Staff writer Sam Bryan looks at the hopefuls for the upcoming Rugby World Cup. This article was written and published in Roar’s 2023 September Print Edition – prior to the start of the competition.
This October, the William Webb-Ellis Cup will be claimed in Paris to crown one rugby union team as the best on earth. But which nation will achieve this?
Last tournament’s champions, South Africa, are keen to defend their title and reputation on the world rugby stage and are looking to be in a strong position at the moment. Historic powerhouse of the sport New Zealand are keen to add a seventh title to their already enormous trophy cabinet. Host nation France, who are enjoying a golden age of sport after only narrowly losing a football World Cup final and hosting the Olympics in 2024, look in excellent form after winning nine of their last ten Six Nations matches. England have removed responsibility from the legendary Eddie Jones and have placed their World Cup dreams on Steve Borthwick’s shoulders. Jones, on the other hand, aims to take his native team of Australia all the way after his near-miss last time out. And finally Ireland, current Six Nation champions, are rated very highly by the bookies – but will they overcome their quarter-final curse?
This World Cup is ramping up to be hotly contested, with no clear favourite. Up-and-coming teams like Portugal and Chile will make every stage of the competition a challenge.
England have quite the task ahead of them. They sacked coach Eddie Jones in December 2022 after a poor run of form, only claiming 5 wins from 12 tests in the year. England now face had the monumental challenge of building a World Cup winning side from the ground up in just nine months. Steve Borthwick has an even bigger personal task of following up arguably the greatest personal coaching career in England’s history. Over his whole tenure, Jones had the best test record of any England coach, boasting an astounding 73% win rate, 3 Six Nations titles and a World Cup final. Jones’ departure may over-shadow this next generation of players and have a significant impact on the character of the team.
With very little time on his hands, Borthwick must make every test match, training session and interview count in order to whip his troops into fighting condition. He did, however, struggle in this year’s Guinness Six Nations, hitting a low point by losing 10-53 against France in their third biggest defeat in history. This has not inspired much hope among England fans for the upcoming tournament. It seems that the England squad is lacking the character and drive it had in 2019, while teams like the All Blacks and Argentina are confident in the way they want to play. It still feels like there is a disconnect between Borthwick’s plans and the Jones’ legacy.
Borthwick is, however, maintaining a confident façade of confidence, stating that “this preparation we have done so far is unlike anything I have been involved in”. In the wake of the Six Nations, where England appeared almost juvenile in their defence and discipline against the well-organised Ireland and Scotland, Borthwick is evidently keen to portray an image of England as a side that is seriously prepped and ready. Attack coach Richard Wigglesworth has supported this, stating that England rugby will not attempt to mirror the England cricket strategy of ‘Bazball’ – a ‘no fear of failure’, ‘win at all costs’ mentality. Wigglesworth is instead aiming for a more ‘tactically flexible’ style of play, which requires a very well drilled and coordinated team of individuals. The organisation as a whole is clearly very aware of the hardships ahead of them and seem to be preparing accordingly. It is very easy to slam the team after their Six Nations performance earlier this year, but those juvenile performances may bloom into maturity this summer.
Down Under, Jones is currently undertaking his ‘return to the dark side’ by resuming his position as head coach of the Wallabies, undoubtedly with the aim of defeating England and gifting his new team the Webb-Ellis in a wicked act of revenge. He has revealed his plans to take the side back to ‘Australian rugby’, typically associated with a running, attack-focused style of play which emphasises the athleticism and individual flair of its players. To achieve this he is even hoping to convert Rugby League players such as Cameron Murray and Payne Haas who understand the pace, offload-style of play that he aims to install in the Wallabies.
However, Jones’ implementation of this needs work, as while they are playing the classic Aussie running style of play, the team has struggled in this year’s Rugby Championship. After a shock last minute defeat against Argentina, the historic underdogs of the competition, it was clear that the Wallabies’ discipline let them down. Conceding 14 penalties and a yellow card against the Pumas, and 13 in their previous match against South Africa, the Wallabies have proved that their impressive attack means nothing without possession of the ball. This also led to a very entertaining shot of Jones slamming his headset down like a 13 year old losing a 1v1 in Call of Duty. Yet time is on their side, as the foundations of a truly effective style of play are clear and the impending warmup games and are a significant opportunity for Jones & Co. to hone their craft.
South Africa and New Zealand, the giants of the sport, faced off in a heated battle in the Rugby Championship which could be an early indicator of what is to come. In 2023, the All Blacks defeated the Springboks 35-20; yet only last year the Boks overturned New Zealand in an impressive 26-10 display. The All Blacks can field some of the most dynamic players in the world, but the Boks are an excellent unit and are not to be messed with. These two heavyweights will quite possibly be duking it out in Paris by October – only time will tell who has the upper hand when neither side has home advantage.
Ireland, as they always seem to, are coming into the World Cup season in fine fettle. Currently ranked world number one, they have beaten France, England, Australia and South Africa in the past twelve months, as well as convincingly toppling the All Blacks in a three-match tour in 2022. After the series victory, Wales coach Warren Gatland commented that Ireland are “equipped to be considered as genuine contenders now to win [the World Cup]” – the Boys in Green then went on to prove exactly that by beating Gatland’s side by 24 points in Cardiff. Yet Ireland have never before got past the quarter final hurdle of a World Cup, despite their impressive Six Nations record. Drawn in a difficult group with South Africa and Scotland, they will hope that breaking the quarter final curse doesn’t involve being knocked out in the group.
Finally, Les Bleus. France are truly a force to be reckoned with and as the hosts of the tournament there’s an obvious level of pressure and passion behind their game. Like New Zealand, France understands how effective a good kicking game is in modern rugby and their powerhouse half-back duo Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont never fail to deliver. As players from the same club, their chemistry is unmatched. Combined with the strong running ability of wingers like Damian Penaud and the sheer strength of their centres, this French side are in a great position for the World Cup. Coming second in the most recent Guinness Six Nations, they have displayed a strong understanding of the game, elite fitness, consistent performances and cohesion between their players. Combined with home advantage and some serious individual talent, Les Bleus are on track to do very well in September.
I could talk forever about every team competing this year – sides like Argentina, Samoa and Scotland were not mentioned here but are definitely worth looking out for. This World Cup will not be one to miss with such a talented pool of teams and individuals, not to mention the excitement of having no clear favourite. I for one won’t be spending much time outside of Dover Castle (DC) this autumn, as I’m keen to see how accurate my assessment is – and of course to have a few pints in the presence of some champagne rugby.