David Kirk knows all about the pressure of winning on home soil having led New Zealand to Rugby World Cup glory in the inaugural tournament in 1987 and is backing France’s Antoine Dupont to do the same, 36 years later.
A week today (Friday), Dupont will lead out Les Bleus for the most eagerly-anticipated opening match in the history of Rugby World Cups as the host nation take on Pool A rivals New Zealand, at the Stade de France, kick-off 21:15 local time.
Kirk will be there in person and plans to base himself in the Bordeaux region for a month or so, with a quick trip back to New Zealand in between, before heading north to Paris for the semi-finals and final, for what he hopes will be a record fourth title for the All Blacks.
However, Kirk believes that France are primed to become only the second northern hemisphere team in history, after England two decades ago, to be crowned world champions.
“Prior to the South Africa game, I think I’d have dropped them (the Springboks) out of the top three and said Ireland or France or the All Blacks. That result changes things a bit but they will have to play like that more than once. I think the All Blacks can win, and I’d like to see them win, but I don’t think they should be considered the favourites to win,” said Kirk, a try-scorer in the 29-9 win over France in the 1987 final.
“France have definitely got a good chance. They have played very well for the last two to three years and have managed to find that right balance between playing with flair and intuition and being disciplined and very structured in their set pieces. They are a good team, Ireland are a good team and, as we saw with South Africa, if they get their big men running and get on top, they will be very hard to beat as well.
“But for me, the favourites are France and Ireland and, all things being equal, with both teams playing to the best of their ability and with France at home, I think France can win.”
Groundswell of support
Home advantage is something that has served New Zealand well at Rugby World Cups, with two of their three titles coming on home soil, in 1987 and 2011, with France the beaten team in both finals.
For France, however, it was a different experience when they hosted the event the last time in 2007. A loss to Argentina on the opening night and again in the bronze final, left Les Bleus supporters feeling short-changed.
Having been in the thick of the build-up to Rugby World Cup 1987 and seen the effect it had on the nation, Kirk knows the unique challenges hosting the tournament brings.
“It cuts both ways, there is a burden of expectation, but there is also a national swell of support, and that’s tough for the opposition,” said Kirk, who was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2011.
“This French team is as strong as any French team in preparation, with the way they have played in the last few years, in a very professional way with their discipline, and the way their players play well every week in major competitions at club and international level.
“So I think they will probably be mentally the strongest and best-prepared French team there has ever been going into a World Cup, and I think they will be much less likely to fluff their lines than some of the previous teams.”
A stylish scrum-half with a brain as sharp off the pitch as on it, Kirk didn’t hesitate when asked to pick a winner between France and Ireland.
“France. They have contributed a lot to World Cups over the years and it would be nice to see them get some recognition as a world champion.”
Dupont leads by example
Scrum-halves captained the first two victorious Rugby World Cup teams – Kirk in 1987 and Australia’s Nick Farr-Jones in 1991 – and Dupont, the World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year in 2021, would deserve to become the third, according to the former All Black.
“He’s a brilliant player but not only that he is also a brilliant leader. I think he has led the team very well. All leaders have to lead by playing well themselves, and he does that in spades,” said the Oxford ‘Double Blue’
“Because he is such a comprehensive player, such an all-round player – running, passing – he brings a lot of other players into the game, so he makes those around him look good.
“Finally, I think he has got a good head, he understands the tempo and the rhythm of the game and he is good at sniffing out weaknesses in the opposition, whether it is time to drive or maul, whether it is time to put a kick up or to probe the blindside, he has got good intuition about where to play.”
Dupont has lost only one of his 17 tests as captain, against Grand Slam-winning Ireland in this year’s Six Nations.
What makes Ireland so dangerous, says Kirk, is not only their well-oiled system but the ability they have to change things up if things aren’t going well.
“Ireland have a very clear way of playing the game which isn’t so mechanical, so structured and so organised that they are not able to take advantage of opportunities that come up. They are very well coached and organised so their set pieces work very well although the injury of (Cian) Healy will be quite a setback for them,” said the 62-year-old, who has spent the last 25 years of his working life in investment.
“They are aggressive, they have got good positions at the breakdown, and they have learned how to make very few mistakes but still play at a high level of intensity, and that is an absolute requirement.
“We shouldn’t underestimate their backs either, they have power in the midfield and they can finish so they are a very complete team. There’s a discipline and organisation about their defence, which there is about their general all-round play.”
Knockout rugby is unique
With France, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa and Scotland in Pools A and B, at least one of the top five teams in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini will be exiting the competition before the knockout phase.
For Kirk, one of the important things for Ireland to overcome will be the psychology of knowing they have never made it beyond the quarter-finals before.
“The World Cup changes when you go from the pool stages to the knockout phase, I remember that very well from our World Cup,” he recalled.
“I was pretty nervous before the final because it was the big one and we were playing the next best team in the tournament. But I was most nervous before the quarter-final (a 30-3 win against Scotland) because it is the first time you had ever played knockout rugby and you knew if you lost that game you were going home.
“Losing a quarter-final is just gut-busting really. So they (Ireland) will be very nervous in their quarter-final, whoever they are playing, because they have been there before and will be desperate not to lose. And sometimes you can get too nervous.”
As for his native New Zealand, Kirk is confident they won’t be too mentally scarred by their all-time record defeat against South Africa (35-7) last Friday, despite the “embarrassing” scoreline.
Kirk was one of those watching in disbelief back home but is confident that the All Blacks can find the right response.
“There is no way they are going to play that badly again. It was embarrassing and no one likes to be embarrassed and no one likes to know they have let the team down badly. There are no excuses and they won’t be looking for excuses, they will just be angry with themselves and know that they will have to do better,” he said, pulling no punches.
“What I think it has made clear – to them and to other people – is that you have to be able to play with a level of physical presence and intensity and accuracy, particularly in the forwards, for a long period of time. You have to keep going back to the well.
“I remember we were absolutely mauled by the French in the final test of 1986 in Nantes, and we hadn’t forgotten that. Another level of physical intensity was required, and I think these All Blacks will have learnt that.”
Expecting the unexpected
If anyone goes on to win Rugby World Cup 2023 from Pools A and B, no one can say they haven’t earnt the right to be crowned champions because of the quality of the teams involved.
But Kirk is also intrigued by what happens in the other pools, where a number of teams can be classed as a ‘work in progress’ given their coaching teams are relatively new.
“I am very excited about this World Cup, I think it is very open,” he said.
“Like a lot of people, I’d have preferred not to have had the top five sides in the same half of the draw because it would have been nice to have seen Scotland go a bit further. I think they will struggle to get to the quarter-finals just because of the quality on their side of the draw. But it is possible, they could definitely upset South Africa and Ireland on their side of the draw, one or the other. It is not likely, but it is possible.
“On the other side of the draw, it is more about who can pull themselves together, who can out-perform, who can do what people don’t expect them to do. So that’s of interest but it certainly looks to be a much weaker side of the draw. Argentina and Fiji would be the two I’d be looking at, and Argentina will absolutely recognise that, too. They will be going out to top their pool.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how much the quarter-finals (involving Pool A and Pool B) will take out of those teams going into the semi-finals, when they play a team that isn’t as strong and hasn’t had as challenging a path up until that point. All those teams will be very focused on winning their quarter-final, and they’ll be coming off a high.. All of a sudden, Wales might do something in the semi-final, Argentina might, and you might have an unexpected final.
“I think one of the interesting things is going to be the rise of the ‘tier two’ teams – I think we are going to see Fiji play well, I think we are going to see Samoa play well. And it will be interesting to see if Georgia has made much progress after beating Wales between World Cups.”