Ireland and France are fired up to pose a real Rugby World Cup threat

Ireland and France are fired up to pose a real Rugby World Cup threat
Winger Duhan van der Merwe of Scotland evades a tackle by Ireland’s Jack Conan during the Six Nations Rugby match at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 12 March. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Rugby World Cup 2023 is only six months away and a couple of countries who have never won the trophy are looking ominously good.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In their analysis and planning, most coaches subscribe to this mantra in order to avoid the same mistakes, and ultimately the same negative outcomes.

Ireland and France have learned from their past mistakes and have made the necessary adjustments to their teams and structures over the past four years. After dominating all other opponents in 2022, both have maintained their form throughout the 2023 Six Nations and both are on course to fire at the World Cup in September and October.

Ireland, France not slowing down

The latest Six Nations stats speak to a physical and tactical dominance. Ireland have won the most turnovers, particularly around the tackle, and have proved clinical on the counterattack. France have been efficient as well as aggressive, leading the broken-tackle category despite making fewer carries than any other side.

Ireland favour a ball-in-hand approach, while France rely on a smart kicking game to manipulate and compromise opposition defences. While their game plans differ, the ability to translate dominance into points, tries and wins, does not. After four rounds, the two best teams in the competition – and the world, according to the rankings – had scored 16 tries apiece.

What’s more, their supreme conditioning and mental strength have made all the difference at critical moments. Italy and Scotland went toe to toe with Ireland for a half, before Andy Farrell’s charges shifted gear in the second stanza and raced clear to win by a margin of 14 and 15 points respectively.

France were the picture of consistency in their recent 53-10 demolition of England at Twickenham, scoring 27 points in the first half and 25 in the second. Coach Fabien Galthie could not have asked for a more ruthless display, or a bigger statement with France’s home World Cup kicking off in less than six months’ time. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Building steadily or peaking too soon?

In spite of recent events, many students of rugby history have been quick to dismiss Ireland and France as true World Cup title contenders. They have cited France’s inconsistency over the course of the professional era, as well as Ireland’s tendency to peak before World Cup tournaments.

France have never won the tournament, despite progressing to three finals. Ireland have never made it beyond the quarterfinal stage. While they beat every major contender across the 2017 and 2018 seasons, they fell at the first playoff hurdle at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

And yet, there are other records that challenge the assertion that the next World Cup will climax in a largely predictable manner. The Springboks, more than any other team, will have reason to believe that Ireland and France will tear up the script later this year.

The Boks endured their worst run of the professional era in 2016 and 2017. Despite showing some improvement in 2018, they traveled to the 2019 World Cup as dark horses for the crown.

After Rassie Erasmus’s charges lost by 10 points to the All Blacks in the first pool fixture staged in Yokohama, most critics – including this one – reached for the record books and highlighted the fact that no team had ever won the world title after losing a game in the group phase. History suggested the Boks would leave the tournament in Japan prematurely.

We all know how that turned out. The Boks bulldozed their remaining pool opponents as well as quarterfinalists Japan. Then they handed an overconfident England side a physical and tactical lesson in the decider.

The biggest lesson of all? History can teach us many things, but there is no guarantee that the future will play out as it did in the past. Shortly after beating the Boks in Yokohama, the magnanimous All Blacks coach Steve Hansen insisted that the South Africans were still in the race for the title, and that records were meant to be broken. 

Dafydd Jenkins of Wales (left) leaps for a lineout ball against Federico Ruzza of Italy in the Six Nations Rugby match at Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy, last weekend. (Photo: Danilo di Giovanni / Getty Images)

Don’t count on Irish, French choke

A group of Bok players recently met in Cape Town for a World Cup planning and conditioning camp. Word from the inner circle is that the team is in a positive physical and mental space.

A senior player who was part of the 2019 campaign told Daily Maverick the team has some way to go before matching the strength and conditioning levels that made them such a force in Japan four years ago. At the same time, there is a buzz about the opportunity at hand: the chance to win consecutive World Cups titles.

The Boks will need to beat Ireland in the World Cup pool phase and possibly France in the quarterfinals in order to realise that lofty ambition. It’s going to be a tough task and there is a chance Ireland and France will break the psychological shackles and perform at optimum in those World Cup matches.

The Boks relish the underdog tag, and will enjoy the fact that much of the rugby world has already installed Ireland and France as World Cup favourites.

They may hope the weight of expectation grows over the next six months, and eventually crushes their much-vaunted opponents.

But the Ireland and France coaches have installed a new mindset over the past four years that have made all the difference to the performances.

Farrell has spoken about Ireland embracing pressure, and the team certainly proved a point when they beat the All Blacks 2-1 in a series in New Zealand last July. Since then, Ireland’s critics have been waiting and waiting for the bubble to burst. It’s nine months later and they are still the best team in the world.

France continued to rack up the wins last November, despite not playing particularly well. The recent performance at Twickenham suggested they are getting back to their best. Captain Antoine Dupont, who had a quiet start to the Six Nations, has also found his mojo. 

Key players

One debate yet to be settled is how these teams might fare without their respective talismans. Dupont has been heavily involved in the France starting XV over the past four years, while Ireland have leaned on veteran flyhalf Johnny Sexton in big Tests.

With some luck, they may not have to confront the issue. The Boks were fortunate that Handré Pollard, Willie le Roux and other indispensables remained fit throughout the 2019 World Cup playoffs, as the team didn’t boast the same quality in depth at that tournament as it does in the 2023 group.

Dupont and Sexton may avoid injury, but if Ireland and France suffer a major setback at the World Cup, they may regret their failure to develop suitable alternatives to Dupont and Sexton in preceding seasons.

It’s one of the areas in which South Africa are a cut above the rest. They were forced to address their flyhalf depth in late 2022, and found a versatile replacement in Damian Willemse. Ox Nché (prop), Jasper Wiese (No 8), Jaden Hendrikse (scrumhalf) and Kurt-Lee Arendse (utility back) are others who have strengthened the depth of the squad over the past four years.

The Boks may not be the best in the world in terms of the rankings, but they are well placed just six months out from the World Cup. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

home delivery

Say hello to DM168 home delivery

Get your favourite newspaper delivered to your doorstep every weekend.

Delivery is available in Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.