The time is ripe with Dupont the French catalyst
TOURNAMENT PREVIEW: Dynamic scrumhalf Antoine Dupont will lead France into a home World Cup with hopes high that he can spark a first Northern Hemisphere victory in 20 years in the sport’s quadrennial showpiece.
The last – and only – team from the Six Nations to win the World Cup was England in 2003, when an extra-time drop-goal by Jonny Wilkinson sealed victory in Sydney over an Australian side coached by Eddie Jones.
Since then, the trophy has remained firmly in the South Hemisphere: South Africa won in 2007 and 2019, while New Zealand triumphed in 2011 and 2015.
The time seems ripe for France, however, with Dupont key to a resurgence under coach Fabien Galthié, who has employed eye-pleasing tactics based around free-running backs and a disciplined pack.
While the loss of flyhalf Romain Ntamack to injury is a blow, France boasts a deep squad with consistency in selection often missing in previous campaigns.
“We’ve never been so well prepared,” Dupont told AFP.
“We have won 80 percent of our matches and the Six Nations in 2022.
“We have a promising generation of talented players who have gained experience and continuity in the backbone of the team. That hasn’t been the case over the last 10 years.
“So all systems are go. What’s more, we’re lucky enough to be hosting the competition, so we’re hoping for public support.”
The last major global sports event on French soil before next year’s Paris Olympics will be held in nine venues across France, which previously hosted the 2007 World Cup and also staged several matches as joint hosts of the 1991 edition.
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All eyes will be on a dream start to the tournament when France play the three-time world champion All Blacks at the Stade de France on Friday: it is a match-up many pundits predict could go full wheel to be the final, at the same stadium, on October 28.
A defeat for France would not spell disaster, however. New Zealand beat South Africa in the 2019 opener in Japan, but it was the Springboks who went on to beat England in the Final.
“What could be better than New Zealand?” asked Galthié.
“This is a team that hasn’t lost a match in the pool phase since the World Cup began. Ever. 31 wins.
“This is a team that has three World Cup titles to its name.
“We’re so happy to be playing them.
“Friday’s match is a celebration, a joy, a great joy for us. It’s wonderful.”
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont added: “It was 200 years ago that our sport was born and there can be no better place to celebrate our birthday than here in France.”
Fijian dark horses
For all of France’s form, they are not the current Six Nations Grand Slam champions. That accolade was last claimed by Ireland, who come into the competition as the world’s number one ranked side.
Talismanic flyhalf Johnny Sexton will be back to skipper Andy Farrell’s side after serving a ban for abusing referee Jaco Peyper after Sexton’s Leinster were defeated by La Rochelle in the Champions Cup Final.
Defending champions South Africa, skippered by Siya Kolisi, handed out a record 35-7 defeat of New Zealand in both sides’ final warm-up match, a timely reminder that on their day the Springboks have few equals.
Coach Jacques Nienaber has quality oozing through his squad, from Kolisi at flank to indefatigable scrumhalf Faf de Klerk to the famed ‘bomb squad’ of replacement forwards deployed en masse in the second half of games.
While the All Blacks were made to suffer by the Boks, coach Ian Foster was blunt when asked if he thinks New Zealand can win the World Cup.
“I do. It’s a well-tested group that’s gone through a lot of adversity, stayed tight and found solutions,” he said.
As for Australia, it is a mixed bag. Eddie Jones, back in charge of the Wallabies after leaving England, axed veteran skipper Michael Hooper and flyhalf Quade Cooper and brought in a host of youngsters. He handed the captaincy to giant La Rochelle lock Will Skelton.
A tough pool awaits, much like in 2015 and 2019, when the Wallabies also played Wales and Fiji, many pundits’ pick as dark horses for the tournament, notably after their historic 30-22 victory over England last month.
As for England, beaten finalists in 2019, Steve Borthwick has overseen six defeats in nine matches since taking over from Jones.
“We’ve seen signs of growth in certain areas and other areas have dropped off but Saturday is about building and bringing this together,” Borthwick said of their crucial opening game against Argentina.
Skipper Owen Farrell and No 8 Billy Vunipola will be missing after bans for dangerous tackles, and referees in general will be under intense pressure to take action against offenders as part of the crackdown on head injury-related shocks.