This weekend sees the start of the 2023 Rugby World Cup (Men’s) in France. The tournament kicks off on Friday night with what should be an absolutely cracking game with the greatest rugby nation in history New Zealand taking on the hosts in Paris. But the uninitiated may be asking, who is good at rugby, who should we support? And everyone is asking, who will win the World Cup? So here’s a brief rundown (take notes, Jim) of the favourites and likely protagonists in the fight for the trophy.
This will be the 10th edition of the premier tournament in Rugby Union and one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Despite being a relatively young tournament for one of the oldest major sports of the world, with the first edition only in 1987, the Web Ellis Cup is one of the most prized trophies in global sport. New Zealand and South Africa have won the most World Cups, with 3 each. Indeed, the last time another team won was 20 years ago, when England took a historic win over two-time winners Australia.
To get a fuller picture of the teams that perform the best at world cups, I ranked nations based on their historical world cup performances, with points assigned based on the tournament result. The champions get 15, runners-up 10, 3rd place 8, 4th get 6, 4 for reaching the quarters, 2 for third in the pool stages, and 1 for the remaining participants. (This works well except for 1999, where there was a different format with 5 groups of 4). This is what we get.
New Zealand, with their 3 World Cup wins, top these charts and they are perhaps the greatest Rugby nation in the world. They have only ever lost 1 game before the semi-final stage. The All Blacks (as the NZL team is known - due to their black jerseys) have often been seen as the ultimate challenge in world rugby, with an awesome aura that the world respects and the highest expectations of themselves. the All Blacks consistently generate some of the greatest legends the game has ever seen, including the widely regarded GOAT in Jonah Lomu, the all-time top points scorer in international rugby in Dan Carter, and the player of the last decade in Richie McCaw, to name just a few. South Africa (aka the Springboks) are not far behind in the annals of rugby history. They too have 3 world cups to their name and perhaps the greatest World Cup story for their home win in 1995 (refer to film Invictus). Indeed, the only reason why they find themselves below Australia in those rankings is that they could not participate in the first 2 tournaments (because of apartheid - again, Invictus for reference). But Australia too have wonderful World Cup pedigree, with two trophy wins, completing the traditional 'big 3' in world rugby.
Who will win this time around? Will NZ and SA continue their dominance? Or will we crown a new champion in 2023?
Who are the favourites?
Well, the short answer is: France…and Ireland...and South Africa...and New Zealand.
What has everyone extra hyped for this world cup is the fact that there is no clear favourite. You can (and many have) make a very good argument for any of these four teams going on to win the big prize, and none are teams you want to bet against. New Zealand are best World Cup nation in history (more on this later), France have the home advantage and Antoine Dupont, probably the best player in world. But Ireland are world no. 1, and South Africa are the defending champions. Any of them could win, I couldn’t tell you who. What I can say with confidence is that it would be a big shock if a different team won. The next best team is Scotland but they would have to overcome 3 of these 4 just to make the semi-final.
The All Blacks are a very dangerous attacking unit, with their perennial supply of world-class players such as Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, and Ardie Savea. But perhaps not as defensive solid as some others, this squad has actually had a very inconsistent last couple of seasons by All Blacks' high standards. They make the list of favourites largely on the merit of being the All Blacks rather than on recent form. Still, they can beat any team on their day and they know what it takes to go all the way.
South Africa are the defending champions with their impressive win in 2019 and bring many seasoned members of that squad back to retain their title. But going back-to-back is no mean feat at the rugby World Cup; it has only been done once, by the All Blacks in 2015. And they have not had the greatest results this year. However, they were not overwhelming favourites last time out either, and their long-term objective was in fact to target winning this World Cup with the previous one meant to build towards it. They exceeded expectations then, and the expectations are even higher now. They also come into the tournament off the back of a dominant victory over New Zealand.
France have played some scintillating rugby over the last two years, and come in possibly as the slight favourites from the top 4 with the benefit of playing at home. Led by probably the best player in the world right now, Antoine Dupont (who can apparently do everything), this team will be hungry to finally lift the Web Ellis Cup in front of a home audience. They have come oh-so-close on many occasions, reaching 3 finals, but the big prize has eluded them. Side-note, two of those losses came to New Zealand, which should make the opener between the two an absolute cracker, especially since France are the only team to have beaten New Zealand before the semis, in the quarters in 2007. Now, they play at home with perhaps the best ever French squad. Has their time finally come?
