Coach: Fabien Galthie.
Captain: Antoine Dupont.
World ranking: 3rd.
World Cup pedigree: Les Blues have lost three finals 1987, 1999 and in 2011 when they got agonisingly close but their scrum dominance over New Zealand went unrewarded at Eden Park, to no one’s great surprise.
Missing out: Sadly for the rugby world, fly-half Roman Ntamack was injured in the warm-ups. His game management is exceptional but it is his sheer chutzpah that rugby fans will miss, like running the ball from behind his own goal line against the All Blacks and then throwing a no-look pass. South African born second-row Paul Willemse also pulled out the squad with a quad injury on Friday. Full-back Brice Dulin, who recently captained France at Murrayfield, and prop Demba Bamba were cut from the final 33. A hamstring tweak means that the powerful centre Jonathan Danty sits out the opener against New Zealand and his absence could prove crucial, while loose-head Cyril Baille is set to miss the start of the campaign with a calf issue.
Bolter: 20-year-old wing Louis Bielle-Biarrey and newly capped loose forward Paul Boudehent of La Rochelle both raised an eyebrow.
Foreign legion: Immovable object Uini Antonio was born and raised a Kiwi. In contrast, Cameron Woki was born in Saint-Denis, so the big fella will feel right at home when France gets to the final.
Achilles heel: Three times France have made the final and three times they have failed, the only one of the ‘big five’ Test teams who have yet to lift the ultimate prize. Thanks to a good run of form, an excellent squad and depth across the piece the pressure is on Fabien Galthie’s side to win this one. Seven million odd French fans tuned in to watch the warm up games and the opening tie against New Zealand is expected to attract 12 million viewers in France alone. Just how the players handle the burden of an expectant fan base will go a long way to deciding how far France can go?
Superpower: Back in the day, Johan Cruyff created a new concept of ‘total football’ with Ajax and, while the parallel is not exact, you could say something similar about Pierre Villepreux and French rugby. Villepreux preached the gospel of “flexibility and adaptability” rather than painting by numbers (sit up at the back Borthwick and pay attention), and France are still at their best when they marry power with pace and limitless ambition. Remember the try from the ends of the world? Forwards and backs ignore the number on their backs when France hit their straps which, coincidentally, is a decent definition of total football.
Key players: Antoine Dupont, obviously. Less obviously Gregory Alldritt. The big eight blows a little hot and cold but when he has the bit between his teeth few ball carriers do a better job than the big bruiser. When he plays well, France tends to do the same.
Best guess: Only four teams have won the World Cup which desperately needs an injection of new blood and excitement. That means France or Ireland triumphing. Galthie’s side has a real chance. They can even afford to lose that opening game to the Blacks because, frankly, which team you would rather face in the quarters between (probably) South Africa or Ireland is a moot point? If not now La France, when?
Coach: Ian ‘Fozzy’ Foster.
Captain: Sam Cane.
World ranking: 4th.
World Cup pedigree: Mostly excellent with three victories (1987, 2011 and 2015). Low points include losses to France in 1999 and 2007, and being spanked by England in the 2019 semi-final.
Missing out: Veteran prop Joe Moody, a starter in Japan, and aspiring breakaway Ethan Blackadder were overlooked.
Bolter: With 1,493 caps between them, at an average of 45 per player, this is New Zealand’s most experienced RWC squad ever, but 25-year-old Hurricanes’ scrummy Cam Roigard owned just one of them when selected, doubled to two since he scored a cracker off the bench against the Bokke in West London.
Foreign legion: Props Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tu’ungafasi were born in Samoa and Tonga respectively. Hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho is also from Tonga, moving to New Zealand on a rugby scholarship as a teen. Leicester Fainga’anuku was also born in Tonga. His father played for them in RWC’99 when Tonga beat Italy at Welford Road, hence the name. Emoni Narawa is Fijian and scrum-half Finlay Christie was born in Peebles but moved to NZ aged seven.
Achilles heel: New Zealand can be susceptible to the most powerful packs in world rugby i.e. France, South Africa and, don’t laugh, the England of old. After a difficult time, Fozzy brought in Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt as assistants mid 2022 and things took a turn for the better. The All Blacks beat all comers including South Africa in the recent Rugby Championship and were unbeaten in 11 Tests when they ran into a Bokke brick wall at Twickenham, losing by a record margin of 28 points. Better it happened then than in the RWC quarter-final but the timing was, err, suboptimal all the same.
Superpower: If anyone can match France for total rugby it is the men in black. They have relied in recent years on individual rather than collective brilliance but the appointment of Schmidt seems to have the back line humming again like a contented hive although even they need to see some ball if they are to score tries! The Kiwis are nothing if not fast learners, getting Brodie Retallick back on the field will help and the Kiwis will be all the better for having been ‘Bokked’ at Twickers … provided it hasn’t crushed their confidence altogether?
Key players: The front-five will need to grow arms and legs in between now and facing down La France in that compelling opening fixture. New Zealand’s campaign might survive another loss but not on the same traumatic scale as that South African loss.
