Ireland and South Africa line up for the national anthems, Stade de France on 23 September 2023; Credit:

Following the first two weekends of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France in Paris, the matches started to become more spread out with a couple of midweek fixture; also the gulf in class between the top-tier teams and others became even more evident, as did the gulf in quality between the top and bottom halves of the draw.

The most anticipated games in this third round of group matches saw the #1 ranked team in the world, Ireland, up against the reigning world champions, South Africa, in Pool B, and Australia against Wales in Group C.

Group A:

On Wednesday, Italy played their second game of the tournament against Uruguay in Nice. While Italy got the first score of the match through a try by Lorenzo Pani after just seven minutes, they lost both Niccolo Cannone and Danilo Fischetti to yellow cards in quick succession, therefore going down to thirteen players, This offered the South Americans a way way back into the game, and Uruguay were awarded a penalty try, followed by a second try by Nicolas Freitas just before the interval. HT Uruguay led Italy 7-17. A couple of minutes into the second half, just after Felipe Etcheverry scored a drop-goal for Uruguay, his team-mate Andres Vilaseca was yellow-carded. Italy got back into the game with tries by Michele Lamaro and Montanna Ioane, with Lorenzo Cannone and Juan Ignacio Brex also touching down, for Italy to earn a 38-17 win and, with it, a valuable five points to retain a glimmer of hope for qualification, with matches to come against both France and New Zealand.

On Thursday, host team France played Namibia in Marseille, scoring thirteen tries without reply in a whopping 96-0 trouncing. The try scorers included Damian Penaud (3), Jonathan Danty (2), Charles Ollivon (2), Thibaud Flament, Antoine Dupont, Louis Bielle-Biarrey (2), Baptiste Couilloud and Melvyn Jaminet. The worrying news for France is that star player Antoine Dupont suffered a fractured cheekbone and is expected to be out of action for a few weeks, missing his team's last pool match and quarter-final too.

Group B:

Saturday's late match saw Ireland take on South Africa at the Stade de France in Paris, with the winner possibly facing New Zealand in the quarter-finals, and the losers possibly facing France (both Italy in Group A and Scotland in Group B are also very much in the equation...). South Africa had named no less than seven forwards in the eight-man replacement bench, dividing opinion amongst rugby purists, some arguing it was against the spirit of the game. Jonny Sexton kicked off for Ireland and the first few minutes of the game were spent in South Africa's 22. Ireland were warded a penalty and Sexton decided to kick for touch instead of kicking for three points. South Africa won the line-out from which they set up a counter-attack which resulted them being awarded a penalty in Ireland's 22 which Mannie Libbok converted to put South Africa into the lead, 3-0 on six minutes. Sexton found touch near the South African's 5m line, but Ireland's line-out was malfunctioning. Ireland's full-back Hugo Keenan then broke through the South African defence but was brought down just short of the line. Most of the game was now happening in the middle of the pitch, with South Africa's power game up against Ireland's speed to the breakdown. The referee was blowing his whistle, penalising both teams. In quick succession, Ireland Garry Ringrose (who had to leave the field for a HIA and was replaced by Robbie Henshaw) and Johnny Sexton needed attention due to (making) crushing tackles. Bundee Aki broke through the South African defence twice in quick succession. But then Ireland put pressure on the South African line before passing it out wide for Mack Hansen to score Ireland's first points, with Johnny Sexton converting the try for Ireland to take a 3-7 lead on 34 minutes which they held onto until half-time. At the start of the second-half, the two sides continued where they had left off. After five minutes, South Africa's scrum-half, Faf de Klerk, kicked a penalty from inside his own half only for the ball to bounce back off the upright and cause mayhem under the Irish posts for a minute before South Africa were awarded a penalty on Ireland's five-metre line and opted for a scrum from which they spread the ball out wide for winger Cheslin Kolbe to touch down in the 51st minute. Manie Libbok missed the conversion to leave South Africa with a one-point lead, 8-7. By now, South Africa had three replacements on the field as they started to empty the bench. With 20 minutes left, Ireland regained the lead thanks to a Johnny Sexton penalty. 8-10 to Ireland. By now the Irish fans were in full voice, belting out The Fields of Athenry, arguably the loudest ever heard in Paris. But then Manie Libbok missed another penalty which would have given South Africa the lead again. Now Ireland started to empty their replacement bench... Faf de Klerk tried once more, again from just inside his own half: this too went wide. From a South African line-out ten metres from the Irish line, they were awarded a penalty, choosing to kick for another line-out from which Ireland were awarded a scrum. It was becoming increasingly tense.Ireland then attacked and were in South Africa's 22 for a while, and were awarded a scrum just five metres out from which they were awarded a penalty. Jack Crowley, on for Johnny Sexton, converted to stretch Ireland's lead to five points. South Africa were awarded a penalty in their own half and kicked for touch, earning a line-out seven metres from Ireland's line. But they had no time to leverage their position. Ireland turned over the ball and the referee below for full time. Ireland won 8-13 and retain #1 world ranking in addition to defeating the RWC holders whose 7-1 replacements gamble backfired as they had no other kicker upon whom to call.

