The countdown to the 2023 Rugby World Cup has officially entered its final two weeks, with 20 teams from across the world set to descend on France and compete for the coveted Webb Ellis Cup.
Preparations are finally done with plenty of interesting results in the final round of warmup matches, but the real challenge is finally upon us.
Read on as we preview Pool A with everything you need to know before kick-off.
Coach: Ian Foster
Captain: Sam Cane
Also known as: All Blacks
Best finish: Champions [1987, 2011, 2015]
How they qualified: Automatically qualified with as bronze medalists from the 2019 Rugby World Cup
Player to watch: Ardie Savea. One of the most experienced players in the All Blacks line-up, Savea is a proven star in the back-row, a remarkable and relentless talent and a game breaker for his side. Slotting in at No.8 but also an impressive flanker, the 29-year-old is a beast at the breakdown often pinching a game changing turnover or penalty while his ball carries are incredibly destructive as he breaks the line and gets his team on the front foot.
Their build-up: There couldn't have been a more perfect lead-up to a World Cup than the one the All Blacks had enjoyed -- until they arrived at Twickenham last Friday night. Posting a 10-0-1 record from their last 11 games before leaving for Europe, the All Blacks were proving once again how formidable they'll be, scoring more than 35 points in seven of those 11 and posting a half-century twice. But it all came undone with a shocking and record-breaking 37-5 defeat by the Springboks at Twickenham just two weeks out from their opener against host nation France. It's given Ian Foster plenty to think about in the lead up after his first-choice side were easily dismantled and outplayed in every position, but at least he'll be breathing a sigh of relief with Scott Barrett cleared of any suspension after his double yellow-red card. However, the All Blacks are without Shannon Frizell and Brodie Retalick for the tournament opener, while first-choice tighthead prop Tyrel Lomax copped a nasty thigh gash that required 30 stitches and will see him sidelined for some time. With one final camp in Germany before reaching their final destination in France, the All Blacks are racing the clock to exorcise any psychological scars before the real action begins.
What are they aiming for: Nothing less than the 2023 Rugby World Cup title - their fourth altogether- - will satisfy their players, coaches and supporters. Shedding themselves from what was viewed as a poor 2022 season, the lead up to Paris has been close to perfection for the All Blacks -- bar their final World Cup warmup against the Springboks -- and has shown that yet again they'll be one of the most dangerous sides at the World Cup. Their opening match against France will determine which path they take through the knock-out stages, with a second-place finish in the pool potentially putting them on course for another date with the Springboks in the quarters. But either way, anything less than an appearance in the tournament's closing fixture, with the opportunity to lift the trophy in the offing, will be disastrous for the 2023 cohort.
Coach: Fabien Galthie
Captain: Antoine Dupont
Also known as: Les Bleus
Best finish: Runners-up [1987, 1999, 2011]
How they qualified: Automatically qualified as tournament hosts [they were also quarterfinalists in Japan]
Player to watch: Antoine Dupont would be the obvious choice, with the captain recognised as one of the best halfbacks in the world, but it's Matthieu Jalibert that people should keep their eye on with the fly-half set to slot into Romain Ntamack's vacant No.10 jersey after he was ruled out with a knee injury. Sitting in Ntamack's shadow over the last few years, Jalibert is a proven fly-half who brings something completely different to the role. Unlike Ntamack who's happy for Dupont to run the show and play a more subtle, softly-softly approach, Jalibert brings swagger and wants to bring something flashy to the pitch. How well he works alongside Dupont could determine if he takes on the starting role, but even if his job is to come off the bench, he'll bring something dynamic and different to France's backline.
Their build-up: Another side to have a near perfect build-up to the tournament, France have dropped just three games in 20 since March 2021, including a 13-match win streak through 2022, and sit at third on the world rankings heading into the tournament -- dropping from No.1 in 2022. While the loss of Ntamack is a big blow for the side, Jalibert and Antoine Hastoy are both tried and tested fly-half options, while the remainder of the squad is relatively settled. Most impressive for France hasn't just been their big wins but their ability to find victories in close encounters, including their final minute win over the Wallabies during the Autumn Nations Series last year. Meanwhile their final warmup clash against the Wallabies showed that despite not playing at their best, they're still a hugely destructive side with Thomas Ramos a sharp shooter from the tee while their backline cut ribbons through the Wallabies' defence.
What are they aiming for: Always the bridesmaid never the bride, France have reached the Rugby World Cup Final on three occasions but are yet to add the Webb Ellis Cup to their trophy cabinet. In 2023, at home, they'll be determined to end the trend and finally become crowned World Champions -- anything else, especially after their rise to No.1 last year, would be a disappointment. Their opening match against the All Blacks will determine what path they take through the knockouts with either Ireland or South Africa to meet them in the quarters, meaning it won't be an easy run to glory.
Coach: Kieran Crowley
Captain: Michele Lamaro
Also known as: Azzurri
Best finish: Yet to make it out of the pool stage, Italy have finished third in their pool at every tournament bar 1999.
How they qualified: Automatically qualified with a top three pool finish at the 2019 Rugby World Cup
Their build-up: Making a mark on World Rugby last year with two shock wins over Wales and Australia, Italy has struggled in 2023 to reach the same heights. Entering the tournament on a two-game win streak, the victories have come against nations that have struggled lately themselves, with the Azzurri claiming a 57-7 win over Romania and a 42-21 win over Japan. Meanwhile they've struggled to make a mark in their remaining seven matches this year, soundly beaten in all their Six Nations matches and their mid-year World Cup warm-up matches against Scotland and Ireland. Their two warm-up wins will give them plenty of confidence though, especially with the return of Capuozzo against Romania where he scored two-tries and showed off his wizardry, with their victory over Japan a showcase in their class and attacking potency.
