What a brave pundit I am. Reaching across space, time, injury, illness, and acts of God, I am picking the likely team of the tournament for the Rugby World Cup in France… two years early.
A quick look at past scratch teams of this nature reveals a tight correlation between the fortunes of teams, and their stars selected.
If your side is knocked out in the pool stage, only tier two standouts get a nod. If a heavyweight fails to make the semi-finals, their men aren’t generally named to the XV. Right or wrong, this is the convention I will seek to follow.
Thus, selecting a 2023 all-tourney team requires the observer to make some sense of the car smash on one side of the draw: host France, perennial favourite New Zealand, awkward Ireland, and reigning champion South Africa seem destined to clash in the quarters.
On recent form, the All Blacks won’t be overconfident against any of that trio. South Africa will prefer to play the home team. Ireland will have to overcome a forever barrier: winning a quarterfinal, ever. I don’t see enough depth in the Irish team to win 5 or 6; history tells me France will thrill, and then falter, perhaps because of a lack of nous.
Therefore, expect more Springboks and All Blacks in this team than French or Irish.
On the other side of the draw, I only see Australia and England being capable of making a deep run into the final four. I also am predicting Fiji to finish ahead of Wales in a shock, and Argentina ahead of Japan. My selections will reflect these views.
Here is what I have foreseen.
1. Steven Kitshoff (South Africa)
Ginger successor to the Beast, the Springboks loosehead will be at prop prime in 2023. He is seldom beaten at scrum, but offers far more than that.
The Boks will likely spoil French dreams, and if so, it’ll be a pack battle royale. Angus Bell might be just behind, as the Wallabies challenge for the final. The Irish looseheads will also go well in the five matches they play.
2. Malcolm Marx (South Africa)
Marx and France’s Julien Marchand will be nip and tuck here, with whoever wins their quarterfinal matchup being the hooker of the tourney.
I’ve given it to the Bok, by a broken nose.
3. Taniela Tupou (Australia)
Tadgh Furlong is the best tighthead in the world, but Ireland will bomb out, again. England will go deep, on the back of their exuberant tighthead Kyle Sinckler all the way.
But the Tongan Thor is a born big-match player, and I fancy Dave Rennie’s ability to grow the team more than Eddie Jones’ skill at keeping England near the top. Tupou to storm the barn.
4. Eben Etzebeth (South Africa)
Rock-hard Etzebeth added kick-chase, playmaker, and linebreaker to his repertoire in 2021, often playing at 6 for his club in France.
For the Boks to win through to another final, they’ll need great production from the engine room. All Black Brodie Retallick and England’s Maro Itoje will challenge for the spot, but I’ll back Etzebeth for now.
5. Cameron Woki (France)
Faster than Itoje, more powerful than Retallick, more skilled than Sam Whitelock, and ready to take the big stage.
6. Pieter-Steph du Toit (South Africa)
The Boks flanker will be in the conversation along with teammate Charles Ollivon, the Pumas’ Pablo Matera and All Black Dalton Papalii.
Provided he stays healthy, though, du Toit is still the best 6, and the Boks will go far if he fires.
7. Tom Curry (England)
This was one of the hardest spots to predict.
Curry isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; Hamish Watson will suffer from Scotland’s loss to Ireland; Boks captain Siya Kolisi will be good, but not great.
The big smoky is Wales, who have an inexhaustible supply of loose forwards. But I’ve got them down to have a poor Cup. So, it boils down to Wallabies captain Michael Hooper and his probable semi-final foe Curry.
I’ll go for Curry because he can still get a lot better at decision-making.
8. Gregory Alldritt (France)
The French back-rower is a top talent and supreme worker.
Of his rivals, Springbok Duane Vermeulen is just about leaking oil, while New Zealand’s Ardie Savea is not a proper 8 on heavy fields.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) November 2, 2020
9. Aaron Smith (New Zealand)
The star of the host nation gets the credit when things are going well; but when they don’t, they always catch the blame. So should France stumble before the semis, maybe to the Springboks, Antoine Dupont will probably be unfairly downgraded.
It comes down to two, then: while Faf de Klerk’s star will rise, it will be Aaron Smith’s superlative passing which locks him into jersey number nine, even if New Zealand stumbles again.
10. Quade Cooper (Australia)
England’s Marcus Smith and France’s Romain Ntamack are the it-boys at the moment, but two years is plenty of time to get figured out. And they will.
Meanwhile, Cooper, the Boks’ Handre Pollard, and All Blacks legend Beauden Barrett will still be alive and kicking – no pun intended. The Aussie to take it, by being player of the match in most of the Wallabies’ wins.
11. Semi Radradra (Fiji)
The Fijian superstar made a lot of money off his 2019 heroics; expect one last tour de force in France as Fiji rises.
Australian Marika Koroibete may be the almost guy here; while Springbok Makazole Mapimpi also ran it close.
12. Samu Kerevi (Australia)
The rugged Damian de Allende was in most 2019 teams of the tournament, but it would be a Herculean effort to earn a repeat as the best 12 four years on, given the physical demands of the role.
Thus, Kerevi is the man, based on his phenomenal displays for the Wallabies upon his return mid-2021.
13. Lukhanyo Am (South Africa)
Early on the Lukhanyo Am bandwagon I was, and now he’s on most lists as one of the world’s best centres.
If the Boks go far, it’ll certainly be an Am year.
14. Will Jordan (New Zealand)
The All Blacks young gun seems to score at will.
He takes the 14 jersey, ahead of Frenchman Damian Penaud.
15. Freddie Steward (England)
Melvyn Jaminet is a revelation, but an early French exit will surely be blamed on the playmakers. So, English 15 Freddie Steward is the fast riser, and earns the nod.
Steven Kitshoff (South Africa), Malcolm Marx (South Africa), Taniela Tupou (Australia), Eben Etzebeth (South Africa), Cameron Woki (France), Tom Curry (England), Pieter-Steph du Toit (South Africa), Gregory Alldritt (France), Aaron Smith (New Zealand), Quade Cooper (Australia), Semi Radradra (Fiji), Samu Kerevi (Australia), Lukhanyo Am (South Africa), Will Jordan (New Zealand), Freddie Steward (England).
South Africa: 5
New Zealand: 2
How did I do, Roarers? Only *checks watch*… a couple of years until we find out for sure.