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The Roar


Packs Power Rankings: Boks' 'bomb squad' edges France, injured Wallaby who Eddie can't replace

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4 days ago
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The best combined and powerful talent, deeply cohered into a wise plan, bolstered by ready substitutes, with just the right magic, will win the Cup.

So, we begin with the talent itself: who has the best eight packs and backs?

The best pack first, and a caveat: Levani Botia of Fiji may be the best in both fields (he can flank or centre and likely can hook or fly) but the top eight packs will come from the traditional powers, because that is how rugby works.

It is very difficult to build a 25-strong forward class from which to pick 19 or 20 able to match up with the big boys.

When we look at the backlines, there may be more surprises.

Power Ranking of RWC Packs:

1. South Africa

After the Marseille brawl with the Springboks last year, French flank Anthony Jelonch made this declaration (in French) to his home audience: “I don’t think we’ve ever played against forwards who are this strong.”


There were only seven on the pitch, as Pieter-Steph du Toit was suddenly and significantly shoved into a red card by Kwagga Smith early. The Boks will once again bring the best pack to the tourney.

The most likely starting eight has nobody under 60 caps (assuming Duane Vermeulen has done enough to put Jasper Wiese on the bomb squad) and plenty of them are in their third successive World Cup. Even the loss of Lood de Jager, traditionally underappreciated at home and away, has made scarcely a dent.

If the Springboks are to win another World Cup, it will be because of their forward pack. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Flame-scrumming Steven Kitshoff, extra-loosie Malcolm Marx, and foundational Frans Malherbe will win just about every shift and, the second they tire, Bongi Mbonambi, Vincent Koch, and Ox Nche (all of whom would get a look at any other squad) can run on with spicy energy.

Ironman Eben Etzebeth is making a bid to supplant Bakkies Botha as the best enforcer lock of the Boks in the modern era, given that he does more than Botha ever did (chase kicks, anchor pods, carry primarily) and if he were to carry his team to a back-to-back title, after coming oh so close in 2015 in a semi-final loss to one of the best All Black teams in history.

He and de Jager did have one of the most cemented lock partnerships nailed down until his mate suffered undefined heart issues.

Who his number five will be is up in the air.


Marvin Orie and Jean Kleyn have impressed, RG Snyman has been overwhelming but could be the perfect bombardier, and Franco Mostert will never let his team down. But the Boks can draw on four (five with Pieter-Steph du Toit) locks of high quality.

The loose trio is anchored by manic du Toit’s athletic work-rate, but Siya Kolisi has always been a good healer and his Cardiff cameo was startlingly good (his work as a wide carrier is as vital to South Africa as Ardie Savea’s).

Whether it is rugged Vermeulen or even more rugged Wiese at eight, they and their understudies (Kwagga Smith and/or Marco van Staden) only know one way: forward.

The Boks should not win this time; they simply don’t have the backline of the other top sides with Handre Pollard out and their style dependent on forcing position and penalty, and only Willie le Roux or injured Lukhanyo Am capable of making tries appear from thin air when up against the top four sides.

But if they pull yet another upset in the Cup, it will be built on their hard pack depth of quality.


2. France

Nobody knows when Cyril Baille can return, but it is likely he will make it back by the quarter-finals. His front-row mates Julien Marchand and Uini Atonio will hold down the Bastille whilst he recovers, forming a redoubtable cornerstone.

Without Baille, the French scrum folded, in the only really positive feature of the Australian performance on the weekend.

Paul Willemse is young but has established himself as the Will Skelton of France: seldom lifted at the lineout, but a terror in the ruck.

Cyril Baille’s absence could prove telling early on. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

He can be accompanied by smart Thibaud Flament or live wire Cameron Woki at five-lock, but it is in the loose trio where France is nonpareil. Charles Ollivon, Greg Alldritt, Jelonch, and Nicolas Cros are complete players, completely interchangeable really, and reminiscent of Thierry Dusatoir.

A quarter-final between France and the Boks would be like a volcano erupting into the eye of a hurricane.


3. New Zealand

Until Dan Sheehan’s injury, I would have stacked Ireland third, but he is that consequential because of his speed and eye for the game.

New Zealand has three fired up hookers who are not equal individually to Sheehan (who is, besides Marx, Montoya, or Marchand?) but as a corps, now have the edge.

Until Twickenham’s debacle, I would have also said the All Blacks have repaired their front row, but with Tyrell Lomax gashed and Ethan de Groot gassed, it looks like they have issues up front.

The good news is Sam Whitelock has found the fountain of youth and it turns out it was on the South Island.

