Why upcoming World Cup is set to be the most competitive yet
YEAR-END REVIEW: Tournament hosts France head into next year’s Rugby World Cup as favourites but an enthralling series of November internationals suggests the 2023 edition could be the most competitive yet.
France, Ireland and reigning champions South Africa are the leading contenders, but multiple former winners New Zealand and Australia are proven tournament performers.
The French have yet to win the World Cup, having lost three finals.
And when they staged the 2007 edition, Les Bleus were twice beaten by Argentina as the Pumas finished third.
France, however, are now more defensively resilient under coach Fabien Galthie, but still with plenty of traditional attacking, although even a talented squad would be hampered were star halfbacks Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack to be injured.
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France’s year-ending 35-17 defeat of Japan was their 13th consecutive Test victory, a sequence including a 2022 Six Nations Grand Slam and narrow wins this month over Australia and South Africa.
“It’s not perfect, we have to work more and continue to do what we did this Autumn,” said France No 8 Gregory Alldritt.
“[We must] keep our feet on the ground by not thinking we’re something we’re not.”
South Africa, without several first-choice players for a match outside of the November window, still ended the year with a comprehensive 27-13 win over England, their well-beaten opponents in the 2019 World Cup Final in Japan, at Twickenham on Saturday.
Emerging wing Kurt-Lee Arendse scored a seventh try in as many Tests, with a talented back division given a chance to shine by a typically strong Springbok pack.
“It is not that much of a difference but we are just seeing opportunities which we didn’t in the past,” said South Africa captain Siya Kolisi.
Ireland’s 13-10 win over Australia this month meant they became the first team since England in 2002 to defeat the All Blacks, the Springboks and the Wallabies in a calendar year.
England went on to win the 2003 World Cup but Ireland have yet to make a semifinal.
But an ‘ugly’ win over Australia, achieved without veteran flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, prompted Ireland coach Andy Farrell to say: “We found a way and that’s what good sides do when they’re not at their best.”
England, captained by Farrell’s son, Owen, had a poor November, their only win coming against an outmuscled Japan.
They were beaten first-up by World Cup pool opponents Argentina and were well behind New Zealand before, from 19 points down with 10 minutes left, snatching an improbable 25-25 draw.
Yet if they reverse the Argentina result in France, they could walk the same path to the final as they did Japan, where England beat Australia and New Zealand in the quarter and semifinals respectively.
Jones’ ‘imperfect’ plan
England coach Eddie Jones, for whom 2019 was his third involvement in a World Cup final, insisted after Saturday’s match: “I’ve got a plan for how England can win the World Cup, but it doesn’t go in a perfect line.”
As for New Zealand, their draw with England sealed a year where coach Ian Foster almost lost his job following defeats by Ireland and Argentina.
“We played some great rugby and in our mind, we should have walked away with a win and we didn’t get it in that last 10 [minutes],” said Foster, who earlier in November nearly oversaw the All Blacks’ first loss to Scotland.
Consistency remains an issue for Argentina, their 30-29 win over England followed by a 13-20 defeat by Wales.
Australia endured a brutal November schedule of five Tests in as many weeks, including a surprise loss to Italy, and a raft of injuries meant the Wallabies struggled to field a matchday 23 against Wales.
Yet they still came from 34-13 down after 58 minutes to score 26 unanswered points for a remarkable 39-34 win on Saturday.
“I guess we could have lost all five or won all five, that’s the sort of tour it’s been,” said Australia coach Dave Rennie.
For Wales, another Cardiff collapse came straight after their shock 12-13 loss to Georgia and meant they had won just three of 12 Tests this year, with coach Wayne Pivac facing an uncertain future.