Every sport has its holy grail, but few tournaments are as emotionally demanding as the Rugby World Cup. Held every four years, the tournament is a grueling struggle akin to hiking the world’s highest mountains. The physical demands of rugby are clear, but the psychological intensity of a seven-week tournament should not be underestimated. Over the next six weeks, 20 teams will vie for the ultimate prize in world rugby. One team will prevail, but none shall leave without wounds.
The 2019 tournament was thrilling, highlighted by Japan’s arrival on the world scene. Four years later, rugby is in a typically chaotic state. The big names are the same, but problems are bubbling under the surface. Is a changing of the guard on the horizon? Over the next seven weeks, 48 matches held in the stadiums of France will give us our answers.
1. This Is The Most Open Tournament Ever
The 2023 Rugby World Cup is shaping up to be the most open and exciting in recent history. Going into the tournament, four teams stand out as potential winners, but several potential dark horses could make a significant splash. Hosts France are marginal favorites with the bookmakers, but defending champions South Africa, number one ranked Ireland, or perennially-dominant New Zealand can all make convincing arguments for that spot. Is this the most open tournament in World Cup history?
2. Will The First Match and Last Match Be The Same?
France and New Zealand never disappoint when facing off at the World Cup. The two highly-fancied sides will kick off the tournament in Paris on September 9, with many predicting that the same two teams will face off in the final on October 28. Les Bleus and the All Blacks have contested two finals in the past (the inaugural final in 1987 and a tense thriller in 2011); what price is a third championship show-down in 2023?
3. France Is The Favorite
In the eyes of many pundits, the 2023 World Cup is France’s tournament to lose. The hosts have played some exhilarating rugby over the last couple of years, and everything feels like it is falling into place ahead of the tournament. Can Les Bleus cope with the pressure? That has been a problem in the past, but this French side seems to have a steel that previous teams have lacked. Anything less than a place in the final will be a massive disappointment for Fabien Glathié’s men.
4. Can South Africa Defend The Trophy?
France might be the bookie's favorites for the 2023 World Cup, but it will take a brave soul to bet against South Africa defending the title they won in 2019. The Springboks are in ominous form, fresh off a 35-7 demolition of New Zealand at Twickenham recently.
The team’s forward group is imposing (to say the least), and the backs bring plenty of pace and energy to the table. Talismanic captain Siya Kolisi is also fit for the tournament, and it will take an impressive performance to knock the reigning champions off their perch.
5. New Zealand Is Still New Zealand
The All Blacks have spent the years since the last World Cup in a sort of transition, although a New Zealand transitional period isn’t the same as others. Of course, they remain one of the most imposing teams in world rugby.
Ian Foster’s men are somehow simultaneously favored and dismissed coming into the tournament, as that weird marriage of pedigree and recent form collides with confusing results. They aren’t the favorites, but there is a certainty about the All Blacks that is difficult to ignore.
6. No More Excuses for Ireland
Perennial underachievers at World Cups, is 2023 the year when Ireland finally performs? Andy Farrell’s men are the number one ranked side on the planet right now, and recent results and performances suggest they deserve that spot.
Still, Jonny Sexton and company have never made it to the semi-finals of a World Cup, a stunning fact when you consider the talent to have played in green over the years. If Ireland fails again in 2023, fans will wonder if World Cup failure will always be inevitable.
7. Australia in Crisis
What exactly is going on with Australia? Eddie Jones returned as coach in January 2023, replacing David Rennie, and his record currently stands at a rather grim played five, lost five. Jones recently aimed at the Australian media, accusing them of rampant negativity, but seasoned commentators view this as another attempt by Jones to create an ‘Us vs. Them’ situation.
Australia has a fantastic World Cup record and favorable draw, but will the black cloud over the team swallow them up? Watch them make it to the final because that’s what Australia does.
8. England in Disarray
If Australia is in crisis, what of England? Steve Borthwick’s reign has been a disaster so far, with five defeats in the last six matches, including a first Twickenham loss to Fiji and a home thrashing at the hands of France. Owen Farrell’s inability to learn from his mistakes means the team is without its captain at the beginning of the event.
A favorable draw means England still expects the semi-finals, but don’t be surprised if Borthwick’s charges fall at the first hurdle.
9. Wales in Transition
The last couple of years have been grim for Welsh rugby. Wayne Pivac’s reign as coach was disappointing and this season’s Six Nations campaign was marred by potential strikes and the future of Welsh rugby being questioned. Warren Gatland returned and has been hailed as a savior, but the World Cup squad is a curious mixture of untried talent and great names on their last legs. Getting out of the group would be a success for the men in red.
10. What Is Success for Scotland?
What wretched luck the Scots have. Currently ranked fifth in the world, Gregor Townsend’s charges find themselves in the most brutal group, and finding a way past Ireland or South Africa will require a perfect performance. Scotland would expect a spot in the semi-finals if they were in the other half of the draw. It is difficult to gauge what would constitute success for the men from Murrayfield.
11. Argentina Is One of The Big Boys Now
Argentina is coming into the 2023 Rugby World Cup with seriously high hopes. Los Pumas should be licking their lips ahead of the group stage, as a relatively easy draw sees them placed with an England side in disarray and a Japanese team in transition.
A quarter-final with one from Australia, Wales, Fiji, or Georgia comes next, and there is no reason why Michael Cheika’s players shouldn’t be aiming to repeat their 2015 run to the semi-finals. Anything is possible for Argentina this time around.
12. The Underdogs Are Coming
With so many big names in the bottom half of the draw struggling, several underdogs will be eyeing the knockout phase. Fiji’s recent win over England at Twickenham showed there is more to the Flying Fijians than attacking flair, while Georgia’s triumph over Wales in Cardiff last autumn signified further progress for Los Lelos. Samoa are stronger than they have been in years, while Japan and Italy are one good day away from the quarter-finals.
International rugby has been a feast or famine affair for so long, with the usual names competing the meaningful games. 2023 could be a turning point for the sport. Nobody would be shocked if Fiji or Georgia made the quarter-finals, and England’s struggles mean the same for Japan or Samoa. The 2023 Rugby World Cup could show that there are no real underdogs in modern rugby.