The bad news is that big hallway pounder Scott Barrett, who is taking his turn as the Best Barrett, put his World Cup in jeopardy by foolishly lunging into a prone Marx who did not need a cleanout. This means the dings to Brodie Retallick’s long frame may be existential crises as they were in 2019.

Ardie Savea, head to head, still shades Caelan Doris who relies more on the system functioning. Savea can just put a team on his back; could he pull a tractor by himself?


The All Blacks’ pack is strong. But how good is it? (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The Irish series win was built on a faulty Kiwi plan, in selection and tactics, but the crisis of 2022 forced Jason Ryan into the coaching box and with it, a rock-hard pack dead set on revenge.

A quarter-final matchup with Ireland beckons, with Sam Cane on a quiet mission to refute Peter O’Mahony’s brilliant (and at that time, apt) sledge, and who does not want to see those two go at it? Both seem tired.

The wild card is at six, where Shannon Frizzell seems to have taken up the mantle of Jerome Kaino. He would have the clear advantage in beastliness over the aging gardener O’Mahony.

If he is out, granite-shouldered Luke Jacobson would be my pick, but Dalton Papalii may get the nod. Neither were vastly persuasive at Twickers.

4. Ireland

Man for man, injured Sheehan, reigning “wapotty” Josh van der Flier and Tadhg Furlong have strong claims to a World XV, but Ireland’s pack superpower is how aligned and intelligent they play: Doris and van der Flier are telepathic, wily Tadhg Beirne seems to have a cheat code in lineout and ruck, and James Ryan is the kind of lad you would want to go to (a just) war with at your side.


The only hiccup appears at scrum, where Andrew Porter leads the Six Nations in penalty concessions, a trait already baked into referee’s consciousnesses, and the sneaking suspicion that graying O’Mahony peaked during that beautiful insult.

Also, if two more serious forward injuries surface in the pools (the typical rate for teams) it is not clear this most unlucky of sides have the mongrel to deal with the rest of the top four’s reserves.

As scrums decrease, the rate of penalty at said scrums soars, meaning that Tests will still be decided on binds and angles in that messy melee late in matches when understudies are on.

Will letting Jean Kleyn go end up costing Paul O’Connell? Who is tackling Samisoni Taukei’aho late in the Test, as he peels off a crusading maul?

The rugby gods seem fickle, but seem to return to the pagan mean: the most sacred souls of the green isle must beseech them for a speedy recovery of speedy Sheehan.

It is no accident the top four teams have the best four packs, by far.

Finlay Bealham of Ireland is tackled by Gregory Alldritt, left, and Demba Bamba of France during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between France and Ireland at Stade de France in Paris, France. (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Ireland’s front-row remains their big question heading into the World Cup. (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)


The next five who must make four all have serious flaws.

Australia has front row issues, which is like saying Greece is facing a budget crisis.

Scotland is just a tiny bit smaller and weaker than their two Pool B foes.

England’s back row is splintered and wooden. Argentina has a lovely back five and a hell of a hooker, but their props are giving opponents easy entries and exits: Los Turnstiles.

Finally, Wales got old and now they are too young.

How does one rank these teams? Well, Wales is out because they are living solely on the loose and cannot survive the tight.

This Cup will be the tightest ever.


With ball-in-play rates the highest in history, depth from 1-5 and their replacements will be at an all-time and counterintuitive peak. Will Rowlands could end up being the new Alun Wyn Jones, but this Cup comes too soon and he is too alone.

5. Argentina

If Allan Alaalatoa were not injured, this rank would be flipped. But the worst possible thing for Australian hopes of smashing and grabbing Bill was to lose their most consistent prop. Would he have been captain?

The Pumas have two excellent rakes, with Julian Montoya an absolute rock, and a seasoned back five who play well far from home.

Pablo Matera had a claim to be in the best five players of 2023.

Juan Martin Gonzalez is an electric breakaway who broke le Roux’s ankles in space and cannot stop scoring. Marcos Kremer is a six’s six. He would be a good choice as bouncer for the riskiest cantina in La Boca; who wants a blindside to have a conscience?

Argentina’s forward pack can match it with the best and they boast a world class hooker in Julian Montoya. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)


Old No. 8 Michael Cheika has built interchangeability in his loose trio, the area of a team closest to his heart, and that facet allowed them to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand and England at Twickenham.

Matera went to Christchurch and became a stalwart. His packmates know how to play on Northern fields and against Southern giants.

In the second row, Argentina has three very good locks. Yes, Tomas Lavanini gets cards, but many do now. He knows how to move a pile. Guido Petti might be the best bench lock in the tournament behind Matias Alemanno.

But Argentina shares a big problem with their SANZAAR compatriots: their props are weak.

