With the first four weekends of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France over, and one team from each group having played all four group games, the last weekend saw the last group matches before the serious end of the competition starts next weekend with the last eight teams in the knock-out phase of the tournament.
Namibia (zero points and on their way home), South Africa (fifteen points and almost guaranteed qualification save for an exceptional result in the Scotland-Ireland game on Saturday), Australia (eleven points and most likely on their way home as long as Fiji beat Portugal in the last game of the week-end) and Chile (zero points and on their way home) had all played their four qualifying games.
In Group A, France and New Zealand would most likely qualify, unless Italy were to spring a major surprise by beating France, or if Uruguay were to surprise New Zealand and France get one point from their game with France).
In Group B, Ireland and South Africa would both progress if Ireland beat Scotland; other complicated permutations could see either Ireland or South Africa lose out.
In Group C, Fiji would join Wales in the last 16 if the Pacific Islanders were to beat Portugal, as predicted, sending Australia home, which would be the first major surprise of the tournament.
In Group D, it would be a straight shoot-out between Japan and Argentina to see which team would join England in the Last Eight (quarter-finals).
In Thursday's game, New Zealand played Uruguay in Lyon. Uruguay had almost all the possession in the first five minutes but New Zealand turned over the ball and chipped over their South American neighbour's defence and almost broke the last defence; however, Uruguay's defence did not yield. However, in the eighth minutes, scrum-half Cam Roigard looked as if he had scored when he broke through, but he was adjudged to have lost control of the ball before touching down. All Blacks back-row Tyrel Lomax was substituted due to injury with Fletcher Newell coming on in him place. Five minutes later, Uruguay broke through the New Zealand defence, first down the right wing, then across to the left wing, but the touch down was ruled out as the player was adjudged to have a foot in touch upon being tackled. On sixteen minutes, New Zealand's full-back Damian Mackenzie broke through the Uruguay defence for what then became the third try to be ruled out as the referee blew his whistle for a foul against New Zealand earlier in the move. However, Damian Mackenzie did score the first try of the game in the 20th minute in a play off the back of a 5m scrum; converted by out-half Richie Mo'unga for a 7-0 lead which New Zealand doubled a couple of minutes later when Richie Mo'unga went over for his side's second try. Uruguay then brought play up the other end of the pitch, but could not make their territorial advantage pay. A piece of magic by Damian Mackenzie then gifted wing Will Jordan their third try within a fifteen-minute period. Cam Roigard then got their fourth try just before the break. Richie Mo'ungamissed the conversion. HT 26-0. In the second half, New Zealand continuted from where they left off at the end of the first, and scored tries through Fletcher Newell Leicester Fainga'anuku (3), Damian McKenzie (his second of the game), Will Jordan (his second of the game), Tamaiti Williams, with 11 tries in total for a final score of 73-0. So, until France and Italy play the following evening, New Zealand top the group on 15 points, with France second on 13 points.
On Friday, France played Italy in Lyon. While France were odds-on favourites to win this game, Italy were in with an outside chance of the quarter-finals should they cause a shock result. As it turned out, France scored four unanswered tries in the first half, courtesy of Damian Penaud (2), Louis Bielle-Biarrey and Thomas Ramos, with full-back Thomas Ramos converting all four, plus a penalty, for a 31-0 half-time lead. In the second half, Matthieu Jalibert, Peato Mauvakam and Yoram Moefana (2) doubled the number of tries to eight, for a 60-7 winning score, with Italy's consolation try scored by Manuel Zuliani, with Tommaso Allan getting the conversion.
