Rugby World Cup

­­­A tournament of ‘Almosts’ – the 2023 Rugby World Cup in review

As ever, the 2023 World Cup has provided its fair share of controversies and conversation fodder, but ‘almosts’ appear to be the theme underpinning this year’s tournament. No statistic supports this claim as well as South Africa’s final steps to World Cup glory: winning their each of their last three matches by a single point. However, the competitiveness of these matches does come as a surprise, due to the the ‘disgraceful world cup draw’ (as Kathy Owens of ‘Wales Online’ puts it) meaning that only two of the five highest-ranked teams would make it past the quarter-finals. From the off, the quarter-finals were always going to be the most electric rounds of rugby, and this presumption was certainly realised as my heart rate remained in the mid-200’s for the entire weekend. Nevertheless, quality rugby was displayed throughout as South Africa faced the five other highest-ranking teams to lift the trophy for the second consecutive time. I must offer credit where its due – which is particularly painful as an Irish fan.

Starting close to home, England had an anomalous journey to the bronze podium position, but one largely vindicated by their performance against South Africa in the semi-final. With three losses out of four in the warm-up matches, not least to Fiji (a country so small you could carpet it), it is fair to say English hopes must have taken a hit. Combine this with a temporarily-banned Owen Farrel and a precarious coaching arrangement, confidence must have been at an all-time low. However, faith was likely restored when they looked to their fellow pool-members, Chile, Samoa, Japan and Argentina, essentially guaranteeing England a spot in the quarter-finals at a minimum. England’s pool-performance was irregular; with George Ford’s right-foot masterclass against Argentina and Henry Arundel’s five tries in a 71-0 triumph against Chile both being counteracted by a narrow victory 18-17 to Samoa. This was after trailing for over 45 minutes to one of the lowest-seeded teams in the competition. England’s reputation as a world-class team was, however, reinstated at their semi-final clash with South Africa, producing some of the finest English rugby we’ve witnessed in years. Although the Boks proved their superiority and squashed England’s world cup dreams, echoing that fateful Yokohama night in 2019. 

Too little, too late – Almost!

In terms of “almosts”, the Ireland’s journey is the most remarkable. Entering a World Cup as the highest-ranked team in the world (but still not the favourites, according to BetFair!) must have put a lot of pressure on Andy Farell’s side’s shoulders, but the unprecedented sea of green jerseys apparent at every Irish match counterbalanced it. While trying my best not to sound bitter, the odds were stacked against the Irish in the group stages as they faced the World Cup defenders, South Africa, and a seemingly-formidable Scottish side. However, no amount of traffic-light-puppetry from Rassie Erasmus or dirty hand-stomps from a 114kg Ox Nche could stop the Irish from putting 5 points on the Bokka and cruising into the number 1 position in their pool. Despite this, Ireland’s only legacy from the 2023 World Cup will be as the thorn in the champion’s side, with their labour proving fruitless after a narrow 24-28 defeat to the All Blacks in the quarters. Had Ireland won that match, they would have set a new record for consecutive international test-match wins and become the first Irish squad to reach the semi-finals – almost! After 80 minutes of adrenaline and clenched-buttocks, my heart sank as Ireland eventually succumbed to a magnificent display of Kiwi rugby. Despite beginning in a scrappy manner, New Zealand categorically outplayed the best Irish side to ever grace the pitch. A host of retirements were announced following this loss, most significantly Jonathan Sexton, whose final defeat proved to be his biggest.

I doubt we’ll see a fly-half like him again in the next few years. Almost!

I’ll also afford Australia a few words of slander. 2023 was the first time the nation hadn’t made it out of the group-stages in rugby history, following consecutive losses to their tiny island neighbours, Fiji, and a largely-unremarkable Wales. The loss to Fiji must leave a particularly bitter taste in Jones’ mouth, considering how New Zealand and Australia are accused of ‘poaching’ Polynesian talent. There’s an argument to be made that Australia lost to the Fijian C-Team. Departing from the theme underpinning this article, there was nothing close to an ‘almost’ about this side. 

While being nowhere near to matching Australia’s underperformance, France and New Zealand weren’t the dominant side the fans were anticipating. For a third-ranked team at a home world cup, making it to the semi-finals seemed dead-set for the French, but a facial injury to Dupont against the low-seeded Namibian side took the fire out of the beast’s belly after a convincing win against the All Blacks. True, France had a tough run, facing both the Kiwis and the Boks, but if you want to win a World Cup you have to beat everyone (unless you’re South Africa). After a loss to France, New Zealand redeemed themselves by defeating world number ones, Ireland, and were blessed with an Argentinian semi-final where the wheat was truly separated from the chaff. For the three Barrett boys, a World Cup win would have been particularly special – fortunately, Jordy had his two brothers on the pitch to console him after missing a world-cup-winning sitter.

Portuguese excellence was as surprising as Australia’s mediocrity. For the mostly semi-professional squad, simply qualifying for a major rugby tournament should have been accomplishment enough, to the fans at least. However their 24-23 win over an in-form Fiji had the team and crowd in tears as they secured their first ever World Cup victory. While many teams departing before the quarter-finals would fly home with their heads hung low, Lisbon airport was packed with fans excited to welcome the squad home as if they had won the whole tournament. There is something to be said about other underdogs in this World Cup, namely Uruguay who were down by just a point at halftime against world number three France. Similarly, Fiji defied logic and reason by beating two Tier 1 teams and making it to the quarter-finals for the first time in years, despite being the only team who require financial support from their government to attend World Cups. 

While I do recognise a [slight] European focus to this review, it would be impossible to cover every aspect of this 8-week thriller in anything less than a dissertation. One conclusion we can all agree on is that the 2023 World Cup has been an incredible display of athleticism, sportsmanship, and South Africa’s unique ability to get away with dirty tactics. On a sidenote, Student Finance England if you’re reading this, skip the middleman and send my loan straight to my O’Neill’s tab for the 6 nations… 

Image Description: England vs New Zealand at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Image Credit: JaumeBG via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)