The Rugby World Cup is now less than five months away, and already the excitement is palpable, with fans across the globe gearing up for the action and getting ready to cheer on their nations.

However, as well as the prospect of witnessing star names doing battle and heavyweight clashes between some of the best sides in the world, there is something else that has been getting fans talking – will this be the year that the Northern Hemisphere’s wait for another champion finally ends? For context, the last time that the Webb-Ellis Cup was won by a team above the Equator was England’s success in 2003, and that has often led to taunts from those in the lower half of the globe.

This year, however, there is a genuine feeling that things could be different.

Southern Hemisphere hopes

Historically, the gauntlet in men’s international rugby union has been thrown down at each World Cup by New Zealand, with them always seen as the team to beat. The All Blacks are often regarded as the most successful sports team in human history and have tended to be the team that everyone else has aspired to match, and that reputation solidified in 2011 and 2015 when they lifted and then defended the Webb-Ellis Cup.

2019, however, was when their modern era of dominance came to an end, with England seeing them off in the semi-finals and South Africa eventually taking the title off them, and that led to a period of poor results, including a 2022 series defeat to Ireland on home soil, in which they have needed to face plenty of questions about their chances of securing a fourth World Cup this year.

With the All Blacks in mixed form and with Australia recently going through their own dire run of results, it does seem that South Africa are the best possible chance of the Webb-Ellis Cup remaining below the Equator. However, this is not to say that the Springboks are completely invincible, because they too have had a few surprising results of late, with their defeat to the Wallabies in Adelaide last August one that really stands out.

The other thing that might go against the Springboks is that their four domestic sides now compete in the same competitions as the major Northern Hemisphere nations, meaning that the element of surprise that usually accompanies them when they turn up to world events such as this will not be as prominent. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those sides will have a way to contain South Africa, but it is definitely worth bearing in mind when making any World Cup predictions that their key players are no longer completely unknown quantities.

Northern Hemisphere challengers

With all of that in mind, this does seem to be the best chance in a very long time for a Northern Hemisphere team to lift the trophy, and there is no doubt among fans that the two sides with the best possible chance of doing so are Ireland and France. Currently ranked first and second in the world standings, both have been in imperious form on the rugby field of late, and have shown a lot of flair and quality which has given them a lot of new fans and respect from those who have witnessed their brilliance.

What makes them both hot favourites to lift the trophy is their ability to scythe through opponents at will and to defend as one once they lose the ball, and it is that that has made them such ferocious opponents. This year’s Six Nations was a key indicator of where they stood ahead of the World Cup, and it was clear for all to see that they were ready for the challenge and seemingly had the answers for every question that was thrown at them.

It is worth bearing in mind that France will be under a lot of pressure to perform, given that they will be in front of their own fans, and that has let them down on some occasions, such as the opening weekend of the Six Nations when they struggled past Italy in Rome. However, they didn’t let that rattle them, and the performance at Twickenham demonstrated just how good they are when given space to play in and why they cannot be given an inch to breathe in on the field.

There will be others who might put on a fight for the title, such as England and maybe even Scotland, but realistically it will be Ireland and France who will put up the biggest challenge for the title, with the pair head and shoulders above the rest of the Northern Hemisphere teams, and they will be the nations that many pin their hopes on when it comes to seeing whether a nation above the Equator can finally lift the Webb-Ellis Cup once again.