JON CARDINELLI considers where the top nations should rank going into the World Cup in Japan.
The All Blacks dominated Test rugby for 10 years, winning two World Cups and every Rugby Championship tournament bar the truncated editions in 2011, 2015 and 2019. For most of that period, we didn’t need a mathematical equation to tell us that the All Blacks were the No 1 team in the world.
Fast forward to the present, where the All Blacks’ ranking is a point of a fierce debate.
Wales held World Rugby’s No 1 ranking briefly before the All Blacks regained the position. Earlier this week, Ireland moved to the top of the ladder and will travel to Japan as World Rugby’s top-ranked team.
I felt that Ireland deserved that ranking at the end of the 2018 season. Joe Schmidt’s side beat every team they played, including the All Blacks. Steve Hansen said it best at the end of that game in Dublin when he declared that Ireland – and not New Zealand – were the form team in Test rugby.
A case could have been made for Wales as the top team on the planet following the 2019 Six Nations. The Dragons dominated the tournament with five straight wins. While Ireland were impressive with their victory over the All Blacks in November 2018, Wales ticked a couple of big boxes by beating the Wallabies and Springboks.
Did they deserve to top the rankings, or even to be spoken about as the best team, without having beaten the All Blacks first? Probably not.
The All Blacks were dominant between 2012 and 2015 and it didn’t surprise anybody to see them lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in England. They showed signs of stagnation in the British & Irish Lions series in 2017, though, and went on to suffer significant losses against Ireland, Australia and South Africa in subsequent seasons.
They haven’t made any major progress over the past four seasons. Meanwhile, the chasing pack has attempted to close the gap.
England enjoyed a record-equalling streak across the 2016 and 2017 seasons before they too started to battle in the 2018 season. Ireland failed to maintain their high standards after a great 2018 season and finished the 2019 Six Nations in third place.
Where do the Boks fit into this equation? They hit rock bottom after the 2017 season, and while Rassie Erasmus attempted to raise the standard in 2018, the team only managed to achieve a 50% win record.
This year, the Boks have won four and drawn one. The Rugby Championship title is an important achievement in the context of South Africa’s 10-year trophy drought, and yet it’s debatable whether we should read too much into that victory in a season where most sides are prioritising the World Cup.
The Boks have become a force again and that is worth celebrating. They have the ability to beat any side in a one-off match – even the All Blacks.
It would be premature to install them as World Cup favourites at this stage, though. Erasmus has taken this team forward, but it may be some time yet before it reaches its full potential. That is an encouraging thought.
The World Cup will provide us with a more definitive answer to the debate regarding the No 1 ranking. If the All Blacks don’t go all the way in Japan, questions should be asked about their progress.
On the other hand, if they win a third-straight title, Hansen and his charges should be celebrated as rugby’s top team once more.
My Power Rankings heading into the World Cup are (with the World Rugby rankings in brackets):
1 All Blacks (WR: 2)
2 Wales (WR: 5)
3 South Africa (WR: 4)
4 England (WR: 3)
5 Ireland (WR: 1)
6 Australia (WR: 6)
7 Scotland (WR: 7)
8 Argentina (WR: 11)
9 France (WR: 8)
10 Japan (WR: 10)
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images