f the 2023 Rugby World Cup proves as multidimensional as the gloriously unpredictable pool draw anything could happen in France in three years’ time. From Christian Louboutin revealing he is looking to design rugby boots with his trademark red soles and a top ballerina discussing oval-ball choreography, there really was something for tout le monde to enjoy.
The best moment, though, came when the three-star Michelin chef Guy Savoy was invited to draw the top-seeded team in the hosts’ pool and picked out the ball with New Zealand’s name on it. If the organisers want to launch their tournament with some serious panache, an opening night clash between Les Bleus and the All Blacks would be a decent place to start.
It would also grasp the lapels of every other would-be contender and shape a World Cup which, even at this range, has a tasty look to it. Whatever the France-New Zealand outcome, there is now a fair chance of England – if they can top Pool D ahead of Japan and Argentina and survive a potential quarter-final against Wales – playing the winners in the last four. Nor is it impossible that Eddie Jones’s team will once again be asked to beat Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on successive weekends if they are to lift the trophy. Two out of three will not be enough, as they discovered in Japan last year.
Jones, either way, seemed full of the joys upon hearing the news, possibly because his phone was already buzzing with excited messages from Japanese friends looking forward to the Brave Blossoms doing to England what they famously did to South Africa in Brighton in 2015. It couldn’t happen again, could it? As Ireland and Scotland have subsequently learned, it pays to take absolutely nothing for granted.
Rugby World Cup 2023 draw
Pool A: New Zealand, France, Italy, Americas 1, Africa
Pool B: South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, Asia/Pacific, Europe 2
Pool C: Wales, Australia, Fiji, Europe 1, final qualifier
Pool D: England, Japan, Argentina, Oceania, Americas 2
Places in italics reserved for qualifiers from that region
It is also worth remembering just how much can change between now and then. France are already a decent side but how much better could they become with another three years’ development? England, having only just battled past their rivals’ reserves in extra-time at Twickenham this month, should resist counting any poulets prematurely.
The pre-draw footage of the late Christophe Dominici leaving a trail of black-clad defenders in his wake at Twickenham in 1999 also served as a reminder to New Zealand of nightmarish European World Cups past. It seems odd to be pondering World Cup favourites and not singling out the All Blacks as the team to beat but, right now, the odds of 13-2 available on France to win in 2023 feel rather more attractive then the 2-1 odds on a New Zealand triumph.
England can be had at 9-2 and the world champion Springboks at 6-1, not a bad price either when you consider they also won the last World Cup staged in France in 2007. Helping the South Africans to plot England’s downfall in the final 13 years ago, of course, was none other than Jones, who will also recall how close the Boks came to disaster against Fiji in the quarter-finals. When the master coach says the gap between the top nations and the best of the rest is now narrower than ever, he should know better than most.
That will hardly pacify supporters of Wales who, despite being drawn among the top seeds largely on the basis of reaching the World Cup semi-finals in Japan, have once more been plunged into the same pool as Australia and Fiji. Given the number of Fijians and, increasingly, Australians playing in the Top 14 it will be anything but a smooth ride, with the spectre of Nantes 2007 still not entirely banished.With Ireland and Scotland also drawn together again for the second successive World Cup, it might help from that perspective if the organisers could shuffle the backdrops around slightly. Ireland, for one, will shudder at any notion of being sent back to Bordeaux, where they endured a deeply unhappy sojourn in 2007.
Jones, meanwhile, has expressed a preference for England to be based – at least partly – in warmer Mediterranean climes, rather than sticking to the trusty blueprint of playing predominantly in Paris and either Nantes or Lille. Nor has it escaped his attention that Marseille will stage two quarter-finals, although the Stade de France is also due to host two quarters, both semis and the final.In a perfect world a knock-out plate competition would also be introduced for teams ejected from the pools but, first and foremost, rugby’s most fervent wish is a simple one: an injury-reduced, sun-splashed mass celebration of the sport’s finest qualities. If France 2023 can supply all those ingredients, it will be well worth the wait.