France may never have a better chance to win a Rugby World Cup. The same for Ireland. New Zealand and defending champion South Africa — the tournament's two most successful teams — can't ever be counted out.
Seldom has rugby's big tournament had such a long list of realistic contenders from both sides of the equator.
Host nation France is already feeling the excitement of an upcoming Olympics next year, but it has another major sporting spectacle to savor first.
Here's what to know ahead of the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off Friday when France plays three-time winner New Zealand in a blockbuster opening game in Paris:
France's previous Rugby World Cup campaigns have often been roller-coaster rides, throwing up some of the tournament's most thrilling performances to make the final three times, only to slump in the big game and lose all three. That record forms the backdrop to another attempt by rugby's most mercurial team to finally win the title. The French class of 2023 still has magical ability, with scrumhalf and captain Antoine Dupont — widely regarded as the world's best player — at the center of it. But it also now seems to have the grit that winning a World Cup requires. France has beaten all three of the big Southern Hemisphere teams — New Zealand, South Africa and Australia — in their last meetings and has won 18 of its last 20 games going back two years. France will be tested by the pressure of expectation, and two key injuries just before the tournament that ruled out flyhalf Romain Ntamack and powerhouse forward Paul Willemse.
RISE OF THE NORTH
France isn't the only Northern Hemisphere team threatening the dominance of the south, where New Zealand and South Africa have shared the last four World Cup titles. Ireland is the top-ranked team and a major contender if, like France, it can get over its World Cup hang-ups. Ireland has never got past the quarterfinals but has shot to the top of many lists of possible winners with arguably the best team it has ever had. The Irish are guided by vastly experienced flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, have the 2022 world player of the year in flanker Josh van der Flier, and a Southern Hemisphere streak of their own in naturalized New Zealand-born players Jamison Gibson-Park, Bundee Aki and James Lowe. A title for Ireland or France would be only the second for a Northern Hemisphere team at the World Cup and the first since England 20 years ago. The North-South battle will take shape early, with France and New Zealand drawn together in the same pool and Ireland and South Africa also set to meet in pool play.
RACE TO FOUR
The subplot to the New Zealand and South Africa campaigns will be a chance for both to be the first to four Rugby World Cup titles and to have four years of bragging rights over their fiercest rival. New Zealand's All Blacks became the first team to win three World Cups with back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2015, which came after a famously long drought since their first in 1987. South Africa went to three in Japan four years ago. New Zealand outclassed South Africa 35-20 at the start of the season. The Springboks responded with a powerful statement in a 35-7 win in a warmup game last month. Both have coaches leaving after the World Cup and the added drive of a winning farewell for them. There's a chance the All Blacks and Springboks will meet as early as the quarterfinals in France.
WHO WILL SURPRISE?
Fiji generates so many richly talented rugby players, but the Pacific Island nation hasn't transferred its success in sevens rugby to the 15-man game. This could be the year Fiji reaches the Rugby World Cup semifinals for the first time. Backed by increased World Rugby funding for lower-ranked countries, Fiji is a far more cohesive 15-man unit these days and has climbed to No. 7 in the rankings — above even traditional powers like England, Wales and Australia. It has benefited from the regular competition of a Fiji-based team playing against New Zealand and Australian clubs in Super Rugby since 2022. A first-ever win against England at Twickenham last month served as evidence of the progression. The draw is good for Fiji as it is in a pool containing Australia and Wales, followed by a potential quarterfinal against Argentina, England or Japan. Of them, only Argentina is above Fiji in the rankings. Fiji’s opening match against Wales is simply huge.
There has been a total of 25 red cards across the nine editions of the Rugby World Cup, with a record eight of them coming at the last tournament in 2019. Don’t be surprised to see more players get marched this year amid a crackdown on almost any contact to the head, a recalibrating of rugby's rules because of fears over head injuries that many players are struggling to adjust to. There’s no escape for players in 50-50 decisions, either, with a newly adopted “bunker review system” in place for the first time at a World Cup. That allows a TV match official up to eight minutes to review footage and assess if an incident that led to a yellow card for a player should be upgraded to a red.
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby
Gerald Imray And Steve Douglas, The Associated Press