As the countdown to Rugby World Cup 2023 continues, we take a look at what qualification issues will be decided in what promises to be a busy month of test rugby.
The line-up for Rugby World Cup 2023 is not far from being complete with teams competing for three of the final four tickets throughout July.
On 10 July, the Rugby Africa Cup comes to a conclusion and the winner of the region’s elite competition will go to France as Africa 1, taking their place in Pool A alongside three-time champions New Zealand, hosts France, Italy and Uruguay.
The Americas 2 slot in Pool D will also be decided over two weekends in July as Chile and the USA compete for the right to face England, Japan, Argentina and the Pacific qualifier, Samoa.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong and Korea are both bidding to qualify for a Rugby World Cup for the first time and join Japan in competing on the game’s grandest stage. But the winner of their play-off on 9 July will have to also beat Tonga a fortnight later to make it to France 2023 as Asia/Pacific 1.
EIGHT TEAMS STAKE A CLAIM FOR AFRICA 1 TICKET
The South of France is the setting for the Rugby Africa Cup 2022 which is run on a straight knockout basis this year.
Not long after Marseille hosted an epic Champions Cup Final between La Rochelle and Leinster, top-level rugby returns to the port city with two of the Rugby Africa Cup 2022 quarter-finals to be played there, at Stade Pierre-Delort, on 1 July.
For the first time in men’s test rugby, pre-tournament favourites and six-time Rugby World Cup participants Namibia take on Burkina Faso, while the other tie in the top half of the draw sees Zimbabwe up against the Ivory Coast. Both teams have previously competed on the Rugby World Cup stage but not in the professional era.
The following day, 30 kilometres away in Aix-en-Provence, Senegal play Algeria and Uganda renew their East African rivalry with Kenya as Stade Maurice David makes its debut as a test arena. None of the four teams on this side of the draw have ever appeared at a Rugby World Cup.
On 6 July, the two winners in Marseille will face each other in the semi-finals, but this time in Aix-en-Provence, while the winners of the other two quarter-finals will switch to Marseille.
Stade Maurice David will host the final, on 10 July, when the identity of the Africa 1 qualifier will be revealed.
CHILE OUT TO MAKE HISTORY
With Uruguay claiming the Americas 1 ticket to France 2023, it is left to Chile and the USA to decide the region’s other qualifier,
While USA have appeared at every Rugby World Cup to date bar 1995, Chile have yet to experience what the tournament has to offer at first-hand.
Chile have home advantage in the first leg, in Santiago on 9 July, before the return leg takes place in Colorado a week later.
USA have won five of their six previous meetings with Los Condores, the last four by an average of more than 50 points, but with the Eagles in a poor run of form and Chile riding high on confidence, an upset cannot be discounted.
Los Condores defeated Canada in Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifiers and, as a result, the next tournament will be the first Rugby World Cup without the North Americans’ involvement.
Away wins over Russia in November only served to underline the growing credentials of a Chile squad mainly made up of players from this year’s Superliga Americana de Rugby runners-up, Selknam.
But having been named the host location for Rugby World Cups 2031 and 2033, USA will not want to miss out on an appearance at France 2023.
Eagles head coach Gary Gold has selected a strong-looking squad that includes one of the best fly-halves in the English Premiership in AJ MacGinty.
Other eye-catching inclusions are the return to the international fold of Samu Manoa, 37, and the crossover of Martin Iosefo from the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
TONGA IN WAITING GAME
Nearly a year since their Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifier victory over Cook Islands, Tonga are a matter of weeks away from knowing the identity of their next opponent on the road to France.
The ‘Ikale Tahi will play the winner of the Asia Rugby Championship 2022 Final, at the Sunshine Coast Stadium in Queensland, Australia, in a one-off game that will decide which team progresses through to the tournament.
Matches against Rugby World Cup 2023 participants Fiji and Samoa and Australia A in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup will serve as ideal preparation for the Asia/Pacific 1 play-off against either Hong Kong or Korea.
Korea have advanced to this stage of the qualification process having defeated Malaysia 55-10 in the semi-final of the Asia Rugby Championship 2022.
The Asia Rugby Championship Final against Korea, in Incheon on 9 July, will be Hong Kong’s first test in three years and head coach Lewis Evans’ first game in charge of the team.
LAST CALL FOR FRANCE 2023
Once the Asia/Pacific 1 slot has been settled, that leaves one space left to fill in the line-up for France 2023.
The 20th and final ticket will be on offer at the Final Qualification Tournament which involves four teams from across Africa, Asia/Pacific, the Americas and Europe and will be played over three match days.
The runners-up in the Rugby Africa Cup 2022 and the Asia/Pacific and Americas 2 play-off losers will join Portugal (Europe 3) at the event.