Should we expect to see Six Nations dominance in the 2023 Rugby World Cup?

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“New Zealand are more likely to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup than Ireland.”

One year from any other World cup, this would be a statement of the obvious, a non-opinion. Yet Ireland have just won their first ever bilateral series in New Zealand; the first series that the New Zealand All Blacks have lost at home since 1994. It saw Ireland rise to world number one for only the second time, while their hosts were condemned to an all-time low of fourth in the rankings. With that in mind, the statement suddenly becomes a little braver.

Ireland were utterly convincing in the second and third tests in Dunedin and Wellington. The All Blacks simply could not live with their intensity in defence and at the set-piece. New Zealand, at times, resembled an ill-disciplined rabble: defensively passive and tactically naïve.

Right now, Ireland are clearly a cut above New Zealand but I think they would lose to them in 2023. Teams are made in their coaches’ image and it’s clear that Ian Foster’s image does not suit the All Blacks. He seems a lovely bloke — gregarious with the press and genial with fans — but he was a surprise appointment after a middling, provincial coaching career and he has proved out of his depth in the most high pressure job in rugby.

The New Zealand side he coaches is still comprised of world-class players. If he is sacked early enough and replaced with someone who can re-instil the necessary collective passion to go with the individual moments of brilliance seen in this series, New Zealand will be a much more dangerous force.

Ireland’s recent history shows a litany of examples of them peaking too soon and then crashing at the World Cup.

There’s history to this; in 2018 South Africa hit a nadir after their first ever loss to Italy. They sacked Allister Coetzee and hired Rassie Erasmus, who brought back the passion and they subsequently won the World Cup a year later.

On the flipside, Ireland’s recent history shows a litany of examples of them peaking too soon and then crashing at the World Cup. In 2018, they rose to world number one for the first time after beating New Zealand in Dublin. However a year later, they lost to Japan in the pool stages before being thrashed by the All Blacks in the quarter finals. So with a year to go, history appears to be very much in the All Blacks favour.

Before I’m criticised for shooting down the notion that the Six Nations’ successes on their summer tours means nothing for 2023, I did not say New Zealand would win the World Cup. On home soil, France have to be the favourites. Although there’s a long way to go yet and to write off New Zealand on the back of one bad summer seems quite foolhardy.

Knock out rugby usually comes down to the side that makes the fewest errors, and in the last Six Nations France’s defence proved virtually unbreakable. Their pragmatic kicking game emulates South Africa’s successful pressure tactics from 2019, and their coterie of young stars, like Romain Ntamack and Damian Penaud, can break any defence when given the chance.

At this point, the English will start to moan about why they haven’t been included as a contender and the South Africans will start chanting “32-12” and talking about their ‘unbeatable Bomb Squad’. But England still look a team in search of an attacking identity and a series win over Australia isn’t so impressive. Despite their pretty looking back play, the Wallabies under Dave Rennie have a record low win percentage of 39%.

Against Wales this summer, a side utterly insipid and devoid of ideas in the last Six Nations, South Africa’s famously physical game plan seemed to dissolve slightly into a basic, workmanlike attack accompanied by a surprisingly narrow, exploitable defence. Teams like France, with a more disciplined defence and more intelligent attack than the Welsh, should be good enough to beat them currently.

Overall, it has been a good summer for Northern rugby, and I will cautiously predict that this will reflect in a French win at the 2023 World Cup. But its significance should not be overstated: Ireland may well yet falter, and (depending on the future of Ian Foster) New Zealand will be back. The Southern Hemisphere is down but by no means out.

Image: UI International Programs via Flickr

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