The Rugby World Cup will be kick-started in the most thrilling of ways in France this weekend – with key clashes that will shape the course of history over the next several weeks, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Heavyweights will have to hit the ground running if they are to set themselves on the ideal paths to possible glory as it’s high stakes from the get-go with two virtual pool deciders and a crunch Pool of Death duel topping the bill in the opening batch of fixtures.
Friday night’s much-anticipated tournament opener between hosts France and New Zealand will see the winner seize control of Pool A, while the same is true in the Pool D encounter between England and Argentina on Saturday.
The opening weekend’s other blockbuster is the one South African fans have been waiting for as the Springboks start the defence of their title against Scotland on Sunday.
Here’s how we see things playing out…
France v New Zealand
Friday, 8 September – 21:15
They don’t come much bigger than this – fierce rivals with a rich history of classic clashes on the grandest stage of them all and two of the top title contenders opening the tournament with Pool A supremacy at stake.
Les Bleus served up two of the most legendary upsets in World Cup history over the All Blacks, sending them packing in the semi-finals in 1999 and the quarters in 2007, while the Kiwis got sweet revenge when they edged the French 8-7 in the 2011 final.
France are a well-oiled machine under Fabien Galthie and have the psychological edge on top of home advantage having won the last meeting between the sides 40-25 back in 2021. They are slight favourites and rightfully so. They have the pack to take the fight to any team in the world, skillful and dangerous backs and an exceptional goal-kicker in Thomas Ramos.
That said, I’m predicting an upset straight out of the shoot. Yes, the All Blacks are coming off their biggest-ever loss, but the 35-7 thumping by the Springboks at Twickenham could end up counting in their favour. It revealed areas that needed to be fixed and sees them enter Friday’s blockbuster free from burdensome expectations.
All the pressure is on the vaunted French and I’m not convinced of their mental make-up. The class of 2007 collapsed under pressure when they crashed to a 17-12 loss to Argentina in the opening game and while Galthie’s men are more mature, the weight they’re carrying is unprecedented.
The All Blacks, who were on an 11-match winning streak before the record loss to South Africa, have a history of bouncing back from poor performances. I see their pack lifting their physicality to gain parity and them handling the key moments better to spoil the Les Bleus’ party.
Italy v Namibia
Saturday, 9 September – 13:00
Former Springbok mentor Allister Coetzee is at the helm and hoping to lead Namibia to a landmark win on the World Cup stage. It’s not going to happen here, though. The step up from playing the likes of Zimbabwe and Kenya to a Tier 1 nation is simply too steep for the Africa Cup winners, who’ll be smashed by the Azzurri. The handicap is huge, but Italy beat Japan by 21 points in their final warm-up game, so they should be good for it.
Ireland v Romania
Saturday, 9 September – 15:30
The Springboks’ big Pool B rivals Ireland are primed to romp to a massive win to start their campaign. Romania have suffered heavy defeats to Portugal (38-20) and Georgia (56-6) recently and will be blown out of the water by the number-one-ranked team in the world.
The gap between powerhouses and minnows has closed since the days of the All Blacks’ 145-17 battering of Japan in 1995 and Australia’s record 142-0 rout of Namibia in 2003 and while it’ll be one-way traffic, the spread is too seismic in my view.
Australia v Georgia
Saturday, 9 September – 18:00
Georgia’s no Romania. They claimed historic wins over Tier 1 nations Italy (28-19) and Wales (13-12) last year and led 6-0 at halftime against Scotland in their final warm-up match at Murrayfield before the hosts turned it on to triumph 33-6. The Wallabies have serious issues, but they’ll lash the Lelos to break their 2023 duck under Eddie Jones.
England v Argentina
Saturday, 9 September – 21:00
The Pool D decider is a pick ‘em. Embattled England have had a rough season under Steve Borthwick and crashed to a first-ever 30-22 loss to Fiji in their final warm-up game. The Pumas, meanwhile, have made good strides under Michael Cheika and beat the Wallabies Down Under in the Rugby Championship.
For what it’s worth, England have won all three World Cup games between them, however, Argentina recorded a 30-29 victory at Twickenham last year. More than any other game of the opening weekend, this clash will come down to discipline.
The Pumas have a few serial offenders in their ranks, but with a golden opportunity in front of them to take the scenic route to the playoffs against an England team lacking in confidence, attacking sting and sans the suspended duo of captain Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola, I’m backing the South Americans to pip it.
Japan v Chile
Sunday, 10 September – 13:00
While it’ll be a great occasion for ground-breakers Chile, their World Cup debut promises to be bittersweet as they’ll be out of their depth. Japan are a far cry from the 2019 vintage who progressed to the playoffs for the first time on home soil, but they’re streets ahead of the 23rd-ranked Los Cóndores.
South Africa v Scotland
Sunday, 10 September – 17:45
The fight for survival in Pool B starts in earnest in Marseille, where the Springboks will have to be at the top of their game to see off a confident and dangerous Scotland side ranked fifth in the world.
The men in green and gold have a history of peaking at the World Cup and to lay down a marker, they need to follow up their record-breaking performance against the All Blacks with a similar show of force.
Scotland pose legitimate problems. They have a solid pack that’s strong in the set pieces and mobile around the park, a magician at flyhalf in Finn Russell, who’s grown into a general, and backs who know how to create and capitalise on try-scoring opportunities.
The Boks, however, have superior firepower, both in the starting pack and the feared Bomb Squad coming off the bench, and invaluable experience with World Cup winners making up most of the squad. It’ll be a proper test but one Siya Kolisi and company should pass with their relentless power game and resolute defence.
Wales v Fiji
Sunday, 10 September – 21:00
Flying high after their first-ever win over England last time out, Fiji are full of belief that they can return to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007. To do so, they either have to win this game or pull off a similar upset against Australia, on top of getting past Georgia and Portugal as expected.
With their physicality and flair, they’ll ask tough questions of Wales, but stylistically, they have a better shot at stunning the Wallabies. The Dragons play a tactical, set-piece-centred game and that structure should see them dictate the pace of the contest and put a lid on the attacking prowess of the Pacific Islanders.