Saturday's late game had Ireland up against Scotland in Paris. While Ireland had defeated South Africa who in turn had defeated Scotland in earlier group games, and Ireland were on a 16-game winning run, Scotland had been talking up their chances earlier in the week, knowing that a defeat would send them home. On the pitch was which mattered most and, buoyed on by an estimated 50,000 Irish supporters in the stadium(out of an 80,000 capacity), Ireland got off to a flying start when James Lowe touched down for the opening try within two minutes. Johnny Sexton missed the touchline conversion and Scotland had Ireland pinned back for the next ten minutes during which they failed to breach their defence. Scotland lost captain Jamie Ritchie to injury after 20 minutes and Stuart McCloskey replaced Irish wing Mack Hansen a minute later for a HIA assessment (Hansen would return a short while later but came off permanently when he picked up a calf injury). Ireland stepped up the pressure with a move that saw full-back Hugo Keenan run through for Ireland's second try and Ian Henderson got his hands on the ball after major work by the Irish forwards for his team's third, with Johnny Sexton converting both. To round off a very strong second quarter for the Irish, Hugo Keenan got his second, and Ireland's fourth, try a minute before the break, into which Ireland went with a 26-0 lead and a try bonus point in the bag. James Lowe, who had needed on-pitch treatment during the first half when he suffered an eye injury, did not return for the second half, replaced by Conor Murray. The second half started with Scotland's Ollie Smith picking up a yellow card for a needless trip on Johnny Sexton before Dan Sheehan crossed for Ireland's fifth try and effectively sealing the result if that had not already been on many people's minds approaching half-time. On 45 minutes, Johnny Sexton was replaced by Jack Crowley, to keep the 38 year-old player in prime condition for the inevitable quarter-final next week-end; and just three minutes later, Ireland's five substitute forwards came on at the same time in a very imposing move. Garry Ringrose then scored what was to be Ireland's last try of the game on the 58th minute, after Jack Crowley kicked inch-perfectly over the Scottish defence for the centre-cum-wing to collect and touch down. Following two missed tackles by Ian Henderson and Bundee Aki, Scotland got two consolation tries within a minute courtesy of Ewan Ashman and Ali Price, with Finn Russell converting both. Ireland finished with two scrum-halves, three centres and no wings on the pitch, with both Hansen and Lowe injured and Jamison Gibson-Park and Garry Ringrose moving out the wings, with Stuart McCloskey fitting in for Ringrose and Conor Murray coming off the bench as replacement scrum-half. Full-time: Ireland 36, Scotland 14. Ireland would be playing the All Backs next Saturday in the quarter-finals and Scotland were going home.
Sunday's second game saw Tonga and Romania, both win-less to date, up against each other in Lille. Romania started the stronger but Tonga won possession and broke through the Romanian defence, for wing Solomone Kata to touch down in the corner for the first try of the match. William Havili converted for Tonga to take a 7-0 lead. Tonga added a second four minutes later when centre George Moala finished off a move in which the forwards drover towards the Romanian line. The Romanian full-back Marius Simeonescu then showed a piece of magic when he chipped over the Tongan rush defence and gathered, slipping a couple of tackles and gaining significant territory, before his team-mate, out-half Alin Conache converted a oenakty tio get Romania onto the scoreboard. Tonga got their third try on 22 minutes when wing Afusipa Taumoepeau finished off a strong move. With William Havili kicking his third conversion, Tonga stretched their lead to eighteen points. Romania did reduce the arrears on 30 minutes when Cristi Boboc went over to end off a flowing move for their first try of the game. A couple of minutes later, Tonga's second-row Halaleva Fifita was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle, so they would be down to ten men for the next ten minutes. Romania struck again when their experienced scrum-half Florin Surugiu raced over and touched town, with out-half Alin Conache successful with the conversion to reduce the arrears to just four points. HT Tonga 21. Romania 17. Early in the second half, Tonga were back up to fifteen men. Sione Vailanu went over for Tonga's fourth try on 49 minutes; however, Romania were not ready to concede and five minutes later, Marius Simionescu raced onto a through ball to touch down to reduce the deficit again to four points. In a thrilling final quarter, both sides brought on a number of replacements with 20 minutes to go. Tonga's inside centre, Pita Ahki, then broke through the Romania defence to touch down and create more breathing space on the scoreboard, with the gap now eleven points. William Havili then kicked Tonga a 50-22; from the resulting throw-in, Tonga passed the ball quickly out along the back line for Solomone Kata on the right wing to race in and touch down for his second try of the game. The crowd was loving the free-flowing rugby from both sides, with Tonga having the upper hand. Romania were down to fourteen men for the last ten minutes when Alin Conache was yellow-carded for a blant offside offence. Tonga had another try disallowed for a forward pass. With nine minutes left on the clock, replacement back Kyren Taumoefolau finished of a fine passing move with a an outstretched finish in the corner as Tonga increased their lead, showing their superiority. Both teams fought to the end, with Romania searching for a fourth try which would give them a bonus point. FT 45-24 to Tonga.
