2023 Rugby World Cup: Group Stage Preview
With the 10th edition of the 20-team Rugby World Cup about to begin in France, SportsLook presents a preview of the monthlong group stage.
GLASGOW ― Has it really been four years since Japan hosted the world in 2019 for the quadrennial rugby bonanza? It has, and the end of another four-year cycle in rugby leaves us just hours away from the kickoff of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
France hosts this time as the 20 best men's international teams compete to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Defending champion South Africa will look to emulate its classic run to glory from four years ago.
France is the favorite for many, but how will it cope with the expectation? Will playing at home be an advantage or a burden?
The two other serious contenders for the trophy are current Six Nations champion Ireland and 2023 Rugby Championship victor New Zealand.
Outside of these four very strong teams we have dark horses Scotland, Argentina and Fiji ― as good as anyone on their day, but plagued by inconsistent moments which are costly at the highest level.
Traditional rugby powers England, Australia and Wales are all rebuilding at the worst possible time and could struggle to make an impact.
Tournament Overview and Format
The format of this year's Rugby World Cup is the same as previous tournament editions. All 20 were drawn into four groups of five. The top two teams in each group will advance to the quarterfinals.
From there, it is knockout play. Quarterfinals followed by semifinals until we have two teams left standing to play the final at Stade de France, Paris, on October 28.
Nine of France's finest sporting stadiums have been prepared ahead of hosting 48 matches across 51 days.
With each team playing four group matches, the group stage lasts exactly one month. It commences with a mouthwatering Group A fixture between France and New Zealand on Friday, September 8 and concludes on October 8.
After that, the knockout stages will capture our attention on the following two weekends, before we reach the aforementioned finale.
It's a long, attritional tournament. Often the winning team is the one which has the most luck with injuries. Squad strength is vitally important. Injuries are, sadly, inevitable.
Some Big Names Ruled Out Before the Tournament
Speaking of injuries, some of the game's best players have unfortunately been ruled out of the Rugby World Cup before a ball has been kicked.
The most high-profile casualty is France starting fly-half Romain Ntamack. A ruptured ACL will prevent us from enjoying his talents during the tournament.
Wales will be missing experienced hooker Ken Owens. A back injury rules him out.
South Africa looks like it will need to do without outstanding fly-half Handre Pollard, world-class center Lukhanyo Am and lock Lood de Jager. The trio did not make the final selection but are on a stand-by list so they might play a part in the latter part of the competition.
Italy has a bit of an injury crisis as it is deprived of the services of center Tommaso Menoncello, fullback/winger Edoardo Padovani, fly-half Leandro Marin and hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi.
Prop Cian Healy misses out for Ireland while England needs to do without the services of fullback/winger Anthony Watson and scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet.
Argentina will miss prop Ignacio Calles.
Australia needs to get on with things minus center Len Ikitau and prop Allan Alaalatoa.
Fiji fly-half Caleb Muntz will miss the entire tournament after sustaining a knee injury in training earlier this week. That is a blow to the Flying Fijians.
Will Japan Repeat 2019 Heroics?
After fully announcing itself on the world stage four years ago with its run to the quarterfinals, Japan muscled its way into international rugby's top tier.
Since then, it has struggled to maintain the standard. Results suggest the Brave Blossoms have regressed.
While Joseph's squad contains 13 players who represented the jersey with such panache four years ago, opponents no longer underestimate Japan.
In a way, Japan has been a victim of its success on home soil in 2019 ― opponents are now more focused and better prepared when facing the Brave Blossoms.
Japan has won only one test match this year and just four of 18 since the last World Cup. Typically, the Brave Blossoms have had issues at set pieces, a problem which makes winning at this level almost impossible. To make matters worse, poor discipline and substandard goalkicking have also crept in.
Despite this, there is hope for Japan in France. It has been drawn in a wide open Group D. Opponents England, Argentina, Chile and Samoa are all looking for what works best for them.
Japan needs to up its level. But if it does, fans of the Brave Blossoms may just have a quarterfinal encounter to look forward to.
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Group Information and Predictions
The draw for the Rugby World Cup took place in Paris in December 2020. Teams were seeded based on the world rankings at that moment in time. Over the almost three years since, rankings have changed leaving all the current top seeds in Groups A and B.
The groups and current world rankings are listed below.
France (3), Italy (13), Namibia (21), New Zealand (4), Uruguay (17)
Big Two of France and New Zealand Should Be Comfortable
The other teams drawn into this group can consider themselves unfortunate as France and New Zealand will not slip up here.
