Canada got a look Monday at what awaits at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France and it’s a case of pick your poison.
The 23rd-ranked Canadian men will face either New Zealand or England in group play if they secure one of the two direct qualifying spots from the Americas for the 20-team showcase.
At Monday’s draw in Paris, Americas 1 was placed in Group A with third-ranked New Zealand, No. 4 France, No. 14 Italy and Africa 1 (which was Namibia at the 2019 tournament).
Americas 2 will play in Group D alongside No. 2 England, No. 8 Argentina, No. 10 Japan and Oceania 1 (No. 13 Tonga or No. 15 Samoa).
Group B, the only pool Canada could not land in, features defending champion and top-ranked South Africa, No. 5 Ireland, No. 7 Scotland (7), Asia/Pacific 1 and Europe 2.
Group C consists of No. 6 Australia, No. 9 Wales, No. 11 Fiji, Europe 1 and the winner of the final qualification tournament. Canada, which won the last-chance repechage last time out, could also end up in this group.
“I think they’re all looking pretty tough, aren’t they,” Canada coach Kingsley Jones said of the groups.
Jones has to consider both the skill and physicality of the opposition, given the sometimes short turnaround at the World Cup.
Group A is similar to Canada’s pool at the 2019 tournament in Japan with mercurial France replacing the powerful Springboks. The Canadian men (0-3-0) finished last in the pool (on point difference) behind tough opposition in New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia. Canada’s final match against Namibia was called off due to Typhoon Hagibis.
The 2023 World Cup is scheduled to run Sept. 8 to Oct. 21 in nine stadiums.
Twelve teams have already qualified, by virtue of finishing in the top three of their pools at the 2019 tournament: South Africa, New Zealand, England, Wales, Ireland, France, Australia, Japan, Scotland, Argentina, Fiji and Italy.
Eight more countries will join them via regional qualifiers, including the Americas.
Qualifying for 2023 has seen various permutations in the region. Canadian officials had been led to believe it would involve results in the Americas Rugby Championship — which involves Canada, the U.S, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and an Argentina reserve side — over the next two years.
But the most recent Americas qualifying road map tweaks the traditional format.
Canada will face the 16th-ranked Americans home and away with the winner facing a South American tournament victor, likely No. 18 Uruguay, in the two-legged Americas 1 Playoff to determine who goes to the World Cup as Americas 1.
The Canada-U.S. loser will face a South American tournament runner-up, likely No. 26 Brazil or No. 29 Chile, in the Americas 2 Qualifier with the winner advancing to the Americas 2 Playoff against the Americas 1 Playoff loser. The winner of that series moves on as Americas 2 while the loser goes the final qualification tournament.
Jones hopes that process can start in the fall of 2021, allowing the teams that qualify more time to prepare for the World Cup.
The 12 teams already qualified were seeded for the draw based on World Rugby’s rankings as of Jan. 1, 2020 — in deference to the COVID-caused havoc on the international schedule — and placed in the first three four-country pots. Americas 1 was in pot 4 and Americas 2 in pot 5.
World Rugby has said in the future, seedings used for the draw will come much closer to the tournament itself.
Due to the pandemic, the Canadians have not played since their final outing at the 2019 World Cup — a 66-7 loss to South Africa on Oct. 8.
In the past, Americas qualifying has pitted Canada against the U.S. with the winner securing a World Cup berth and the loser facing a South American team for the second direct berth. The loser of that match has previously had a third shot via a last-chance repechage tournament.
Before the 2019 event, Canada had always secured its Americas berth at the first stage of qualifying.
But last time out, the Canadians lost qualifying series to the U.S. and Uruguay before winning the repechage tournament that also featured Germany, Hong Kong and Kenya.
The loss to the Americans cost Mark Anscombe his job as Canada coach in August 2017, with Jones taking over.
Monday’s draw was held in a largely empty Palais Brongniart, with French president Emmanuel Macron, wearing a mask, delivered welcoming words while physically distanced from the draw host.
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont delivered his message remotely.
“Rugby World Cup 2023 will be great for rugby, but not only for rugby. In a world of change and uncertainty accelerated by the global pandemic, it’s important that major events are not just a celebration of sporting performance but a symbol of unity, diversity and change,” said Beaumont.
“It will be the best of rugby, and the best of France,” he added.
The Canadian men have made every World Cup field since the tournament debuted in 1987. But the team has only got out of the preliminary round once, in 1991 when it lost 29-13 to New Zealand in the quarterfinals.
2023 Rugby World Cup draw (with current world rankings)
Group A: New Zealand (3), France (4), Italy (14), America 1, Africa 1.
Group B: South Africa (1), Ireland (5), Scotland (7), Asia/Pacific 1 and Europe 2.
Group C: Wales (9), Australia (6), Fiji (11), Wales (9), Europe 1, winner of the final qualification tournament.
Group D: England (2), Japan (10), Argentina (8), Oceania 1, America 2.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2020
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press