The 2023 Rugby World Cup in France opens this week with four big favorites.
Two of those favorites, however, will pack their bags early, no later than the quarterfinals that begin the knockout phase.
Those four teams sit atop the World Rugby rankings: No. 1 Ireland; No. 2 South Africa, the defending champion; No. 3 France; and No. 4 New Zealand.
But they are clustered in two of the tournament’s four pools, A and B, and, under the World Cup format, the winner of one plays the runner-up of the other. If the teams finished the group stage according to their ranking, New Zealand would play Ireland and France would play South Africa in the first knockout matches. This happened because the draw was determined in December 2020 and is based in part on how each team finished at the 2019 World Cup.
There are contenders elsewhere in the draw capable of beating these top teams, however.
Here is a look at the teams, with their World Rugby rankings, in the four pools.
France (3), New Zealand (4), Italy (13), Uruguay (17), Namibia (21)
The World Cup’s opening match on Friday is a blockbuster event that could foreshadow its closing match, a final featuring the same teams in the same stadium. The host country, France, takes on the three-time world champion New Zealand in the Stade de France arena outside Paris.
But the loser of the match will most likely advance out of the group. History does not suggest that Italy, Uruguay or Namibia can threaten the pool’s top seeds.
France and New Zealand have squads with world-class talent at multiple positions. The creative French scrumhalf Antoine Dupont may be the best player in the world right now. On the New Zealand side, fullback Beauden Barrett — one of three Barrett brothers in the usual Kiwi starting lineup — and flyhalf Richie Mo’unga have mastered the long cross-field kick passes to players on the wing, a play that often ends in a try.
Italy has been rapidly improving, but in 15 matches, the Azzurri have never beaten or drawn New Zealand, losing by an average of 48 points. The Italians have fared only slightly better against France, winning three times but losing 44. Only one win was on French soil, and the most recent anywhere was 10 years ago.
Uruguay may threaten Italy, but it is more likely to view its Sept. 27 match with Namibia, the second-lowest-ranked team in the tournament, as its main opportunity to get a win.
Players to watch
New Zealand: Ardie Savea (No. 8), Richie Mo’unga (flyhalf)
France: Grégory Alldritt (No. 8), Antoine Dupont (scrumhalf)
Italy: Federico Ruzza (lock, flanker), Ange Capuozzo (fullback, wing)
Uruguay: Ignacio Dotti (lock), Andrés Vilaseca (center)
Namibia: Wian Conradie (flanker), Divan Rossouw (fullback, wing)
Ireland (1), South Africa (2), Scotland (5), Tonga (15), Romania (19)
Pool B can safely be called the tournament’s Group of Death. Ireland and South Africa may be two of the favorites in it to claim the Webb Ellis Cup, but a very dangerous Scotland team has recent wins over England and Wales, and its unpredictable but often brilliant flyhalf Finn Russell is a creative playmaker.
Ireland hopes to shake off its reputation of being the World Cup favorite that can’t advance past the quarterfinals: It was ranked No. 1 before the 2019 edition but dropped a pool-stage game to the host, Japan, and was demolished in the quarterfinals by New Zealand, 46-14. This year, there is uncertainty about its captain and chief playmaker, the flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, who will be coming off a multigame suspension for berating a referee and had to sit out the team’s last three warm-up games. But Ireland’s first two games are against Romania and Tonga, which should be comfortable wins and give Sexton the opportunity to become match fit.
The South Africans are known for rugged defense and a bruising forward pack. With the 2019 tournament’s top scorer, Handré Pollard, out because of a calf injury, however, the Springboks may not be as successful in goal-kicking, which could be crucial in a close match.
The team features a lot of young, speedy outside backs, including Canan Moodie, who could prove to be game changers and have made a team that often relies on a territorial kicking game and opportunistic defending more dynamic.
In addition to the dangerous Scotland, even Tonga could pull off an upset or two. Tonga, much like its neighbors from Samoa, has taken advantage of a November 2021 World Rugby eligibility rule change that allows a player to switch to the country of his birth or direct heritage if they haven’t played an official international match in three years.
