- Associated Press - Friday, February 26, 2021

PARIS (AP) - Three-time champion New Zealand and three-time runner-up France will square off in a blockbuster opening match of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

The teams have combined to deliver some of the most storied matches in the tournament’s history, including the 1987 and 2011 finals, both won by the All Blacks.

Host France and New Zealand were confirmed on Friday in the schedule release as the first game of 48 on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023 at Paris’ Stade de France.

At the national stadium the following day, two-time champion Australia plays a European qualifier in Pool C. Australia is chasing its first crown since beating France in 1999. Ireland will open on the same Saturday in wine-growing Bordeaux, also against a European qualifier in Pool B.

The opening weekend also features the 2019 finalists in action down south in Marseille. Defending champion South Africa will start its bid for a record fourth world title against Scotland in Pool B on Sept. 10, one day after beaten finalist England - the 2003 champion - takes on Argentina in Pool D at the 67,000-capacity Stade Velodrome.



Wales and Fiji meet on Sept. 10 in Bordeaux in what is usually a spectacular affair. Their final pool game at the 2019 World Cup in Japan ended in an incident packed 29-17 win for Wales.

The 20-team tournament has been expanded to eight weeks with player welfare in mind. Teams will have at least five days between games, after criticism for decades of tier two and tier three teams not given enough of a turnaround, and being thrown at the well-rested major teams with sometimes only three days rest.

Squads have also been increased from 31 to 33 players to help recovery time and preparation.

Matches will be held in nine cities across France with each city hosting a minimum of four games. All matches will take place from Wednesday to Sunday to maximize fan attendance, organizers said. Ticketing details will be announced next Thursday.

“(The schedule) has been developed with teams and fans at heart and we are confident it will provide the best possible platform for a thrilling, historic and very special Rugby World Cup,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said. “2023 cannot come fast enough.”

The expanded pool phase concludes with Six Nations rivals Scotland and Ireland meeting in Paris on Oct. 7 and fan-favorite Japan facing Argentina in Nantes on Oct. 8.

The top two sides from each pool advance to the quarterfinals, which will be shared between Stade Velodrome and Stade de France.

The 80,000-capacity Stade de France will host the final on Oct. 28, as well as the semifinals and the third-place playoff.

France is building a team to take advantage of a home World Cup, and is one of the most talented young squads in the international game.

Its Rugby World Cup rivalry with New Zealand includes two of the biggest upsets in tournament history in the 1999 semifinals and 2007 quarterfinals, both won by Les Tricolores.

However, New Zealand has never lost a pool match at a Rugby World Cup.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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