Three Nations to Change Rugby's Narrative at the World Cup
Rugby union seems to be plagued with negativity on the eve of this World Cup. Players being banned, injured or identified as taking banned substances. A governing body that states player welfare is paramount yet with every passing week there are incidents that put this into question. There is so much to look forward to and keep an eye on over the next couple of months that three teams have great opportunities to do something special at this year’s World Cup and change the narrative around the sport.
There is probably only one place to start, the rise of the Flying Fijians. This side has been developing nicely since the turn of the year, winning four of their last five tests. This includes the stunning victory over England and even pushing France close for 60 minutes. Fiji have always had world class star dust, but they never quite had the depth, consistency or fitness from the rest of th
e squad to compete on the world stage. Now because of the impressive improvement of Fiji Dura in Super Rugby, notably beating the Hurricanes and Crusaders at home to finish 8th and providing 18 players to the 33 player World Cup squad, there is a balance of being pragmatic and allowing the likes of Radrada, Tuisova and Botia to hit that Fijian flair super button at the right time. A notable mention must be made to previous head coach Vern Cotter who put the foundations in place with his assistant Simon Raiwalui, now the head coach. It is evident that Fiji have structure off the pitch as well as on it. They have developed a core of a team week in and out in Super Rugby, allowing the superstars to shine in the French top league, arguably the best league in the world. Maybe a few of the established ‘tier one’ nations could take note. Fiji has a fantastic opportunity to reach a quarter-final for the first time in 16 years. The Fijians have momentum, a game plan and jaw dropping moments up their sleeve all doing it with an infectious smile and humility which everyone in the rugby community just loves!
This World Cup is arguably Argentina’s best and possibly last opportunity to go far. They are no longer the best of the rest, with players mainly scattered across the Top 14 and English Premiership, this side has genuine world class players who could make World XVs of the year. They have a quality and gritty pack who will lay the platform for the backs who have dazzling footwork, pace and power. That is just the traits of Newcastle Falcon’s Mateo Carreras. This squad has over 1,400 test caps, so the time is now to build on victories over New Zealand and England. However, this will be a last outing on the biggest stage for several key players like Sanchez, Creevy, Imhoff and maybe even captain Montoya, Isa and Matera. But what could be a greater issue is where is their next generation of players developing? With Fiji it can be seen what the plan is, but with the demise of Jaguares in 2020 and no representation in Super Rugby since, the next generation of players are no longer challenging against world class players from New Zealand and Australia. For this golden generation of talent, they are favourites to top Pool D and there is a real chance of a semi final for Los Pumas considering the lacklustre opposition in Pool C. However, this really could be the last opportunity for a while to have their moment in the sun.
Finally, to those who are now favourites to win, South Africa. Solid, structured, under the radar (before they blew the All Blacks apart at Twickenham), current holders, the Bomb Squad. How many more reasons need to be listed for people to be persuaded that the Springboks will lift the Webb Ellis trophy for a fourth time on 28th October at the Stade De France. There are two factors that really stand out above all else. Firstly, the squad has a been there done it feel with 20 out of the 33 winning the World Cup in 2019, add to that the next global superstars, Canan Moodie and Kurt-Lee Arendse, it is a squad that is frightening. Experience is everything, 10 players from the squad that reached the semi-finals in 2015 are in the 2023 squad, including the mountain Eben Etzebeth, the genius Willie Le Roux and the talismanic captain Siya Kolisi. Every base covered.
The last factor is a result of the inclusion of the South African sides in the Champions Cup. Players have had greater experience and exposure to playing knock out rugby against quality sides, as the Stormers and Sharks both reached the quarterfinals in their debut season. You only need to look at what Leinster has done over the years, effectively being the Irish national side at club level, to see what could happen to the South African national side in the next World Cup cycle. As time has passed the South African sides have started to be prominent at the back of the United Rugby Championship as well, with the Stormers being finalists in the previous 2 seasons, winning it in 2021/2022. Before long a South African side will get to the final of the Champions Cup, there will be a final staged in the Rainbow nation and a side, most likely the Stormers, winning it.
What Can We Expect?
So, buckle up, there are going to many talking points over the next 48 matches, most will be contentious and debatable. But if the focus is more on the fairy-tale stories of players and the smaller nations, the brilliance of individuals and the iconic moments that are going to happen then rugby should use its time in the spotlight to move into a more positive future.