Paul Williams casts his eye over the favourites to lift the Webb Ellis trophy
The Rugby World Cup has of course been around since 1987. But the 2023 edition feels like the first truly global Rugby World Cup in that there are more than two teams that can win it.
In previous years the tournament has always felt a bit like a wedding. Plenty of people get to attend, have a bit of fun, but only a couple of people have a chance of achieving anything meaningful when it’s all over.
Read more: Rugby World Cup fixtures
But this year it feels different. This feels more like a Mormon wedding with at least four in with a chance. New Zealand are of course one of the four that can do it. They always are. Even having had one of their weaker RWC cycles (by their standards), they still have the depth to win the lot. The bulk of their tight five may be coming to the end of its sell by date, but there’s still enough in there to keep parity and they’re never short of tens and outside backs.
Then you have France, who are not only playing at home, but arguably have a squad that is as deep as it has ever been. The French tight five is almost Springbok-esque in its mass and their back row are arguably the best trio in the world. Plus, they have Dupont, who even at such a young age, is pretty much the best player I have ever seen play live. Watching him play for Toulouse in Cardiff was like watching a computer game made real and for moments had me questioning whether my pint of Guinness had been spiked with DMT.
Then you have South Africa, who remain the benchmark for Test-level forwards. They have more mass than a black hole and are able to select more Test-quality tight heads than any squad in the world. But it is at lock where they really excel, with more ‘rows’ than an actual spreadsheet. It doesn’t really matter if the Boks have problems at ten. With a pack like that, a couple of decent centres, and a bit of gas on the wing, they have plenty to win the RWC.
Then we have the number one team in the world, Ireland. Who have had arguably the most impressive World Cup cycle of all the four favourites and have enviable squad depth in every position except ten – although Jack Crowley may have something to say about that. Ireland’s situation at outside half is of course made even more intriguing given Johnny Sexton’s upcoming appearance in front of a disciplinary panel, where his inaudible words to the Champions’ Cup officials will be brought into everyone’s earshot.
Is this a global Rugby World Cup?
Beneath the favourites there is a solid layer of hopefuls who may not win the RWC but could cause some major problems. Having England, Australia and the Pumas as the ‘second tier’ teams in the competition proves just how strong this year’s tournament is. You could also add Scotland into that bracket given their improvements over the past 18 months.
But what makes the 2023 tournament the most competitive ever, is the standard of the Pacific Islands since they’ve been allowed to pick players who have returned from previous tier one nations.
The new law change was received with some scepticism and the selection of Jean Kleyn, by South Africa, possibly strengthens this viewpoint. But overall, the change has benefited the PI nations hugely and that’s what it was created to do.
The PI nations have always been more competitive during the RWC, due to the extended training periods which they rarely get to benefit from. But the new wider selection pool afforded to them has now turned them from banana skins on which to be tripped, into massive oil slicks.
Just look at Tonga, they are able to select Former All Blacks Vaea Fifita, Augustine Pulu, Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa and George Moala. On top of that, former Wallabies Lopeti Timani and Israel Folau (complete with his medieval ways) are available.
And then there’s Fiji, who while maybe not benefitting as much from the new law tweak, have a squad that on paper looks like it can shred anyone. To have Semi Radradra casually listed as a utility player is almost taking the piss, in a beautiful way.
Even if the newly strengthened PI nations don’t cause any major upsets, they will no longer be teams against which you can potentially rotate your squad and protect your best players or those nursing injuries. If you’ve got a PI nation in your group in 2023, you’re basically backs to the wall for the whole group stage and your kitman better start ordering ‘strapping’ by the ton, not the roll.
Related: Wales Rugby World Cup squad
Then there are teams like Italy, Georgia, Wales and Japan. Who may seem ‘minnowy’ in the grander scheme of things, but are not exactly gimmies. Especially Italy, whose backline can seemingly score from anywhere and often require 21+ points to bury.
And let’s not forget the added spice that World Rugby’s proposed new league system will have added. In fact it’s added more than spice, it’s pure capsaicin. With most of the tier two nations seemingly locked out of playing any tier one nations until 2030, this RWC will be a chance for those nations to express their views via the medium of big hits and carries (legal of course).
This RWC is going to be the most competitive of all time, for any number of reasons. And it’s going to be awesome.
Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.