What challenges will confront the Final Qualifier at Rugby World Cup 2023?
Back in December 2020, the draw for Rugby World Cup 2023 was made with Wales, Australia and Fiji taking up three of the five places to be filled in Pool C.
Those three teams qualified in their own right thanks to a third-place pool finish or better at the previous tournament in Japan, with the other two spots allocated to Europe 1 and the Final Qualifier Winner.
In March last year, Georgia became the 15th team to qualify for the showpiece event in France when they secured a top-of-the-table finish in the combined standings for the Rugby Europe Championship in 2021 and 2022.
With the Lelos becoming the Europe 1 qualifier, that leaves one spot left to be filled, and all will be decided at the Final Qualification Tournament in Dubai, from 6-18 November.
Head Coach @Paulodera75 has named our final squad for the RWC Repechage in November.https://t.co/E5H8rzRUvg#SupportTheSimbas#SimbasToRWC#StayAtTheHildanaLodge pic.twitter.com/w3FW5WZ6SW— #SupportTheSimbas (@KenyaSimbas) October 28, 2022
Four teams – USA, Portugal, Kenya and Hong Kong – are in the running to join Wales, Australia, Fiji and Georgia and take part in what looks like a highly competitive pool.
The four confirmed participants in Pool C are covered by just six places and 6.77 points in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, with Wales seventh on 81.28, Australia ninth on 80.65, Fiji 12th on 75.08 and Georgia 13th on 74.51.
At this stage, it looks like anyone’s guess which of the teams will secure a top-two finish and progress to the knockout stages as they are all capable of beating each other on their day.
Two-time Rugby World Cup winners Australia, the champions in 1991 and 1999, and Wales are the only two to have reached the semi-final stages.
The furthest Fiji have advanced is the quarter-finals, but they have a history of causing upsets as Wales found out to their cost at the last tournament to be held in France in 2007.
While Georgia have yet to venture beyond the pool phase in five previous tournament appearances, their increased exposure to matches against some of the more established nations in the last four-year Rugby World Cup cycle has only served to make them more competitive.
Pool C permutations
With a top-three pool finish at Rugby World Cup 2023 comes automatic qualification for the next tournament, and realistically that will be the summit of the Final Qualifier’s ambition.
For Kenya and Hong Kong, just competing at the Rugby World Cup would be a novelty in itself as they have never set foot on the game’s greatest stage before.
For USA, it would be most unusual if they did not get to France. Only once before – in 1995 – have they failed to qualify for a Rugby World Cup.
The Eagles have played Australia, their potential opponents on 1 October, eight times and all eight ended in defeat, including three meetings at the Rugby World Cup (1987, 1999 and 2011).
USA have never encountered Georgia or Wales before at a Rugby World Cup, in spite of playing them a combined total of 13 times.
The Lelos won the last match against the Eagles in 2017, 21-20 in Tbilisi, and overall, the record between the two teams is three wins apiece, while all seven of their tests against Wales have ended in defeat.
Portugal, meanwhile, are bidding to take part in their second Rugby World Cup having competed at the previous tournament hosted by France.
The draw for RWC 2023 guarantees Os Lobos will be playing someone new at this level as they faced New Zealand, Scotland, Italy and Romania last time back in 2007.
That said, Georgia have been annual Rugby Europe Championship opponents since Portugal won promotion to the second-tier competition in 2019.
While Portugal have failed to beat Georgia in their last 17 encounters, Os Lobos have managed three draws in that 19-year period, most recently in February 2022 when they held the Lelos 25-25 in Tbilisi.
That result ended Georgia’s 20-game winning run in the Rugby Europe Championship and cemented Portugal’s growing reputation under head coach Patrice Lagisquet.
If they qualify, Portugal will look to the game against Georgia in Toulouse on 23 September as their best chance for a win.
As for their other potential opponents, Portugal have lost both of their previous encounters to Fiji but neither of them would be classed as a cricket score.
Portugal have never played Australia, while the only meeting with Wales ended in a 102-11 defeat in 1994. But that was during the amateur era and will bear no relation to what might happen if a rematch comes about in Nice on 16 September.
Come 18 November, the guessing game will be over and the 20th and final team competing at RWC 2023 will be known.
Final Qualifier Pool C fixtures:
Saturday 16 September, v Wales, Nice
Saturday 23 September, v Georgia, Toulouse
Sunday 1 October, v Australia, Saint-Étienne
Sunday 8 October, v Fiji, Toulouse