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Transition plans for the 'big eight' at the Rugby World Cup

The 2019 Rugby World Cup is now officially over and whilst the Springboks and their fans enjoy some well-earned celebrations, already the eyes of the other seven teams to make the knockout rounds have turned toward the 2023 tournament in France and their forthcoming transition plans.

England looked like champions elect after their dissection of the All Blacks in the semi-finals, Japan delighted one and all with their high-octane play and Wales turned in a campaign to be proud of, even if it was ultimately fruitless. At the other end of the spectrum, Ireland once again finished well below their own expectations, France flattered to deceive, and Australia are facing their fair share of issues if they want to stay at the top table of Test rugby.

Regardless of where your allegiances lie, the aftermath of a Rugby World Cup is a time of optimism, as bizarre as that may sound for fans still licking the wounds of their knockout round exits from the tournament. It is a time of rejuvenation, new coaching staffs and the implementation of fresh playing styles.

Sadly, we have had to bid farewell to some truly great icons of the sport over the last month and a half and whilst their impact on the game will not be forgotten, it’s time for new faces to step into the breach and do what every international player is hoping to achieve, and that is to leave the jersey in a better place than they found it. A task which, in some of the following examples, is not one that anyone should envy.

We start with South Africa, the reigning world champions and three-times lifters of the Webb Ellis Cup, whose triumph on Saturday tied them with New Zealand as the most successful Test team in history.

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Watch: Frans Steyn challenges Prince Harry to chug his beer

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Up front, Tendai Mtawarira, 34, will need to be replaced at loosehead and the obvious candidate is Steven Kitshoff. Finding the new deputy, though, will be an interesting challenge for Rassie Erasmus. The Cheetahs’ Ox Nche is one option, as would be Thomas du Toit, if there were an urge to move him back to his former position of loosehead. As a versatile prop who can play both sides of the scrum, du Toit actually lines up nicely to potentially be Trevor Nyakane’s successor, with the Bulls prop set to turn 34 before the next Rugby World Cup.

The engine room is in excellent shape, though Duane Vermeulen, 33, and Francois Louw, 34, have both potentially played their last games in the green and gold back row. Given that the Springboks will have plenty of players continuing on, such as Siya Kolisi and World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit, that does free up Erasmus to blood some of the younger talents in the loose forwards, such as Jaco Coetzee and Juarno Augustus of the Stormers or Phepsi Buthelezi of the Sharks. With Coetzee’s injury problems looking as though they are behind him, Augustus fitting the bill of a power No 8 and Buthelezi just a talented all-round back rower, all three look to be good fits.

The majority of South Africa’s back line are in position to stick around for another cycle, although at 30 and bound for Japan, Willie le Roux could be one casualty moving forward. Warrick Gelant and Damian Willemse are set to duel it out for his spot, whilst if you’re looking for a bit of a bolter, how about Rikus Pretorius coming in and filling the Frans Steyn void, albeit providing a very different sort of threat, in the centres?

On to the losing finalists and England are in remarkably healthy shape moving forward. The team that took to the field on Saturday was the youngest in Rugby World Cup final history. Three of England’s forwards face a battle against father time and Dan Cole, 32, may well make way for Harry Williams moving forward, or one of England’s younger tightheads, such as Ehren Painter, should Eddie Jones feel more adventurous.

Both Courtney Lawes and Mark Wilson will be 34 at the next Rugby World Cup, though their successors seem to be in place. Nick Isiekwe and Joel Kpoku are the latest locks off the Saracens production line and Ted Hill offers intriguing size and physicality on the blindside, something which would be a complementary contrast to the skill sets that the Kamikaze Twins provide.

Joe Cokanasiga, Nathan Earle and Ollie Thorley may all have their eyes set on 29-year-old Jonny May’s spot in the medium-term, though it as at scrum-half where the real transition in the English back line will come. Ben Youngs, 30, and Willi Heinz, 32, won’t be discarded, but there will be an emphasis on finding new options, as Jones or his successor are unlikely to feel comfortable with a 34-year-old and 36-year-old scrum-half pairing in France in four years’ time. Ben Spencer looks to be the leading candidate at the moment, especially with young talents such as Alex Mitchell, Jack Maunder and even first-year player Raffi Quirke, stuck behind talented incumbents at club level.

There’s plenty of turnover set to go on in New Zealand and it starts up front, where Dane Coles and Joe Moody are both the wrong side of 30. Codie Taylor is thriving at hooker and Atu Moli has moved over from the tighthead to play loosehead, although the All Blacks will want further options. If it all clicks for the Hurricanes’ Asafo Aumua, he is fearsome prospect at hooker, whilst Nathan Harris could offer more short-term stability. Promising prop Ayden Johnstone is one to keep an eye on at loosehead, too, especially with Moody’s form dictating that there is no immediate need for fresh blood.