And Scotland and Tonga faced off in Nice in Sunday's early game. The European side started strongly, with George Turner touching down for Scotland's first try after just five minutes, with Duhan van der Merwe and Kyle Steyn adding their second and third within the first half an hour. However, the Pacific Islanders were not simply rolling over, they scored a try of their own with Solomone Kata scoring on 20 minutes. The Tongan out-half William Havili converted the try and also landed a penalty on ten minutes, yet Scotland's kicking saw Finn Russell land just one of the three conversion attempts. At 19-10 to Scotland, the game turned on 34 minutes when Tonga's Afusipa Taumoepeau was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle meaning the Pacific Islanders would be down to fourteen men for the next ten minutes, at least (the feeling was that it would be upgraded to a red card). In the dying seconds of the first half and with the clock in the red, Scotland threatened Tonga's try line, first with Duhan van der Merwe going close in the corner, then with Rory Darge steam-rolling through the defence. HT Scotland lead Tonga 24-10 and with a try bonus point secured. At the start of the second half, the referee announced that the yellow card would remain and would not be upgraded to a red, so Tonga would be back up to fifteen men within a minute. With just three minutes gone of the second half, Tonga clawed back the deficit when Ben Tameifuna powered through the Scottish defence to touch down. With the conversion good, the score was now 24-17. On 55 minutes, Duhan van der Merwe danced his way through a number of Tongan tackles and set up George Horne for a try in the corner, for Scotland to regain their 14-point lead. They had to wait another thirteen minutes to extend their lead, with a period of sustained forwards pressure resulting in Blair Kinghorn scoring Scotland's sixth try. Almost immediately after, Duhan van der Merwe split open the Tongan defence once again, but Scotland lost possession. With three minutes left, Tonga were down to fourteen men for the second time in the match when Tonga's No.8, Vaea Fifita, was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle. Scotland had time for one last try, with substitute Darcy Graham running have the length of the post to ensure Scotland finished 45-17 winners.

Group C:

Saturday's first match saw Georgia and Portugal play at Toulouse. Georgia came flying out of the blocks and scored the game's first try in just the second minute when Akaki Tabutsadze finished of a fine move down the right wing. With the conversion, and a later penalty, by Tedo Abzhandadze, Georgia led 10-0. They had the vast majority of possession but Portugal's defence was holding, with their forward winning a number of turnovers and penalties. On 18 minutes, Georgia though they had scored their second try, only for the referee to rule it offside for a knock-on early in the move. Tedo Abzhandadze converted his second penalty after 32 minutes, but Portugal hit back with a try of their own a couple of minutes later throigh Raffaele Storti. Five minutes later Portugal were down to fourteen men when Francisco Fernandes was yellow-carded for an illegal tackle. HT Georgia lead 13-5. Portugal were fired up for the second half and two penalties converted by Samuel Marques put them just two points behind Georgia. Then, with three quarters of the match behind them, Raffaele Storti danced through the Georgian defence for his (and his team's) second try, to lead 13-18. Portugal were in line for their first-ever RWC win, but Georgia were not yet finished. Within two minutes of the 80 minutes, Georgia pushed over but the referee could not see if the ball had been grounded, or not. A referral to the TMO resulted in the try being awarded, with Tengizi Zamtaradze credited with the touchdown. The conversion was missed so the teams were tied at 18-18. The drama was not over, however, as Portugal were awarded a penalty. But the kick, the last kick of the game, was agonisingly wide so the FT score was 18-18, the end of a wonderful match at this year's RWC.

Sunday's last game saw the eagerly-awaited game between Wales and Australia in Lyon; neither side had played well coming into the tournament and Australia had lost to Fiji, with Wales lucky to beat the Pacific Islanders. In the third minute, from a well-rehearsed move from a line-out, Wales opened the scoring when scrum-half Gareth Davies finished off and touched town under the posts. Converted by out-half Dan Biggar, Wales led 7-0. Australia responded by putting massive pressure on the Welsh defence in their 22 and were awarded a penalty which they decided to kick for goal. Out-half Ben Donaldson converted to get Australia onto the scoreboard and reduce the deficit to four points. On twelve minutes, Dan Biggar could not continue due to a shoulder injury and was replaced by Ben Anscombe. A couple of minutes later Australia earned back another three points with a second penalty. Ben Anscombe missed a long-range penalty which hit the upright; however, he was successful a couple of minutes later to put Wales into a four-point lead. Australia were awarded a penalty in Wales' 22 but, instead of going for a straight-forward three points, they kicked for touch, only for Wales to steal the line-out and relieve the pressure. Down the other end of the pitch and Anscombe converted a penalty to stretch Wales' lead to seven points. Two minutes before half-time, they added another penalty. Wales did manage to get the ball over the Australian try-line, but the referee adjudged it to be held up. HT Wales lead Australia 16-6. In the second half, Australia started with one change in their front row. Wales added a penalty on 43 minutes and went further ahead on 48 minutes when Nick Tompkins sprinted onto a kick and touched down under the posts. Surely there could be no way back for Australia at this stage, trailing 26-6. And soon the gap was three more with another penalty for Wales. There seemed to be no way back for Australia as they did not vary their tactics and they made a number of handling errors and other infringements penalised by the referee. On another Welsh attack, Anscombe converted a drop-goal to add to Australia's misery. With ten minutes to play, the mountain to climb for Australia was now 29 points. But Wales had not finished and a pushover try saw Jac Morgan credited with the try. FT 40-6 for Wales.