Player to watch: Ange Capuozzo. World Rugby Men's 15s Breakthrough player of the year last year, Capuozzo has captured the attention of the world after making his debut for Italy in the 2022 Six Nations where he scored two tries on debut against Scotland, before he set up the match-winning try against Wales a week later. He again starred for the Azzurri later in the year during the Autumn Nations series when he helped lead his side to a first ever win over Australia. An exciting, young fullback, Capuozzo returned to the side just weeks out from the tournament after spending six months on the sideline and will no doubt make a mark for Italy.
What are they aiming for: Finally getting out of the pool stage would be a massive win -- and perhaps miracle given their pool -- for Italy who, over the two years, have built themselves a strong squad for the future. However, it won't be easy with New Zealand and France also in their pool and playing incredible rugby in the lead up to the tournament. Claiming a scalp over either France or the All Blacks would be cause for celebration for the Azzurri, but otherwise finishing third in the pool would be par for the course for Kieran Crowley's side.
Coach: Esteban Meneses
Captain: Andres Vilaseca
Also known as: Los Teros
Best finish: Competing at four World Cups to date (1999, 2003, 2015, 2019), Los Teros have finished three of their four tournaments with one victory; 2015 was the only tournament they finished winless.
How they qualified: Playing in the Americas region qualifications, which included Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia, USA and Canada, Uruguay defeated Chile and Brazil to top the Sudamerica Rugby 3 Nations and qualify for a play-off against the USA who topped Canada in their qualifier. Despite losing to the USA in their opening clash, Uruguay turned the tables in their second match to qualify for the World Cup as Americas 1 for the first time in their history, triumphing with a 50-34 points aggregate.
Their build-up: A tier 2 nation Uruguay have played just eight Tests in two years, three of which have been played out in the last month alone. While they won't have the same lead into the tournament as many other nations, they'll be immensely happy with their three wins in three this year especially over pool opponents Namibia. Facing off in early August, Uruguay will be happy with their many well-worked tries, using both their powerful forwards to maul over the line and their swift backline to slice through Namibia's defence. The squad has been hit by a few injuries and suspensions though with forward Santiago Civetta unable to recover from an Achilles injury in time, while flanker Franco Lamanna has been banned for three years for a doping violation. All that said, Uruguay retains a squad full of World Cup experience with many continuing on from the 2019 World Cup.
Player to watch: Santiago Arata. A highly sought after scrum-half in French Top 14, Arata will get the chance to stand up on rugby's biggest stage to prove just how impressive he can be. Playing out several highly impressive seasons at Castres, he's a well-known figure for French rugby fans, but perhaps not widely none across world rugby. He was huge in Uruguay's shock win over Fiji in Japan four years ago and will likely play a pivotal role again this year. With a laser accurate pass, vision around the ruck, Arata will bring add plenty of sparkle to the tournament and is not afraid to make the big tackle,.
What are they aiming for: Scoring a historic victory over Fiji at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Los Teros are aiming high in 2023 with sights set on automatic qualification for 2025 with two massive wins over Italy and Namibia. In one of the toughest pools at the tournament, Uruguay will kick off their campaign with a huge clash against France, but it's a week later they'll really be focusing on with high hopes against Italy before they take on Namibia a week later, where they'll hope to replicate their World Cup warmup victory.
Coach: Allister Coetzee
Captain: John Deysel
Also known as: Welwitschias
Best finish: Competing at six World Cups (1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019) Namibia are yet to score a win.
How they qualified: Competing in the Africa region qualification, Namibia booked their spot to Paris after they defeated Kenya 36-0 to win the Rugby Africa Cup 2022. The qualification process began all the way back in 2021 with 12 participating teams including, Namibia, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal, Zambia, Ghana, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Uganda and Cote D'Ivoire. Making their way through the 2021 tournament, Namibia proved too good for Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe and finally Kenya.
Their build-up: Another tier 2 nation, Namibia had just a few games to finetune their side ahead of the World Cup. With just four matches this year to prepare for the tournament, the Welwitschias had a mix of results which included a tough two-point win over Chile and three losses to Argentina XV, United Rugby Championship side the Vodafone Bulls, and pool opponents Uruguay. While they showed great strength and attacking prowess to come back from a 19-point deficit to beat Chile, their inability to shut down Chile's attack will weigh heavily on Allister Coetzee's mind, especially after Uruguay also found ways to slice through their defence through in the backs, while the Welwitschias struggled to shut down their lineout maul.
Player to watch: Divan Rossouw. Producing a man-of-the-match performance in their World Cup qualifying match against Kenya, the utility back has made a mark in just the few games he's worn the Namibia blue jersey. Choosing his studies over a World Cup in 2019, Rossouw will head to the tournament as one of his team's best players with his ability to break the game open through his impressive ball running. Making his debut for Namibia just last year, Rossouw already has several five-pointers to his name and will be a serious threat against Uruguay, who he was able to open up in their warmup clash in August. Able to play at both wing and fullback, he'll likely come on in the No.15 jersey with one of his greatest strengths his vision from depth and ability under the high ball.
What are they aiming for: Six World Cup appearances so far and Namibia have left each time without a single victory -- in 2023 they'll be determined to change that record. A single win in France would be a massive achievement for the Welwitschias and they'll be eyeing their final pool match against Uruguay as the game to do it, but they also have some interesting history on their side with previous wins over Italy all the way back in 1991. While it'll be a tough task to get even the one win, the Africans are improving and will command the respect of both Italy and Uruguay.