The upcoming 2023 Rugby World Cup is poised to be the most fiercely contested tournament in the history of the sport. The disparity between the top 10 teams and some of the former “Tier 2” nations is diminishing significantly, as demonstrated by Fiji’s reminder to England at Twickenham. Based on personal experience, I am sensing the presence of several potential underdogs who are burdened with minimal expectations but are eager to defy the odds in France.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to play for the USA Eagles in the 2019 World Cup held in Japan. In our match against France in Fukuoka, we had Les Bleus on the edge and were trailing by only three points (12-9) with just 10 minutes remaining. If not for a late surge, France would have faced humiliation.
It is the ambition to create World Cup history that propels the “Tier 2” teams forward, as exemplified by Japan’s shocking victory over South Africa in the Brighton miracle of 2015 and Uruguay’s stunning triumph over Fiji in the previous edition.
In this World Cup, we are already witnessing a momentous occasion with the inclusion of Chile, who are participating in their maiden World Cup. As heartbreaking as it is for me personally, the Eagles lost to Chile by a narrow aggregate score of 52-51, resulting in their qualification in the same pool as England. South America’s representatives have made significant progress, aided by their Santiago-based professional team, Selknam, featuring in the Super Rugby Americas competition.
Being the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, Chile bears no expectations. However, I know from experience the potential for unexpected outcomes when the fear of losing is absent. Courage transcends fear. While Steve Borthwick’s team may appear disjointed, the majority of Los Condores play together on a weekly basis and possess the cohesion of any other team in the competition. Keep an eye out for their talented fly-half, Rodrigo Fernández, whose individual effort against the USA last September was recognized as World Rugby men’s try of the year.
Our disappointment continued when Portugal secured the final qualification spot in November, edging out the Eagles with a decisive penalty kick from their key scrum-half, Samuel Marques. Allow me to be the first to caution Portugal’s upcoming opponents against underestimating this swift, skillful, and well-prepared team.
Under the guidance of head coach Patrice Lagisquet, a former dynamic back himself, Portugal has cultivated an exciting lineup in the backline. They possess blistering speed! Their back three, largely composed of players from the French top leagues, boast incredible depth with star runners Vincent Pinto, Raffaele Storti, Simão Bento, and Manuel Cardoso Pinto, all of whom pose legitimate threats. Additionally, they have the exceptional full-back Nuno Sousa Guedes, capable of evading defenders in the tightest of spaces.
I predict that players like Guedes will shine in this World Cup and potentially secure contracts in France’s Top 14 or Pro D2. Guedes is not only a devastating attacker but also a skilled footballer, further aided by former England kicking coach Jon Callard, who is part of the Portuguese coaching group. Following a narrow loss to Australia A in their World Cup warm-up a couple of weeks ago, I can envision the Portuguese team clinching their first World Cup victory.
Portugal will kick off their campaign against Wales in Nice, and while I believe Warren Gatland’s forwards will dominate in the physical aspect, Os Lobos will pose a defensive challenge. Wales not only faces Portugal but also Georgia, another potential stumbling block, in their final group game. Welsh fans still vividly recall their historic loss to the Lelos in November of the previous year. Known for their strength in set pieces, as demonstrated against Scotland two weeks ago, the Georgians are considered long shots to advance from their pool. Nonetheless, they possess the potential to cause a significant upset. When you add the constantly improving Fijians to the mix, Pool C appears to be an anxiety-inducing prospect for Welsh and Australian supporters.
I genuinely believe that this World Cup will highlight the prowess of the Pacific Island teams. Having possibly underestimated them in the past, the leading teams in the world are now more cognizant than ever of the contributions the islanders can make.
I have played Test matches against Samoa and Tonga, and the bruises and injuries sustained afterward always attested to their physicality. However, the recent revisions to World Rugby’s eligibility rules have elevated these island nations to an entirely new level, with players like former Wallaby Christian Leali’ifano now representing Samoa and former All Black superstar Charles Piutau suiting up for Tonga. These teams will still be considered underdogs, but I believe the inclusion of such experienced international players will make a significant difference.
This elevates Samoa as a genuine threat to Borthwick’s squad in Pool D. While these underdog teams do not anticipate winning the World Cup, they are aware that a couple of victories could lead to the coveted prize of automatic qualification for the 2027 edition. Armed with this nothing-to-lose mentality and growing self-belief, there may be more historic results on the horizon.
Originally published at As quality gap closes, underdogs will have their day at 2023 Rugby World Cup | Will Hooley