So Tonga’s roster includes several former New Zealand All Blacks and Australia Wallabies, most notably Charles Piutau, Adam Coleman and Malakai Fekitoa. Israel Folau, one of the highest-scoring players in Australian rugby history, lost his place on the team in 2019 because of homophobic social media posts. He switched his allegiance to Tonga but was left off the squad because of injury.
Romania, the lowest-ranked team in the group, rounds out the pool.
Players to watch
Ireland: James Ryan (lock), Jonathan Sexton (flyhalf)
South Africa: Steven Kitshoff (prop), Cheslin Kolbe (wing, fullback)
Scotland: Richie Gray (lock), Duhan van der Merwe (wing)
Tonga: Ben Tameifuna (prop), Charles Piutau (fullback)
Romania: Mihai Macovei (flanker), Marius Simionescu (wing, fullback)
Fiji (7), Australia (9), Wales (10), Georgia (11), Portugal (16)
Though it does not have one of the pretournament favorites, Pool C may be the most competitive, with four teams ranked close to one another and no obvious front-runner. Australia has won two World Cups but is in a rebuilding phase under its new coach, Eddie Jones, and Wales, a traditional power, has gone through several recent crises, including players threatening a strike over a contract dispute. Both teams hope to right the ship, though, and qualify for the quarterfinals. Georgia and Fiji are looking for breakthrough wins to be able to claim a spot in rugby’s top tier.
Fiji overwhelmed Japan in Tokyo in August, 35-12, to clinch the Pacific Nations Cup. It won without two of its most intimidating stars, the versatile Levani Botia, who has played several of the game’s 15 positions at the highest level for his country and for the European champion, La Rochelle, and Semi Radradra, a bruising center who also can play on the wing or as a fullback and is among the top players in the English Premiership. Fiji then defeated England in London last month, one of its most impressive wins in team history.
The Flying Fijians are known for a punishing forward pack and flashy offloads to its speedy backs. A few players on the team are veterans of Fiji’s two Olympic gold medal teams in the seven-man version of rugby.
In November, Portugal snagged the final spot in the World Cup with a draw against the United States in a qualifying tournament.
Players to watch
Australia: Rob Valetini (No. 8), Marika Koroibete (wing)
Wales: Taulupe Faletau (No. 8), Josh Adams (wing)
Fiji: Sam Matavesi (hooker), Semi Radradra (center)
Georgia: Beka Gorgadze (flanker), Vasil Lobzhanidze (scrumhalf)
Portugal: Francisco Fernandes (prop), Tomás Appleton (center)
Argentina (6), England (8), Samoa (12), Japan (14), Chile (22)
England and Argentina, as the two highest-ranked in the pool, are expected to advance, but Samoa recently beat its poolmate Japan, and if the new additions of veteran former New Zealand and Australia internationals can be integrated successfully into the squad, it will be a very dangerous opponent.
Charlie Faumuina, a prop who made 50 appearances with the All Blacks, anchors the forward pack along with the flanker Steven Luatua, who played 15 times for New Zealand. Add to that two experienced flyhalves who also can play center, the former All Black Lima Sopoaga and the former Wallaby Christian Leali’ifano, and Samoa has key performers in several leadership positions.
England, the 2003 champion, has a deep lineup but comes into the tournament with issues at a few positions. Coach Steve Borthwick’s squad has only one specialist, No. 8, Billy Vunipola, and he hasn’t had many recent test matches under his belt. He also must sit out England’s opener against Argentina after receiving a red card for a dangerous tackle in a recent loss to Ireland.
Argentina has the talent to go deep into the tournament, but penalties have plagued the team, which has looked ordinary in pretournament warm-up tests. And Japan’s recent form is way off the heights of the 2019 squad, as its recent home defeat to Fiji demonstrated.
Chile is the lowest-ranked team in this year’s tournament.
Players to watch
England: Ellis Genge (prop), Freddie Steward (fullback)
Argentina: Julián Montoya (hooker), Santiago Carreras (flyhalf)
Samoa: Charlie Faumuina (prop), Christian Leali’ifano (flyhalf)
Japan: Atsushi Sakate (hooker), Naoto Saito (scrumhalf)
Chile: Martín Sigren (flanker), Rodrigo Fernández (flyhalf)