Saturday's first game saw Wales up against Georgia in Nantes. Tomas Francis and Liam Williams touched down in the first half, with Sam Costelow converting both, for Wales to race into a 17-0 lead, only for Merab Sharikadze to touch down for Georgia before the break. With Luka Matkava crossing the try-line for Georgia, and Luka Matkava converting, the HT score was 17-7. After the break, however, Wales stretched their lead through Louis Rees-Zammit, with Georgia responding through tries by Vano Karkadze and Davit Niniashvil in an exciting three-minute spell to leave the score delicately balanced at 24-19 with Luka Matkava getting one of the two conversions. Louis Rees-Zammit, however, added two tries, and George North added another at the death for Wales to win 43-19, the final score not really telling the story of the match. On 71 minutes, both Davit Niniashvili (Georgia) and Taine Basham (Wales) were yellow-carded, so they both missed the final ten minutes of the game. Wales finished as group winners are would go on to the quarter-finals next week-end.
Sunday's third game, and the last game in the group phase of the tournament, saw Fiji and Portugal play each other in Toulouse in a game that would see the winner qualify for the quarter-finals as second in the group. The Europeans started off on the front foot and stole two Fijian line-outs in the first six minutes, and also blocked down two Fijian clearance kicks. On ten minutes, Fiji went into the lead when Frank Lomani kicked a penalty. The game opened up with both teams playing the ball quick, breaking through tackles, kicking cross-field and playing "kick-chase". Fiji were making mistakes, with their ball-handling letting them down. Four minutes before half-time, Portugal almost scored, only for the referee to adjudge that the ball was knocked forward. In any case, the referee called play back and awarded Portugal a penalty that Samuel Marques slotted over, two minutes before half-time, to tie the scores at 3-3. In the second half, Portugal came out all guns blazing and spread the ball wide, breaking through the Fijian defence, with Raffaele Storti ending a free-flowing move with a touch down in the corner on 45 minutes, with Samuel Marques converting from the touchline. With almost the first play from the re-start, Fiji's full-back Sireli Maqala picked up a spilled ball in his 22 and danced though a number of tickles, going almost all the way; although he was taken down in Portugal's 22, his team-mate Levani Botia did touch down on the next play, with Frank Lomani converting, to tie the game 10-10 after almost 50 minutes. Shortly after the restart, Fiji were down to fourteen men when the try-scorer Levani Botia was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle. With the very next play, Portugal scored again, this time prop Francisco Fernandes touching down in the 51st minute, with Samuel Marques again converting. Both teams were playing attacking, free-flowing rugby, but with errors, either at line-outs or at the breakdown. Fiji had more territory but were making more errors, particularly knock-ons and forward passes, but Portugal were conceding more penalties. A hugely exciting and entertaining game; on 60 minutes, both teams made use of the replacement benches and made a number of substitutions. With 20 minutes to go, Portugal were leading 10-17, but Fiji would sneak into a quart-final place courtesy of a losing bonus point. Both teams were attacking and counter-attacking. With thirteen minutes remaining, Fiji drew level with Portugal when Mesake Doge drover over from close quarters and Frank Lomani converted, and three minutes late he sent Fiji into a three-point lead when he slotted home a penalty, and then further ahead with a second one two minutes later. Portugal were not finished, though, and came back at the Fijians, with wing Rodrigo Marta touching down with two minutes left, to close the gap to one point. Samuel Marques then had a chance to go into the lead if he kicked the conversion, which he did. 30 seconds left on the clock and Portugal were slow to recycle the ball; out it came and kicked it into the stands once the clock went into the red. Portugal scored a famous win 23-24, but Fiji sneaked into the quarter-finals.
