France 2023: Can Les Bleus make their mark?
Will home advantage see French at their best?
Only five nations have qualified for the Rugby World Cup final since it was first held in New Zealand 33 years ago, when the All Blacks lifted the trophy with a 29-9 victory against France.
Since that time only five countries have fought out the finals, but only one is conspicuous for never having claimed the trophy.
Of the nine tournaments held, New Zealand and South Africa have each won on three occasions, with the Springboks never having lost in the showpiece finale.
On their return to the international rugby fold in 1995 Francois Piennar led the Boks to victory on home soil against the All Blacks, followed by John Smit in Paris in 2007 when they beat England to the crown and Siya Kolisi in Japan last year when England were once again the runners-up.
The All Blacks have made four finals, winning three, their only defeat coming in that final in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, in 1995 when the Springboks ran out 15-12 victors.
After taking the first ever title in 1987, New Zealand had a long wait until 2011 when back-to-back titles followed... starting with an 8-7 victory against France in Auckland. The Blacks then defended their title with a 34-17 win against Australia at Twickenham in 2015.
Like New Zealand, Australia and England have played in four finals, with the Wallabies winning two and losing two. England were crowned champions for the only time in 2003 when they shocked Australia with a gripping 20-17 turnover at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney.
The Wallabies two titles came eight years apart. They beat England 12-6 at Twickenham in 1991 and France 35-12 at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in 1999.
In 2007 England were runners-up for the second time losing to the Boks 15-6, with the margin of defeat 32-12 in Yokohama last year.
So, if you’ve been keeping track, you’ll know that the team to miss out on the title is France, who like England have been runners-up on three occasions... in 1987, 1999 and 2011.
But in 2023 Les Bleus will have the opportunity to put that right on home soil when the tournament returns France for the first time since 2007, when they famously beat the All Blacks 20-18 in the quarter-finals but lost 14-9 to England in the semi-finals.
It’ll be the 10th incarnation of the tournament, with the final to be played at the Stade de France, so would be the perfect time for Les Bleus to make their mark.
But standing in their way are 11 other automatic qualifiers and eight further opponents who will have to negotiate a string of regional qualifiers to make their way to France.
New Zealand and reigning champions South Africa, each going for a record fourth title, lead the challenge to the French, with 2019 runners-up England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Australia, Argentina, Japan and Fiji also having their places booked.
Regional qualification will start next year, presuming all is well in the world following the coronavirus outbreak this year.
Two teams will qualify from the Americas pathway by September 2022, with the third best team in the region going into a final qualification repechage tournament through which the last qualifier will be determined.
The existing Rugby Europe Championship will offer up two qualifying places, with the two best teams by March 2022 heading to France directly. The third-placed nation will move on to the final qualification tournament.
The winner of the Rugby Africa Cup 2022 also earns an automatic berth, while the runner-up will have to face the challenge of final qualification.
A two-leg play-off between Tonga and Samoa next year will decide the direct qualifier for the Oceania region, with the loser playing the winner of the Oceania Rugby Cup 2021 in the highest ranked team’s country. The eventual winner of that match-up will contest a two-leg Asia-Pacific play-off against the runner-up in the Asian Rugby Championship 2021.
The winner of the Asian Rugby Championship and the Asia-Pacific play-off will head off to France, with the play-off loser making up the final member of the repechage tournament in November 2022 when the four teams will compete in a round-robin format to decide the final nation heading to France 2023.