Will this be the undoing of the All Blacks?
OPINION: History is repeating itself. At least, that’s the impression many would get when casting their eyes over the just-announced draw for the 2023 World Cup.
Because despite the random nature of the draw, the pools for 2023 look remarkably similar to what fans bore witness to in 2019.
Focussing only on the confirmed teams at this stage, New Zealand and Italy, Ireland and Scotland, Australia, Wales and Fiji, and England and Argentina have all been drawn together in repeats of what happened last year.
The match between the All Blacks and the Azzurri was called off due to Typhoon Hagibis – but that doesn’t change the fact that the NZ/Italy combo is a staple of Rugby World Cups, with the teams squaring off at five of the tournaments to date.
Add France into the mix and we’re destined to witness the seventh World Cup clash between the All Blacks and Les Bleus.
In total, just under half of the matches played between the 12 announced teams for RWC 2023 will be repeats of what happened in 2019.
Adding the competition’s eight other nations into the mix doesn’t really spice things up considerably either.
Namibia will again be huge favourites to secure the Africa One spot, earning themselves a place in Pool A alongside New Zealand and Italy – two teams they played in 2019 (and it will be the third World Cup in a row they’ve been paired with the All Blacks).
Further, the United States will likely secure the Americas 1 spot, which will mean they’ll again find themselves in a pool with France.
Tonga will likely claim the Asia-Pacific berth – unless they can upset Samoa – and will once more be drawn with Scotland and Ireland in Pool B. Europe’s second-best qualifier will again end up in that same pool, though it would be a surprise if Russia were able to grab that spot after superior sides Romania, Spain and Belgium were all disqualified from last year’s tournament for fielding ineligible players in the qualifiers.
In Pool C, Georgia is odds-on favourites to progress as Europe One, meaning Australia, Wales, Fiji and the Lelos will all feature in the same group for a second World Cup on the trot. Australia and Wales, meanwhile, have been pool buddies since 2011.
Samoa, the likely Pacific 1 representative, will again find themselves partnered with Argentina and England in Pool D.
All in all, that likely means we’ll see fifteen matches from Japan’s 2019 Rugby World Cup repeated four years later in France.
Already, questions were being raised why the draw for the 2023 competition was taking place so early.
Other organising bodies typically wait until closer to the time before determining seedings for major events – the FIFA World Cup, for example, is scheduled to kick off a year earlier than rugby’s equivalent, but the make-up of the groups are still very much up in the air.
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COVID’s emergence has further complicated things. The seedings for 2023 were set to be based on world rankings at the end of the 2020 season but with many teams not able to play matches this year, World Rugby has instead used the rankings from this time last year to determine how the 12 automatic qualifiers are seeded.
Wales, who managed a fourth-place finish at the 2019 World Cup, has been on a downwards spiral since last year and won just twice this year – against Italy and Georgia.
Currently, they’re ranked ninth in the world and would have been classified as a band C team for the 2023 draw but based on their ranking at the end of last year, have been treated as a band A team for the purposes of the competition in France.
Whiles Wales haven’t ended up in the easiest of pools, with Australia and Fiji present, the safe money would still be on the Wayne Pivac-coached side to progress through to the quarter-finals.
Meanwhile, one of Ireland (5th in the world) or Scotland (7th) will almost certainly miss out on the knockout stages of the competition, thanks to the presence of the 2019 winners, South Africa, in their pool.
It’s perhaps a worst-case scenario – with the groups not reflecting the current state of the game, nor offering fans anything fresh to get hugely excited about.
Then again, the draw will certainly throw out a few new fixtures.
Despite competing in every tournament since the 1995 iteration, the world champion Springboks have never played Ireland at a World Cup and the match between the two green-clad sides could produce some fire, especially as the Pool B runner-up will likely face the All Blacks in a quarterfinal.
The Pool D clash between Argentina and Japan will also be eagerly awaited. The two nations perhaps boast the greatest short-term untapped potential in world rugby and have faced off just six times, with 22 tries scored over their most recent two encounters.
With Kiwi coaches Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown set to lead the Brave Blossoms until the end of 2023, their try output will continue to increase – but the abrasive Argentinians and well-disciplined English should prove tough defences for Japan to crack.
Switching attention to another Kiwi, Ian Foster is halfway through a two-year contract as All Blacks head coach and will no doubt be keeping a close eye on France as they continue to go from strength to strength.
If Foster does extend his contract next season, as many expect, then he’ll need to pull a few tricks out from his sleeves in order to bamboozle the resurgent French.
New Zealand has sometimes reverted to ‘boring rugby’ in 2020 in order to better prepare themselves for the might of the north, but as France have shown in 2020, they’re not a team who can simply be ground to death.
The New Zealand v France clash ties with Australia’s rivalries with Wales and England as the most repeated fixture in World Cup history.
The match-up hasn’t grown stale, however, despite its frequency, with the French often proving the All Blacks’ foil in knockout competitions. The loser of the game that could well be the tournament opener will likely face South Africa in the quarter-finals – adding a bit of extra heat to the battle.
Still, it’s hard to overlook the fact that there simply won’t be quite as much intrigue heading into the 2023 competition as there was when 2019 and 2015 loomed. They’re matches we’ve seen before – many, often in the last nine years – and bar a couple of tough calls over who will qualify second in Pools B, C, and D (though there are a likely pick and an outside pick in all three cases), rugby’s flagship event likely won’t throw out too many surprises in France.