Best guess: You kinda hope that the Kiwis do well if only because they offer a sliver of light for those teams that value skill and speed over raw power which is increasingly dominating the modern game. If they get to the semi-finals they could go all the way. However, if they don’t come unstuck against France first up they will probably wilt against South Africa/Ireland in the quarters; neither of whom are in thrall to the once mighty Blacks. A likely quarter-final exit to one of two teams that have their number.
Coach: Kieran Crowley
Captain: Michele Lamaro
World Ranking: 13th.
World Cup pedigree: None to speak of. Probably best remembered for all the wrong reasons, losing to the All Blacks by 101-3 in RWC’99 stands out.
Missing out: Sergio Parisse! I know he retired already and turns 40 on 13th September but, hey, look at the Rolling Stones. Parisse let it be known that he wanted a spot in this squad and, in fairness, he was playing well for Toulon. The country was divided. Coach Kieran Crowley decided against it. Post RWC, Crowley is to be replaced by Gonzalo Quesada. Just saying.
Bolter: Paolo Odogwu, formerly of Wasps and England’s training squad, was capped by Italy in the second of twin Tests against Ireland thanks to a father of Nigerian/Italian heritage. Odogwu started out as a prop and he retains much of that power even now when he is found on the wing or in the midfield.
Foreign legion: Three former England under-20s players in Dino Lamb, Odogwu and David Sisi, a Welsh scrummy in Stephen Varney, and Monty Ioane (returned from exile) is an Aussie. Ange Capuozzo and scrummy (one of four in the squad) Martin Page-Relo both speak French as a first language. Ivan Neymar and Nacho Brex are Argies while hooker Haim Faiva and breakaway Toa Halafihi are both Kiwis. Did I miss someone!?
Achilles heel: The front five are no great shakes and while the backline can be exciting they will miss the injured Tommaso Menoncello and Edoardo Padovan. Coach Crowley has named just two centres in his squad so we may see a Tommaso Allan/Paolo Garbisi double act?
Superpower: Difficult to discern from a distance. Does losing to Georgia count?
Key players: The back-row featuring Michele Lamaro, Lorenzo Cannone and (probably) Manuel Zuliani is a good unit and will keep Italy competitive longer than they deserve to be. In the back,s the spritely Capuozzo is always worth watching.
Best guess: Up against the All Blacks and hosts France, Italy have little realistic chance of reaching the quarters. They need to win well against Uruguay and Namibia while showcasing the same resilience they found at Murrayfield last March against the big guns in Pool A.
Coach: Allister Coetzee, former South African coach
Captain: Midfielder Johann Deysel
World Ranking: 21st
The Namibians have yet to register a win at any RWC after 22 attempts. They will hope to get that monkey off their back in France but, sitting in 21st place, they are the lowest ranked team in the competition so don’t go betting the mortgage. (Like Homer Simpson backing the Washington Generals … “they were due!”). There are 16 players in this year’;s squad who competed in Japan including the veteran lock PJ Van Lill who is pushing 40. They will be targeting the Uruguay game for that elusive victory but they already lost to the South Americans 26-18 earlier this year. The forwards coach is one time Scottish international Matt Proudfoot. Incidentally, two of their players ply their trade for the Tel Aviv Heat. The first pro rugby team in Israel. Who knew?
Coach: Esteban Meneses … now into his 8th season.
Captain: Andres Vilaseca
World Ranking: 17th.
Uruguay famously beat the USA Eagles over two games to get to France. You might have heard the wails of anguish emanating from World Rugby’s Dublin HQ. They also beat Fiji in Japan’19 and since then a local football club Penarol started a pro-rugby team in Montevideo which means most of the national side plays together every week. Several others including Santiago Arata play in France. The stand-out scrum-half is tipped to replace Dupont at Toulouse while the French star concentrates on winning an Olympic Sevens and, yes, he is that good. Facundo Gattas plays for Old Glory in DC, so it’s nice to see that Scottish Rugby is doing its bit to develop Uruguayan talent and let us not forget (or forgive Murrayfield) that Uruguay U20s beat Scotland 20s earlier this year. ‘Los Teros’ have huge hearts and no little skill, they will leave it all on the field and while they won’t trouble France or New Zealand they are definitely targeting Italy who beat them by a modest 17-10 two years ago. That is their cup final and it promises to be a cracker.
Pool A fixtures –
- Friday 8th September: France v New Zealand (8.15pm, Stade de France, Paris)
- Saturday 9th September: Italy v Namibia (noon, Stade Geoffroy Guichard, Saint-Étienne)
- Thursday 14th September: France v Uruguay (8pm, Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille)
- Friday 15th September: New Zealand v Namibia (8pm, Stadium de Toulouse, Toulouse)
- Wednesday 20th September: Italy v Uruguay (4.45pm, Stade de Nice, Nice)
- Thursday 21st September: France v Namibia (8pm, Stade Vélodrome, Marseille)
- Wednesday 27th September: Uruguay v Namibia (4.45pm, Parc OL, Lyon)
- Friday 29th September: New Zealand v Italy (8pm, Parc OL, Lyon)
- Thursday 5th October: New Zealand v Uruguay (8pm, Parc OL, Lyon)
- Friday 6th October: France v Italy (8pm, Parc OL, Lyon)