The biggest loss in the pack, however, is without doubt Kieran Read. Not only an excellent player but also a talismanic captain, Read leaves maybe the biggest shoes of all to fill in the All Blacks team. The ideal situation would arguably be Akira Ioane showing he is ready for the challenges of Test rugby and his improved consistency during the 2019 Super Rugby season does offer promise in that regard. Failing that, the added carrying ability that Ardie Savea brings to the pack could potentially see him move to No 8 or instead facilitate a less explosive player at the position, such as Luke Jacobson or Dalton Papali’i. What New Zealand lack in standout No 8s, they make up for in a wealth of options on the flank.

Steve Hansen was seemingly ahead of the curve over the last year or two, already beginning to replace ageing players such as Ben Smith and Sonny Bill Williams, with the likes of Jordie Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown and Josh Goodhue coming to the fore. The back three looks set, but if the centres need some contrasting options to Lienert-Brown and Goodhue, then Ngani Laumpae remains a possibility, whilst Billy Proctor is a longer-term candidate.

Then we come to Wales, who will be perhaps saying goodbye to more influential players than the three nations that finished above them at the tournament. Ken Owens, 32, and Alun Wyn Jones, 34, will both be up against it to make another tournament, as could Justin Tipuric, 30, if he loses some of the mobility that makes him such a special player.

Ryan Elias versus Elliot Dee is a talented position battle moving forward at hooker, although Dewi Lake could throw himself into the contest over the next year or two as well. As for Tipuric, Wales does not lack for budding opensides, with Ollie Griffiths, Tommy Reffell and Will Jones an envious trio to build around, not to mention Ellis Jenkins, if he can come back fully from his injury. Honestly, there is no ‘replacing’ Jones at lock, although current U18 Christ Tshiunza, who has already signed a professional contract with Exeter Chiefs, will give it his very best shot.

Some rejuvenation could be needed in the midfield, too, with Hadleigh Parkes, 32, and Jonathan Davies, 31, both up against it to make the next Rugby World Cup. Owen Watkin is making all the right moves as a deputy at the moment, whilst Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler and Corey Baldwin are longer-term options. If there is a move away from Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny, both 30, then Bristol Bears’ Ioan Lloyd’s ability to play both 10 and 15 could see him fast-tracked.

The four remaining quarter-finalists also have their own transitional phases to get through.

France are set to lose Guilhem Guirado, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Louis Picamoles, Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard, which is a considerable exodus of talent, although the squad is built relatively well to survive it, with talented options at all of those positions already well-blooded. Outside of the current squad, the likes of Julien Marchand, Jordan Joseph, Gabriel N’Gandebe and Thomas Ramos should have France in a strong position come 2023.

The task of new Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is not the easiest, with Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Jonathan Sexton, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney all at ages that are either seeing them retire or be candidates to step aside in the next year or two. Even at 30, both Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray will be monitored for any physical decline. Finding a new playmaker will be key and if Joey Carbery is utilised at 15, it opens the door for the Byrne brothers of Leinster at fly-half. Ronan Kelleher versus Dylan Tierney-Martin is a compelling battle at hooker in the future and Josh Wycherley is a promising young loosehead to keep an eye on, if he can force his way into the Munster 23.

The Wallabies have a big rebuild set to go on at half-back, where they will lose Will Genia, Bernard Foley is off to Japan and Christian Lealiifano is set to turn 33 next season. The return of Nic White from England will help, although fresh talent needs to be blooded at both positions, such as Ryan Lonergan and Will Harrison. Isaac Lucas can add something to an ageing back three, whilst Jordan Petaia will come to prominence over the next few years. The duel between Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight and Liam Wright to succeed David Pocock is particularly salivating.

Finally, we come to Japan. The Brave Blossoms were one of the stories of the Rugby World Cup, although they now face arguably the tougher challenge of consolidating their place among the world’s top eight nations. Shota Horie and Luke Thompson will need replacing in the short-term, with Kosuke Horikoshi and Itsuki Kodama as potential void-fillers. Shota Fukui and Tevita Tatafu will add plenty to the back row with Michael Leitch and Lappies Labuschagne in their 30’s, whilst Halatoa Vailea can help make up for the loss of Kenki Fukuoka to retirement.

All eight nations will have their minds set on not only emulating their achievements at this year’s tournament but going a step or two further come the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. From the bigger rebuilds of Ireland and Australia to the tinkering of England and South Africa, the next Rugby World Cup cycle has already begun.

Watch: Rugby World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi and coach Rassie Erasmus face the press after the final

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Transition plans for the 'big eight' at the Rugby World Cup