Plotting South Africa’s 2023 RWC path

Following World Rugby’s announcement of the pool schedule for the 2023 World Cup, ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE examines how the Boks may approach their campaign.

READ: Boks to get RWC title defence under way against Scotland

In the 2019 World Cup, South Africa were drawn in a pool with arch-rivals New Zealand. Many thought that this in itself meant there was little chance of Springbok success in Japan. However, being paired with New Zealand actually ended up as a blessing in disguise.

Given that the top-two sides from the pool progress to the knockouts, a loss to New Zealand in the first game did not prevent the Boks from making the quarters. It also meant that they wouldn’t face the men in black again in the tournament until the final (as it happened, of course, the All Blacks didn’t make it that far).

For 2023, the Boks find themselves in a very different position. Instead of having one very strong side in their pool as in 2019, they have two tricky customers in the form of Scotland and Ireland. It is difficult to predict the relative strength of the two Celtic sides so far out from the tournament (the Springboks showed in 2019 the danger of writing off a side two years out), but based on RWC history they could be challenging.

Scotland are a team on the up and although Ireland have had their struggles recently, they are not to be taken lightly. It’s for this reason many have dubbed South Africa’s group the ‘Pool of Death’. Though the pool itself is tough, the Boks will be thankful that at least their playing schedule is not.

Jacques Nienaber’s men kick off their campaign on Sunday, 10 September 2023 against Scotland. They will be happy to be facing the Scots first as the traditionally easier side of the two. A win over Scotland would build campaign momentum and go some way to ensure qualification for the knockouts. A loss, however, and the pressure is on.

A week later (Saturday, 17 September) the Boks face the ‘Europe 2’ qualifier, the weakest team in the pool. It is likely they will employ a form of squad rotation and rest their first-choice players for this match. The week off for the first-choice players would be a boost as it gives them an opportunity to fully recover and prepare for the match against Ireland the following week.

With hopefully two wins under their belt, and with their strongest lineup ready to go, the Boks will be well positioned ahead of their most difficult pool game against Ireland on Saturday, 23 September. A victory would effectively mean certain knockout qualification and even a loss wouldn’t necessarily be campaign-ending.

If the Boks do manage to beat both Ireland and Scotland, as well as steamroll the European qualifier, it takes all the pressure off for their final pool game against the top Asia/Pacific qualifier on Sunday, 1 October. Although it’s a game the Boks should win comfortably anyway, if qualification has already been secured they would not need to pick first-choice players and risk injury (especially against the famously abrasive Pacific sides).

Again, the fixtures are spaced in such a way the Boks may be able to give some of their first-choice players a week off to prepare for the next big game. Which is all the better, given what lies in wait beyond the pool stages for the men in green if they are to lift the World Cup.

Whereas in 2019 they had an ‘easier’ route to the final, in 2023 they will be made to toil if they are to make it. Should the Boks progress to the knockouts, they will almost certainly face either New Zealand or tournament hosts France in the quarter-finals. As probably the two best teams in the world currently, it will be a stern test.

Although the permutations multiply from that point onwards, if the Boks make it through the quarter-finals, it will likely be whoever of France or New Zealand they have yet to play in the semis. Win that game and England seem the most probable candidate waiting for the Boks in the World Cup final.