The biggest surprise of the historical rankings above is how low Ireland is in 9th, but that reflects the unfortunate fact that Ireland always seem to underperform at the World Cup. They are yet to prove themselves on the sport's biggest stage. They have never made it past the quarter-finals losing each of the seven times they have reached there. But they are the number one team in the world going into the tournament, and they have had. a nearly flawless last 18 months or so. They are on a 14-game winning streak, their last loss coming in February 2022 (to France). They even won the Six Nations this year, beating France in the process. They play very skilful, creative, intricate rugby and they have a very strong all-around team. If anyone can turn things around for Ireland's World Cup history, it is this squad. Will they finally upturn their historical narrative? Or will the pressure tell in the toughest pool at the tournament?
These 4 are the pre-tournament favourites, and it will be fascinating to see them battle it out. The cherry on top: all 4 are on the same side of the draw, which means the battle between these teams starts on day 1. The upshot: only 2 of them can make it to the semi-finals.
Here are the pools for the group stage:
And here’s how that shakes up into the knockout games:
The draw for the 2023 Rugby World Cup has fans on tenterhooks and experts scratching their heads even before the competition starts.
As you can see, all the top four teams (five with Scotland) are on the same side of the draw in pools A and B. This should make for an extremely exciting pool stage because it means we will have two matches in France v New Zealand and South Africa v Ireland that are good enough to be the final. It means at least one of the top 5 teams in the world will not make it out of their group. And on the weaker side of the draw (certainly according to world rankings, anyway), it means we have some of the most competitive pools ever, because almost any of the teams can progress, so every game counts. After that, the pool A & B teams play each other in the quarters, so we could have another two battles between the favourites to win it all. This also means only two of the top five can make it to the semi-finals, where they will finally encounter the best of C & D. We could then have two of the favourites meet again in the final, but we could also have two underdogs there.
Scotland have drawn the short straw with these pools. Despite having their best squad in years, they find themselves in the pool of death, needing to oust either the defending champions or the best team in the world just to reach the quarter-finals. But if anyone can pull off such an upset, it is probably Scotland, who enter the tournament in fine form off the back of two mightily close games against France, which were split one apiece. They are one of the most exciting teams in the tournament, with star players like Finn Russell and Duhan van Der Merwe making them capable of the most spectacular tries. They have a difficult World Cup ahead of them, but they may just be up to the task.
The notable omissions from this list of favourites are England and Australia, both traditional powerhouses of the sport, both runners-up in the previous two competitions, but both going through a rough patch of form since the last tournament. England looked to build on reaching the final in 2019 to work towards winning the 2023 tournament with head coach Eddie Jones. However, they struggled to find that World Cup form and Jones was sacked in the end of 2022. The change in coach did not change results, however, and they continue to struggle in the run-up to the tournament. They cannot seem to avoid getting yellow and red cards. However, they have a formidable defence when they fire so they will look to find their best in France. Australia were also unhappy with their form at the end of last year, so the Wallabies brought in the same Eddie Jones as head coach in early 2023. But he has yet to win a match since taking charge; Australia have lost all 5 matches they have played this year. That is not the sort of record you want to take into a world cup. However, Eddie Jones is a world cup specialist and always seems to have a trick up his sleeve for the quadrennial. His teams usually do something historic at world cups (e.g. Japan’s upset of South Africa in 2015) so don’t rule Australia out entirely. However, he normally has far longer than 9 months to prepare, and recent results have not shown any such promise.
The bad form of Australia and England could mean an opportunity for smaller teams on the rise such as Fiji and Argentina, on that side of the draw. Both teams go into the tournament playing excellent rugby and in great form, with Fiji beating England for the first time in their most recent match. Both are exciting teams which have a wonderful opportunity to get out of their pools, so they are certainly worth watching.
The All Blacks win a 4th World Cup. I cannot justify it, I am very biased because they are my favourite team. But they know how to get it done on the big stage. But what I think (hope) will happen is that they will win a close-fought final based on the ability of talents like Barrett, Will Jordan and Rieko Ioane to weave some magic. I think they will face Ireland or France in the final.