One of them will lose the opening fixture to the other, but from there they will sail past the remaining opponents to take their place in the knockout stages.
France and New Zealand will go into opposite sides of the knockout bracket, setting up a chance for a rematch in the final.
Namibia came through the African qualifying tournament and will compete in its seventh World Cup.
Uruguay negotiated the Americas qualification tournament and will look to build on the famous upset win it scored over Fiji four years ago.
Italy is improving year on year in the Six Nations. It is no longer the pushover it once was. With a better draw it could have hoped for a quarterfinal berth. As it stands, it would take something remarkable for it to emerge from Group A.
Group A Prediction: France and New Zealand to advance.
Ireland (1), Romania (19), Scotland (5), South Africa (2), Tonga (15)
A Top Team Will Exit At The Group Stage
World Rugby sees its policy of conducting a draw three years in advance resulting in three of the top five teams in the current rankings fighting it out for two qualification places.
It's not ideal, but the teams involved need to get on with it.
While Tonga shouldn't be written off, it does look like a straight fight between South Africa, Ireland and Scotland to get through to the knockout phase.
Romania, making its ninth appearance, will battle hard but will lose all four of its fixtures.
Ireland, winner of the 2023 Six Nations tournament in style in March, look primed for a run at the trophy. It is well worth its current world No 1 ranking.
South Africa is by far the most physically imposing team in the tournament. The players look in tune with coach Jacques Nienaber's defensive philosophy and work incredibly hard to monopolize the breakdown, thus starving opponents of the ball. Recent dominating wins over Wales and New Zealand sounded a warning to the rest of world rugby.
Scotland is looking to improve on its group stage exit four years ago but it doesn't have a good recent record against Ireland or South Africa. But with maverick fly-half Finn Russell leading the team, Scotland is always capable of springing a surprise.
Group B Prediction: South Africa and Ireland will qualify.
Australia (9), Fiji (7), Georgia (11), Portugal (16), Wales (10)
Four Have Hope To Qualify From Wide Open Group C
When the draw was made, Fiji was ranked well below Australia and Wales. Recent results have seen it rise while the Aussies and Welsh have endured a downturn in fortunes.
Georgia has a recent win over Wales (November 2022), one which will give it confidence of achieving something great in France.
Fiji has looked good in warm-up fixtures, running France close before beating England in London for the first time in its history on August 26. Even without Muntz, I can see the flair and skill of Fiji lighting up this group.
Australia, being coached again by Eddie Jones, is searching for the winning formula. It has lost all five matches played since Jones, a former Japan national team head coach (2012-15) returned to the helm. Finding success in this World Cup could be tough for the Wallabies.
Portugal will make its second appearance in the World Cup after it was the final team to qualify via the repechage tournament.
Wales looks like it could struggle with many new faces in its squad. Coach Warren Gatland brings plenty of experience and past success, but he has his work cut out with this squad.
The Wales-Australia clash on September 24 could decide who qualifies with Fiji.
Group C Prediction: Fiji to win the group, Australia to edge out Wales for second place.
Argentina (6), Chile (22), England (8), Japan (14), Samoa (12)
Anything Could Happen Here
Another group where potentially four teams could get through.
Chile is making its first World Cup appearance. It bested the United States and Canada in Americas qualifying.
Argentina, on current form, should be the team to beat in this group. It will be looking to emulate its third-place finish in the 2007 Rugby World Cup ― the last time France hosted the event.
England is sinking like a stone. New coach Steve Borthwick has overseen six defeats in nine fixtures and England will be missing its suspended captain Owen Farrell for its opening two World Cup fixtures.
Samoa will pose a test and, if it can record a win over Argentina or England, could advance from this group.
Japan is in the same situation as Samoa. Not as well placed as it was four years ago, it has lost the element of surprise. Linked to what was noted above, if Japan does progress, it will have performed above expectation. With Joseph leaving his post at the end of the World Cup and many players retiring, this looks to be a tournament too far for this Brave Blossoms squad. Sorry.
Group D Prediction: Without much confidence I'll pick Argentina and England to scrape through.
Author: Colin Morrison
Morrison is a freelance sportswriter. Find his stories on SportsLook. Writing since 2016, Morrison's byline also appears on boxing website NYFights.com and multi-sports platform Spitballingpod.com. His main areas of interest are boxing, soccer, golf and rugby union. Morrison is from Scotland and can be found on X (formerly Twitter) @Morrie1981.