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Rugby World Cup review: South Africa succeed after a glorious seven weeks of rugby

A magnificent 10th edition of the Rugby World Cup concluded on Saturday, with South Africa edging old foes New Zealand 12-11 at the Stade de France.

Both were regularly written off during the four-year cycle since the Springboks lifted the trophy in 2019 but grew as the tournament went on before the holders' knowhow and nous got them home against the All Blacks.

The 'Big Two's' success was to the frustration of the leading Six Nations sides, who failed to justify their hype, with much-maligned England the surprise package as they took Bronze.

The 2023 edition of the Rugby World Cup also saw Fiji finally match their handling brilliance with some structure, while the underdogs also shone through, notably Portugal, who made history by beating the aforementioned Pacific nation.

A fab four for the Springboks

New Zealand lost the tournament opener against hosts France but were almost perfect after that, running in a tournament total of 49 tries, 19 more than Les Bleus and Ireland.

South Africa were fourth in that metric and crossed the whitewash just once in the semi-finals and final combined. However, it did not matter, with Handre Polland, who was not even in their original squad, perfect from the kicking tee.

Pollard's arrival proved a turning point as the Boks had thrown the ball around in the early stages with Manie Libbok at fly-half but the veteran's return to the team coincided with them recording one-point wins over France (29-28), England (16-15) and then New Zealand.

The Kiwis' statistics show they were the best-attacking team in the tournament but arguably cost themselves in the final by overplaying, while they also played most of the match with 14 men following Sam Cane's red card.

After a tumultuous reign, Ian Foster now steps down as Kiwi coach to be replaced by Scott Robertson, while South Africa boss Jacques Nienaber is also due to join Leinster.

Fellow Rugby Championship contestants Argentina also did well, recovering from their woeful opening 27-10 defeat to England to reach the Bronze Final, where they lost 26-23 to the same opponents.

It was misery for Australia, though, who missed out on the knockout rounds for the first time in the tournament's history. Coach Eddie Jones has subsequently stepped down and the Wallabies look to be in disarray ahead of the visit of the British & Irish Lions in 2025 and then hosting the tournament in 2027.

Questions for the Northern Hemisphere sides

An all-Southern Hemisphere final means more misery for the Six Nations teams, who again struggled to live up to their billing.

Hosts France lit up the pools, defeating New Zealand on the opening night but were on the wrong side of a 29-28 scoreline against South Africa in the last eight.

Ireland, who started the tournament as the world number one-ranked side, beat South Africa to top Pool B but lost to the Kiwis in the last eight, and are still to make it past the quarter-finals of the global showpiece.

It will be another four years of planning for both teams, while Scotland failed to cause an upset against the Irish or the Boks, going out in the group stages for the second straight tournament.

Wales topped Pool C, but they too fell in the last eight - to Argentina, while Italy looked good against Namibia and Uruguay but shipped a combined 156 points in defeats to New Zealand and France.

England were the surprise package, beating Argentina for a second time to finish third. However, with several veterans set to retire, Steve Borthwick's job starts in earnest heading into the 2024 Six Nations.

Change of rules help the game move on

Can Fiji still be counted as minnows after their results this year? The Islanders were excellent in defeat to Wales before beating Australia. 

Sketchy showings in their win over Georgia and defeat to Portugal suggest they still need to work on their mindset when deemed the favourites to win and it was noticeable that they were more comfortable in the quarter-finals against England when they were back in a more familiar role as underdogs.

The roots are there for Fiji to continue their rise, while the change to the eligibility rules helped their Pacific cousins Samoa and Tonga add experience to their ranks. All of them will be targeting further progress ahead of the next tournament in 2027.

Uruguay also pushed France and Italy in Pool A, while Chile played some nice rugby in Pool D. However, the breakthrough side were Portugal, beating Fiji after drawing against Georgia and troubling both Wales and Australia.

Written off in the build-up, Os Lobos' benefitted from recruiting real experts to their coaching staff, including 2007 World Cup winner Victor Matfield, who clearly made an impact and made them one of the most technically proficient teams in the entire tournament. 

Impact enough to effect change

The competitive nature of the tournament prompted greater calls for expansion and the competition's legacy is that the next one in Australia will grow from 20 teams to 24, with six pools of four teams.

This will also help fan engagement as it will shorten the event by a week, while the draw will also take place later, following the lopsided nature of the 2023 event.

There will also be a new 12-team international competition held every two years for both men and women and played in July and November. The top division will feature the Six Nations sides, plus the four SANZAAR countries and two other contenders, likely to be Fiji and Japan.

A second division of 12 other teams will also be formed, with promotion and relegation commencing from 2030.

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