning they will face off as early as the pool stage.
Picking a favourite for this year’s Rugby World Cup was a tough call for the former England hooker Brian Moore, a longtime bête noire for the French. Now a sports columnist at the “Daily Telegraph”, Moore has predicted a final showdown between old rivals France and New Zealand on October 28, backing the hosts to clinch their first title on home soil.
“I don’t really like saying that,” he quipped with a grin in a video released on Wednesday. “But they do produce some very good wine.”
Most analysts agree that France’s 2023 vintage is their best yet, striking an almost perfect balance between the “French flair” of old and a tighter, more disciplined style. But the hosts are not the only team to enter the World Cup in fine form.
Ireland, who beat France to the Six Nations title this year, are also tipped to end the Southern Hemisphere’s 16-year hold on the Webb Ellis Cup. Standing in their way are three-time winners New Zealand and South Africa, the current title holders.
Those four teams have an almost equal chance of clinching the title, according to data analysts Opta, whose latest forecast gives Ireland a 21.7% probability of winning the competition, only marginally ahead of France (21.4%), South Africa (20.5%) and New Zealand (20.2%).
A quirk in the tournament draw, however, has landed all four teams in the same half of the competition, setting the stage for some tantalising clashes early on in the tournament – and meaning only two of them, at most, will get past the quarter-finals.
France (Pool A)
Will it be fourth-time lucky for the host nation? Having lost three World Cup finals already – in 1987, 1999 and 2011 – Les Bleus know better than most teams that nearly is not quite enough.
Ranked No. 3 in the world, the French have everything going for them this time: an abundance of talent, good coaching, a smooth build-up to the tournament – and home advantage.
Since former captain Fabien Galthié took over as head coach in 2020, the mercurial French have cast aside their reputation for inconsistency, amassing an impressive tally of 31 wins out of 39 games, including a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2022.
In their unbeaten run at home since November 2021, France have defeated every other team ranked in the top 10, starting with a 40-25 thumping of New Zealand – whom they face in the tournament’s opening match on Friday, September 8.
Injury to flyhalf Romain Ntamack has robbed the home team – and the tournament – of one of their stars, but the squad’s strength in depth means Galthié still has plenty of options. Add in the world’s best player in scrum-half Antoine Dupont, Les Bleus’ poster boy and leader, and this tournament is France’s to lose.
France won the 2022 Six Nations rugby tournament. © Pierre-René Worms
New Zealand (Pool A)
Rugby’s perennial favourites, New Zealand have opted to play just one test match in the run-up to the World Cup – a move that backfired spectacularly after they were humbled by defending champions South Africa in a 35-7 drubbing at Twickenham in London.
That match was intended to get the squad battle-ready ahead of the World Cup opener against France. Instead, it revived the doubts that had dogged the All Blacks throughout a lacklustre 2022.
“We got squeezed and exposed,” New Zealand coach Ian Foster acknowledged after the humiliating defeat. “Maybe this will take a lot of heat off us. No one will rate us now.”
Still, the jarring loss at Twickenham may be little more than a hiccup for the All Blacks, coming just weeks after they cruised to a third consecutive Rugby Championship title – the southern hemisphere equivalent of the Six Nations – with victories over Argentina, Australia and the same Springboks.
That’s how the bookmakers see it: most still have the All Blacks as slight favourites to go all the way in France and become the first team to win four World Cup titles.
Ireland (Pool B)
Like the host nation, Ireland has their best chance yet of winning a World Cup – and ending a miserable run that has seen them fail to get past the quarter-finals at all past editions.
The World Cup’s great underachievers have been ranked No. 1 in the world since July 2022, a ranking they vindicated in style by cruising to a Six Nations Grand Slam earlier this year.
Back-to-back wins against the All Blacks on New Zealand soil last summer have also dispelled any inferiority complex among coach Andy Farrell’s players, whose run-up to the World Cup included a 29-10 demolition of England in Dublin.
Read more key numbers for the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France
The Irish will be brimming with confidence following the return of talismanic flyhalf Johnny Sexton, 38, who is back from injury and a three-match suspension. They also have the 2022 World Player of the Year in flanker, Josh van der Flier.
If there is a doubt it involves the team’s depth. A tricky clash against Samoa last week suggested the Irish bench is still a notch below the first-choice team, a potential weakness that could turn into a major worry as they face bruising contests against the Springboks and resurgent Scotland in Pool B, the so-called “group of death”.
South Africa (Pool B)
While Ireland has consistently underachieved on the World Cup stage, South Africa has done the exact opposite, winning all three finals they contested – including the last one played on French soil, in 2007.
One reason for the Springboks’ success is their knack for moving into top gear just when it matters. Their crushing defeats of Wales (52-16) and New Zealand, in the run-up to this World Cup, suggest they have once again hit form at the right time.
The two warm-up games coincided with the return of South Africa’s inspirational captain Siya Kolisi, just months after he underwent knee surgery. He is now hoping to equal New Zealand’s Richie McCaw, the only player to have captained his team to back-to-back World Cup titles (in 2011 and 2015).
As always, South Africa boasts a fearsome pack capable of breaking down the toughest opponents. They also have a wealth of backs that provide attacking options aplenty.
Like Ireland, the Springboks will be wary of the threat from Scotland, whom they face in their opening match on September 10, with a tricky test against Tonga also looming after their showdown with Ireland on September 23.