Saturday's second game saw England play Samoa in Lille. England had already topped the group but both sides would still be looking to bring their group matches to a close with a win. England started the brightest with second-row Ollie Chessum getting the first try of the game following a strong running and passing move. Nigel Ah-Wong responded for the Pacific Islanders with two tries within eight minutes just before the half-hour, the second following an inch-perfect cross-field kick, and both converted by Lima Sopoaga. In fact, he had touched down for a third, only for the referee to over-rule it due to a knock-on earlier in the move. With Owen Farrell adding a penalty for England, Samoa led 8-14 at half-time. Eight minutes after the break, Lima Sopoaga added a penalty to extend Samoa's lead to nine points. Both teams made a significant number of changes with around 20 minutes to play. Owen Farrell clawed thee points back for England who only got on top with seven minutes to play when replacement scrum-half Danny Care touched down under the posts, with Owen Farrell's conversion breaking Samoa's hearts for a one-point win. By then, Samoa had been down to fourteen men for ten minutes when Tumua Manu was yellow-carded for an illegal challenge in the air. FT 18-17 for England in what was an incredibly taut, nail-biting, finish to the game.
On Sunday, the first game of the day involved Japan and Argentina in Nantes. On the line was second place in the group and a quarter-final place. The South Americans shot out of the starting blocks, with inside centre Santiago Chocobares shooting through the Japanese defence touching down for the opening try of the game, and wing Emiliano Boffelli converting for an early 0-7 lead. After sixteen minutes, Japan equalised courtesy of a spectacular try by Amato Fakatava, who raced on to a through kick, and Rikiya Matsuda kicking the conversion. Argentina then retook the lead when Mateo Carreras touched down on 28 minutes in the corner; while the conversion was missed, Emiliano Boffelli added three points to Argentia's score. However, Japan responded excellently when Naoto Saito added their second try at the end of the first 40 minutes following a good team more with the ball passing through the hands of many players, with Rikiya Matsuda converting. HT Japan 14, Argentina 15, with everything to play for in the second half. When the game resumed, Mateo Carreras got his second try on 46 minutes, with Emiliano Boffelli getting Argentia's fourth, just twelve minutes later. Japan responded with a try by Jone Naikabula on 65 minutes in the corner after strong pressure from the forwards in Japan's 22, but Argentina were too strong and closed out the game. FT 27-39 to Argentina who would go through to the quarter-finals. A hugely entertaining, and nail-biting, encounter, with Argentina qualifying for the quarter-finals.
For the first time ever, all four groups were won by northern hemisphere sides, with France, Ireland, Wales and England coming out on top; New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Fiji - all from the southern hemisphere - finished in their groups. As a result, all four quarter-final matches next week-end will see northern hemisphere teams take on southern hemisphere teams.
Group A: New Zealand 73, Uruguay 0; France 60, Italy 7 (France top the group on 18 points, with New Zealand in second on 15 points; Italy finished third on 10 points)
Group B: Ireland 36, Scotland 14; Tonga 45, Romania 24 (Ireland top the group with 19 points, with South Africa second on 15 points; Scotland finished third on 10 points)
Group C: Wales 43, Georgia 19; Fiji 23, Portugal 24 (Wales top the group on 19 points, with Fiji in second on 11 points, above Australia who also finished on 11 points)
Group D: England 18, Samoa 17; Japan 27, Argentina 39 (England top the group on 18 points, with Argentina in second on 14 points; Japan finished third on 9 points)
The quarter-final line-up is as follows:
QF2: Ireland-New Zealand
QF4: France-South Africa