The 2023 Rugby World Cup is almost upon us with excitement reaching boiling point ahead of a blockbuster opening weekend.
It will all kick off on Friday night at the Stade de France when the hosts, France, take on the All Blacks, with every Guinness Six Nations side in action on the first weekend.
Each pool provides intrigue, from the potential three-way battle for qualification in Pool B between Grand Slam champions Ireland, world champions South Africa and in-form Scotland, to the complete unknown aspect of Pool C where each of Wales, Australia and Fiji have changed coaches in the last 12 months.
So ahead of a global spectacle that will grip the rugby world for the next couple of months, here are some of things you should be watching out for:
Dupont’s moment to shine
Everywhere you go in France, there is one face that is front and centre – the France skipper Antoine Dupont. A three-time Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship, Dupont has already established himself as an all-time great, and will kick off the tournament winning his 50th cap for his country.
There is a huge amount of pressure on Les Bleus, particularly considering how impressive they have been over the past four years, notably winning the Grand Slam in 2022. Even with a few injuries, they have the talent to live up to their potential, and to do so, they will need Dupont at his best. He is a man who thrives on the biggest stage and should he lead his side to victory, it would only enhance his legacy among the greats of the game.
Sexton looking to bow out on top
Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton is a double Grand Slam champion, has won the Six Nations on four occasions and is already one of his country’s greatest-ever players.
He will call time on his career at the end of this tournament, but while most start to fade when they reach the age of 38, Sexton looks as good as ever when he is in the Ireland No.10 jersey. The challenge may be to get through a tough pool stage with South Africa and Scotland providing formidable opposition, not to mention a reinforced Tonga, but if Sexton comes through, he will be key to Ireland’s hopes.
Under Andy Farrell, the Grand Slam champions have been atop the world rankings for more than a year now and even with a tough group, have every reason to head to France with plenty of confidence.
Scotland ready to upset the apple cart
Much has been made of the uneven nature of the World Cup draw, and no team has felt that more than Scotland, who will need to get the better of one of the world’s top two sides – Grand Slam champions Ireland or world champions South Africa – to have a chance of getting out of the group.
This Scotland team have no fear though, and with Finn Russell playing some of his best rugby at fly-half, as well as developing a dangerous dual-playmaking partnership with full-back Blair Kinghorn, Scottish fans will be understandably excited.
The daunting prospect of taking on South Africa in Marseille in the opener is also a huge opportunity for Scotland to spring a surprise.
Wales look to 2011 parallels
Warren Gatland’s first spell in charge of Wales featured three Grand Slams, but also saw the team excel on the World Cup stage. That was particularly true in 2011, when an inexperienced squad missed out by a single point in the semi-final to France after a hugely impressive tournament.
It is too early to say whether the likes of Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake can go onto have similar careers to Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau, but the 2023 squad has a familiar feel in terms of young prospects rubbing shoulders with wise old heads.
With Wales on the more open side of the draw, there is a path for deep run as well as the opportunity for Gatland to mould a new generation which can challenge consistently in the coming years.
England out to surprise despite uneven build-up
A couple of red cards and a first defeat to Fiji was not what England would have been hoping to get out of their four warm-up games, but new coach Steve Borthwick knows that all of that will be forgotten if England can get the better of Argentina in Marseille on Saturday.
Even if they lose to Los Pumas, we have numerous examples of teams bouncing back from a pool defeat to go far – 2019 champions South Africa for one, and England themselves in 2007, who lost to the Springboks in the groups before getting all the way to the final.
That is still a long way off, but Borthwick and his coaching staff will hope that while many have written them off, there is enough talent in this squad to make an impact in France.
Italy tasked with making history
Italy have appeared in every World Cup and are still searching for a first quarter-final appearance. This year’s vintage, with an inspirational leader in Michele Lamaro, rising stars in the pack such as Danilo Fischetti and Lorenzo Cannone and electric backs like Paolo Garbisi and Ange Capuozzo, is among the very best Italy have taken to a World Cup.
The challenge will be that to reach the last eight, they need to beat either the All Blacks or France – two of the world’s top four.
However, in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations, they pushed France to the limit in Rome, and Kieran Crowley’s side will head to France confident that they spring an upset and make history.