Three-time winners and perennial favourites New Zealand will face hosts France in the pool stage of the 2023 Rugby World Cup (RWC), but both teams will be confident of advancing after landing Italy as the third seed in the group when the draw was made on Monday.
Holders South Africa were grouped with Ireland and Scotland while 2019 runners-up England face the potentially tricky dual challenge of Argentina and Japan. Wales will play Australia for the fourth time in five tournaments, with the ever-dangerous Fiji also in that pool.
The seedings for the RWC have routinely been decided around three years out but this time, given the Covid-disruption of the international calendar, organisers decided to use the rankings as at the end of last year – four years ahead of the tournament.
Consequently, Wales, beaten semi-finalists in 2019 but currently ranked ninth, were among the top four seeds but France, hosts and now ranked fourth, were placed in the second tier.
Scotland and Argentina would have been in the second tier of seeds on current rankings but were placed in the third level after failing to reach the knockout stages in 2019.
World champions South Africa went into the draw having not played a single match since the 2019 final. Their victory in Japan marked the first time a team had won the competition after losing a pool match.
New Zealand are the only team never to have lost a pool game. In 2011 they beat France at that stage, then again in the final.
The tournament, the sport’s 10th, will take place across nine cities from September 8 to October 21, with the final in Paris. France also hosted the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
The tournament will consist of 20 teams drawn into four pools of five. Twelve nations have already qualified – making up the top three bands of seeds - while eight qualifiers are yet to be determined and will not be finalised until November 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron was present at the draw.
"We cannot wait to get ready for this event," he said. "In 2023, it will be 12 years since we last reached the final. But this time it will be at home so you [the team] figure out a way of winning the cup. France also reached the finals of 1987 and 1999 – continuing the 12-year cycle.
"The Covid-19 crisis is terrible. In 2023, we want to offer what France can offer: the French way of life - friendliness, gastronomy, parties and culture," Macron added.