South Africa gets its title defense started at the Rugby World Cup on Sunday.
Back in 2019 in Japan, the South Africans used a swarming defense, a solid kicking game and a dominant set-piece to win rugby's biggest prize for a record-tying third time.
Now they are aiming to add a more expansive approach through new flyhalf Manie Libbok as they begin with a match against Scotland.
It's one of three games on Day 3, with Fiji looking to back up its status as a possible surprise package against Wales. Chile will make its Rugby World Cup debut against Japan.
SOUTH AFRICA vs. SCOTLAND (South Africa leads 23-5 overall, 2-0 in RWC)
If the Boks are to turn on the style in the back division to match their forward strength, Libbok will be orchestrating things from flyhalf. He is the only specialist No. 10 in the squad and plays more on intuition than any Springboks playmaker in recent memory.
Scotland's Finn Russell is a flyhalf in the same mould and one of the most exciting players in the northern hemisphere, so the battle of the No. 10s could be some watch in a Pool B match between teams in the top five in the rankings. South Africa is No. 2 and Scotland is No. 5.
“It’s the biggest opportunity you’ll get, a World Cup game playing the world champions," Scotland coach Gregor Townsend said. “We believe we’ve been building to our best performance.
“Really, this is where it will count for our players to deliver what they have been delivering in training and what they’ve been delivering in other games we’ve played this year.”
It's the second high-level north vs. south matchup so far, following on from host France's win over New Zealand on the opening night.
South Africa captain Siya Kolisi, who led the Springboks to victory four years ago in Japan, will take the defending champions out for the start of this campaign and might cherish the occasion more than most.
Doubts were raised about the flanker's availability for the World Cup when he had surgery on a serious knee injury in late April. Kolisi returned to competitive action only last month in a test against Wales and he also played in South Africa's 35-7 beating of New Zealand in its final warmup.
“I will never forget, when we won in Japan, it was special, it felt great," Kolisi said. “But when we landed in Johannesburg, I’m actually getting goosebumps. I’ve never seen anything like that. The airport was, I think, under emergency because everybody left their working stations, they just wanted to see us.
“That is the kind of energy that drives us, the kind of energy that reminds us who we’re doing it for and why we’re doing it."
WALES vs. FIJI (Wales leads 11-1-1 overall, 3-1 in RWC)
Fiji might never have been this prepared for a Rugby World Cup.
Usually hampered by underfunding, a lack of squad depth and top-level competitive matches, or a tournament schedule that rarely helps tier two nations, Fiji's class of 2023 looks ready to provide a real test for the two major powers in its pool, Wales and Australia. Some have even dared suggest an improved Fiji is favorite against the Welsh in Bordeaux on Sunday.
Wales was a semifinalist in 2011 and 2019.
“When could we ever be called favorites when we’re considered a developing country versus a developed country? Resources and those sort of things," Fiji coach Simon Raiwalui said. “We’re confident with our preparation, with our group. We never go in thinking we’re favorites to win. We’re humble.”
This is a classic World Cup fixture, with the teams having met in pool play in every edition since the 2007 World Cup in France, when Fiji beat Wales 38-34 in an epic game in Nantes with a late try by prop Graham Dewes to advance and knock out the Welsh.
That's the last time Fiji made it to the quarterfinals. It has never gone further.
Fiji is up to No. 7 in the world rankings, three places higher than Wales, which has Warren Gatland in charge after returning to the team in November. He is taking charge at a fifth World Cup, a record for a coach.
JAPAN vs. CHILE (First meeting)
Chile is the only World Cup debutant in this edition after knocking over Canada and the United States in qualifying and is expected to struggle, having lost all seven of its matches since it qualified for the tournament in July last year.
The South American team lacks global experience, with only three players in the matchday squad against Japan playing their club rugby outside Chile.
“Of course, there is going to be new stuff for us, like stadiums at full capacity, people screaming and we are making sure we prepare for that situation,” Chile fullback Iñaki Ayarza said. "We are on our way to compete on the highest possible level.”
The Japanese used to be seen as easybeats, but no more. They reached the quarterfinals for the first time in 2019 on home soil and are expected to run Argentina and England close in Pool D.
Japan gives a first start in Toulouse to flanker Kanji Shimokawa, who has played less than 80 minutes of test rugby.
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby