Three results in less than three weeks at the Rugby World Cup have jolted the sport and given the biggest indication in 20 years that times are a-changin’.
Rugby is the antithesis of soccer when it comes to where the power lies at the World Cup. European teams have barely had a look-in since the first in 1987 and the global scoreboard, if you like, is distinctly lopsided: The southern hemisphere collective of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have eight titles between them. Europe and the northern hemisphere has won just one World Cup, two decades ago when England went against the grain.
That larger picture of failure at rugby’s pinnacle has bred much discontent up north, where the game was invented and where the richest leagues are. It’s given the upstarts from the south years of bragging rights, which they’ve gleefully taken.
But this Rugby World Cup in France may be the point around which it pivots after the northern hemisphere struck not one, not two, but three sizeable blows.
Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have all been beaten in the pool stage and it’s the first time that’s happened at the same World Cup.
IRELAND STANDS TALL
Host France set a different tone for its World Cup by surging to victory against three-time champion New Zealand in the opening game three weeks ago, a first pool-stage defeat ever for the celebrated All Blacks. Ireland and Wales followed suit with statement victories this weekend to suggest the rise of the north is a full-on trend in 2023.
Ireland came through a brutally tough contest with defending champion South Africa 13-8 on Saturday that confirmed the Irish as title favorites and absolutely deserving of their No. 1 ranking. Ireland is the best in the world, but that’s a recent rise. The victory over defending champion South Africa was viewed as Ireland passing the final acid test of its credentials given that it has never gone past the quarterfinals before.
Wales completed the northern hemisphere hat trick with a record 40-6 hammering of Australia on Sunday, which made the Welsh the first through to the quarterfinals and put the two-time champion Aussies on the brink of a pool-stage exit for the first time.
It’s a Rugby World Cup of firsts, there’s no doubt.
The general overall predictions are that Ireland or France is going to win a first title, or South Africa or New Zealand is going to win a record fourth.
At some point, the green army of Irish supporters generating next-level energy and decibels and providing the team with a home-like atmosphere away from Dublin might become a factor. It was for the Ireland players in the showdown with South Africa at Stade de France, where the 30,000 Irish fans sounded like 60,000 for team captain Jonathan Sexton.
Sexton has been playing international rugby for 14 years and said, “I’ve never, ever seen a crowd like that.”
“It’s only going to get bigger and crazier,” Ireland center Bundee Aki said.
There’s a twist, and it’s a big one.
The top four teams in the rankings — Ireland, South Africa, France and New Zealand — were loaded onto the same side of the tournament draw when it was strangely held a distant three years ago and they weren’t in those positions.
That means another bout of northern hemisphere-southern hemisphere showdowns awaits in the quarterfinals if all goes as expected in the last two weeks of the pool stage. France is on course to win Pool A and earn a quarterfinal against South Africa. Ireland should now win Pool B and head for a quarter against New Zealand.
Get ready! Again.
FACE OF FRANCE
Antoine Dupont is the face of French rugby as the home team’s star man and captain, and he’s widely regarded as the best player in the world.
His face is now the biggest story in French rugby — and the biggest injury focus of the World Cup — after he suffered a facial fracture in a 96-0 whooping of minnow Namibia. Dupont had surgery last Friday but there’s no word yet on how long he might be out for and if he’ll miss the quarterfinals, or maybe even the rest of the competition.
That would be a disaster for French hopes. Sacre bleu! as they say.
Organizers expect this Rugby World Cup to set new records for television audiences and game attendances. It’s also on record pace for red cards. At the halfway mark of the tournament with 24 of 48 games done and dusted, there have been five red cards. The last World Cup in 2019 had the most overall with eight.
Four of the reds this year are down to rugby’s new clampdown on high tackles that result in head clashes, or hits that involve contact to the head by a shoulder or an arm. There were two more in the latest round of games, one to Namibia’s Johan Deysel for the head clash that put Dupont’s World Cup in doubt, and one for Tonga’s Vaea Fifita for slamming into the head of Scotland’s Finn Russell.
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby
Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.