Group D:

On Friday evening, Argentina played Samoa in Saint-Étienne. The Pacific Islanders got off to a bad start with Duncan Paia'aua yellow-carded in the first minute, allowing Argentina to score eight minutes later in what was the only try of the half. Emiliano Boffelli touched down, got the conversion and three penalties. Following a HT score of 13-3 to Argentina, Samoa rallied in the second half, with Sama Malolo scoring his side's only try on 75 minutes. FT 19-10 to Argentina who played well below their best and failed to pick up a try bonus point.

England played Chile in Saturday's second match in Lille, with suspended captain Eoin Farrell back in the team at out-half (George Ford played well in their other two group matches) and the third out-half in the squad, Marcus Smith getting a run-out at full-back. The match was 21 minutes old before it saw its first score, when Henry Arundell finished off a period of sustained pressure to touch down, only for Farrell to miss the conversion. Just two minutes later, England doubled their lead when hooker Theo Dan, playing his first game of the tournament,  touched down from a maul. This time, Farrell made no mistake with the conversion for England to suddenly be in the lead, 12-0. As expected, all of the pressure was coming from England, but Chile's defence was initially holding strong but then started to creak; when they gained possession, they then kicked for territory, giving the ball back to England. Henry Arundell got his second try of the match when he had a simple touch down after solid backline play. Again Farrell missed the conversion (from the the right-hand touchline). Prop Bevan Rodd used his bulk to evade a couple of Chilean tackles and force his way over for England's fourth try of the game, with five minutes to go to half-time. Chile had time to get their first score of the game and won a penalty, resulting in a lineout deep in England's half. However, the English forward turned over the ball, resulting in Marcus Smith kicking over the rush defence, gathering the ball and outpacing the opposition to race free and touch down in the corner. Farrell converted to put England in a commanding 31-0 half-time lead, and a try bonus point in the bag. In the second half, Chile made the first change, but they were down to fourteen men when Matias Dittus was yellow-carded. From the restart, England got a pushover try with Theo Dan touching down for his second try of the game. Three minutes later, Henry Arundell went over for his hat-trick when he ran onto, and collected, a through-ball that beat the Chilean defence which was by now leaking tries. On 50 minutes, Ben Youngs replaced Danny Care at scrum-half for England who by now had gained a 45-0 lead, with more substitutions just five minutes later when they started to empty the bench. Henry Arundell got his fourth try on 60 minutes. Chile had another chance a few minutes later but they fluffed their line-out and lost possession. From a penalty on the 22m line a couple of minutes later, they kicked for the corner, but nothing came of the ensuing line-out. Shortly after, Marcus Smith broke through Chile's defensive line and set up Henry Arundell for his fifth try of the game. Chile responded with a couple more attacks into England's 22, but their line-out let them down continually. Marcus Smith finished off a move he himself started, getting his second and England's tenth try with just a couple of minutes left on the clock. England's last try came when Jack Willis crashed through the middle. FT England defeat Chile 71-0.

Weekend Summary

The "Clash of the Titans" saw Ireland, the #1 ranked side in the world, defeat South Africa, the reigning champions and RWC holders in an intense battle which arguably will decide Pool B - Scotland may still have a say in the matter when they play Ireland in two weeks' time.

Elsewhere, France and England racked up the points without reply against weaker opposition, but France have now lost their talisman Antoine Dupont for a number of weeks after suffering a fractured cheekbone, and this is on top of having lost out-half Emile N'Tamack for the entire tournament even before it started.

Pool A looks like it will be settled with Italy still in with a chance, but they would need the shock of all shocks to deny New Zealand when they face off next Friday evening.

In Group C, Wales ended Australia's realistic hopes of progressing in the competition with a convincing win, while Georgia and Portugal fought out an entertaining draw. Interestingly, this has been the first RWC when New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have all lost group matches.

England look to have already tied up Poll D, but it is between Argentina, Japan and Samoa (currently occupying second position) for the other quarter-final place.

Group A: Italy 38, Uruguay 17; France 96, Namibia 0 (France top the group on 13 points, with Italy in second on 10 points)
Group B: Ireland 13, South Africa 8; Scotland 45, Tonga 17 (Ireland top the group on 14 points, with South Africa in second on 10 points)
Group C: Georgia 18, Portugal 18; Wales 40, Australia 6 (Wales top the group on 15 points, with Fiji in second on 6 points on points difference from Australia)
Group D: Argentina 17, Samoa 10; England 71, Chile 0 (England top the group on 14 points, with Samoa in second on 5 points on points difference from Japan)