Thursday 22 March 2018

Rankings explained: Why the Six Nations will have a huge impact on the 2019 Rugby World Cup

Ireland players, including captain Rory Best, centre, face the New Zealand 'Haka' ahead of the international rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago
Ireland players, including captain Rory Best, centre, face the New Zealand 'Haka' ahead of the international rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago

Jack de Menezes

When is a number more than a number? When it’s a ranking, especially in the world of sport. No prizes are given out for finishing second and be it motorsport, cricket or, in this case, rugby union, every team on the planet is gunning for top spot.

That top spot has been occupied by New Zealand now for more than seven years. During that time, the All Blacks have won two World Cups, lost just seven matches and have proven their the team to beat in the 15-man code.

For once though, the northern hemisphere’s finest doesn’t look that far away, at least not as far as they have done for quite some time. Ireland stunned the world champions when they claimed their first ever victory over them in Chicago last November, while England have taken a chunk out of New Zealand’s lead in World Rugby’s rankings thanks to their 100 per cent record in 2016.

With the British and Irish Lions heading to the Land of the Long White Cloud this summer, it’s a good time to assess the gap between the two hemispheres, which has often been tilted in the southern sides’ favour. But what’s more important this year to the individual nations is the world rankings, as the Six Nations will be the last chance for nations to boost their chances ahead of the Rugby World Cup draw in May.

The Six Nations clan have already qualified for that draw along with the four Rugby Championship sides, plus Japan and Georgia, by finishing in the top three of their pools at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. On 10 May, the 12 teams will be split into three groups of four, where one will be placed into each of the four World Cup pools.

It’s too early to be thinking about the World Cup, I hear you argue? Well, England, Wales and Australia fans should be more than aware of the importance that the draw brings, having found themselves in the ‘Pool of Death’ last time out that resulted in three cracking Pool matches and an embarrassingly early exit for the hosts, England.

England won the Grand Slam in 2016 and some seem very confident they will repeat the feat this year

This time around, the top four looks pretty settled, with New Zealand guaranteed first, England needed an almighty cock-up to slip from second, and Ireland needing an average tournament and hope Wales don’t secure a Grand Slam to join Australia as the remaining teams in the top tier.

Below them, Wales are currently joined by South Africa, Scotland and France, with Argentina on the outside looking in and Italy struggling way down in 13th behind Fiji – who are yet to qualify – Japan and Georgia. Just 2.64 ranking points separate fifth-placed Wales and ninth-placed Argentina, and while the Pumas can’t win any more points, three of the four teams above them can still lose them. To put the margin into comparison, England gained over 10 points in 2016 alone.

The likelihood is that the top four will remain the same, Wales and South Africa should consolidate their second tier status and two of Scotland, France and Argentina will join them. The outcome? Another ‘Pool of Death’.

It’s very possible that England will be pooled with Wales and France in 2019. Or how about Ireland, South Africa and Argentina? Throw Japan into the mix as a third tier nation, and given the leaps and bounds that the Cherry Blossoms are coming on, none of those teams above them will welcome such a draw. Just ask the Springboks.

Despite all four 2015 World Cup semi-finalists hailing from below the equator, the gulf between north and south has somewhat eroded. New Zealand have lost a game, Australia suffered defeat against England and Ireland, South Africa look a shadow of their former selves under current coach Allister Coetzee and Argentina have dropped out of the top eight in the world. With the northern hemisphere on the charge, they’ll hope dearly they don’t come unstuck over the next seven weeks.

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