In fact, the only thing holding both back from creating the most infuriating outcome to the North in history (all four of The Rugby Championship teams in the Rugby World Cup semi finals) are tight-head props. How many cases of Malbec would they give for a Malherbe?

6. Australia

The Wallabies have a killer backline, even if dispensing of Quade Cooper seems based more on pique and pride than planning precision. Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete are horrible to tackle in any bit of space, and there is plenty around them.


But in the vital trenches, with calm Alaalatoa, battler Michael Hooper, maul-killing Rory Arnold, and piratical Pete Samu out, Australia simply lacks caps.

Only old James Slipper has more than 50 caps in the front row, only Will Skelton approaches 30 in the second row, and only Rob Valetini has 30 in the loose trio.

It appears likely fledgling Tom Hooper will start at blindside, Slipper looks one-legged at times, and the hooker situation is dodgy, given how crucial lost lineouts, especially late in games, are now.

The good news is Valetini really is that good, the new Hooper knows no fear, Angus ‘Bull’ Bell rampages more than Taniela Tupou now, reluctant captain Skelton can sometimes have Savea-size impacts on a match (albeit not for a full eighty), Matt Philip will not be outworked, and the new Arnold does seem to share of his brother’s heritable traits.

Angus Bell and Pone Fa’amausili have even bigger responsibilities after the injury to Allan Alaalatoa. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

In Paris, the Aussie scrum held or even won. The lineout maul (both ways) seemed to miss the other Arnold.

The bad news is the cardfest continues under Eddie Jones unabated as it flowed under Dave Rennie and this type of inaccuracy in aggression is one of the slowest issues to fix in rugby, as it comes from years of habits. Try to avoid bad collisions and you get bullied; go in hair on fire and get pinged.


This is where Fraser McReight comes in: a good seven can trump a lot of front sixes. Remember 2011?

Potential quarters foes England and Argentina do not play classic bankrobber flanks. The Red Jackal has an opening to join George Smith and David Pocock in Wallaby lore. Picking his spots will be crucial.

7. England

Did they not just lose to Fiji? Come at me, bro. Look, my reasoning is simple.

The core of the pack is not different from the 2019 finalist’s and Joe Marler scrums better than Kyle Sinckler or Dan Cole.

The cause of England’s woes reside in the backs, where they allowed their culture to be Farrelised and become feral.

Red zone efficiency brexited, and nines boxed themselves into oblivion. Midfields shifted as they waited for Manu Tuilagi to become himself again.


But the pack is still hard and smart.

Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Ellis Genge, Joe Marler and Jamie George did not lose their nasty goodness. Steve Borthwick is not ignorant at how to put a pack on the pitch which squeezes life to a standstill.

My working theory is prior Rugby World Cup knockout experience, and in particular, winning knockouts, just finding a way and knowing how much it hurts to win, and where your limits are: matters most in big Cups.

England is just behind New Zealand and South Africa on the total number of forward caps in RWC knockout wins. There is something solid about that; even if their backline may squander it.

8. Scotland

Yes, the Scots had the most unlucky draw in ten Cups. If rugby seeded their greatest tournament correctly, Scotland would have just one team from the top four with them (South Africa or France) and two bunnies.


But they have to beat Ireland and the Boks and not stumble against Tonga.

The reason they are screwed is they have to have two wholly distinct teams to beat the Irish and Saffas, but you cannot do that with 33 men drawn from a tiny pool, no matter how many South Africans you add.

Former Wallabies back-rower Jack Dempsey is set to play a big role for Scotland at the 2023 World Cup. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

If Scotland get beaten up by a deeply defensive juggernaut South Africa in Marseille, the next three matches are knockouts, culminating in Celtic war with the possession kings, Ireland.

The issue begins and ends up front.

Jack Dempsey is the No. 8 of choice. If that is true, Scotland is in trouble.

Hamish Watson is not in van der Flier’s league in the tight or loose and cannot stop a rampaging Kolisi.


Jamie Ritchie is a fine man and a good captain, but watch him get easily bowled over by Wiese for Leicester Tigers last year in a playoff game and wonder how he’ll deal with him when he’s even more fired up.

There is just no hiding from hidings in a World Cup from bigger, stronger teams. Yes, a one-off Brighton over the Boks but then who qualified? Not Japan.

Richie Gray is a fine lock, but Jonny Gray is a big miss with Sam Skinner and Grant Gilchrist quintessential journeymen compared to the likes of Ryan, Beirne, Etzebeth and Snyman.

Lock fragility leads to open doors and it looks like Scotland will miss out this time, joining their fellows in Wales on the touch line at the end.