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Rugby union international power rankings: who can challenge All Blacks?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 20/09/2017 Gerard Meagher
The All Blacks put so much trust in their team ethic, an ethic now under scrutiny because of Smith, that a group of senior players were part of the decision to suspend him for Saturday's game against the Springboks in Durban. © Getty Images The All Blacks put so much trust in their team ethic, an ethic now under scrutiny because of Smith, that a group of senior players were part of the decision to suspend him for Saturday's game against the Springboks in Durban.

1) New Zealand

Before the All Blacks’ record 57-0 victory over South Africa, Steve Hansen felt the need to defend his side’s uneven performances in 2017. The response was emphatic. It used to be the case that the All Blacks peaked at this stage of the World Cup cycle but Hansen is adamant they will improve in the next two years. Twelve months ago they struggled to maintain their remarkable form through the autumn and as they have crammed five matches into their schedule this year, an upset is not out of the question. But if New Zealand’s halos have slipped just a little – on and off the pitch – they remain the standard bearers of world rugby.

2) England

When Eddie Jones was speaking to the press at the World Cup draw back in May, he used the word “bulletproof” no less than eight times. It cropped up again last week when the long-awaited meeting with New Zealand was inked into the diary for November 2018 and it is a safe bet he will say it a lot between now and then. Jones’s record is 19 wins out of 20 since he took over but he still talks of bridging the gap to the All Blacks. With no match against them this autumn though, Jones will focus on personnel and forging a side that will look more like his World Cup XV. Regardless, it is clear that England are leading the chasing pack.

3) Ireland

Ireland may have ended England’s winning run in March – and widened their playing depth in Japan over the summer – but concerning defeats on the road to Scotland and Wales during the Six Nations highlighted a lack of consistency. Infuriating when last year they claimed victories over New Zealand, South Africa and Australia but this autumn they can be confident of wins against the Springboks, Fiji and Argentina. The side has a settled look to it but with Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw both injured at present, November may see the introduction of the New Zealand-born centre Bundee Aki, who has all the makings of a star international centre.

Bundee Aki will qualify to play for Ireland this autumn and could be an instant hit. © Provided by Guardian News Bundee Aki will qualify to play for Ireland this autumn and could be an instant hit. Bundee Aki will qualify to play for Ireland this autumn and could be an instant hit.Photograph: Ashley Cahill/Action Plus via Getty Images

4) South Africa

It may seem strange for the Springboks to be fourth on this list after their harrowing defeat in New Zealand but judgment must be reserved for the time being. They were surpassed in every department but the All Blacks in that kind of mood are mighty hard to stop and their comprehensive 3-0 series win over France during the summer, not to mention a resounding win in Argentina and a creditable draw in Australia, must not be forgotten. A response is needed at Newlands against the All Blacks in October, however. These are uncertain times for South African rugby and they can ill afford another shellacking.

5) Australia

There can be little doubting that last Saturday’s victory over Argentina was a welcome one after three Rugby Championship matches without a win. Slap bang in the middle of the World Cup cycle, it is obvious that the Wallabies are in transition – Marika Koroibete came off the bench against Argentina to become the 22nd debutant in the past two seasons. Kurtley Beale’s return has been a significant boost, however – as will David Pocock’s when he comes back – and it must also be remembered it only took Michael Cheika a year to transform the wayward Wallabies into 2015 World Cup finalists. They have a gruelling autumn schedule ahead, however.

6) Scotland

Tempting to insert Scotland above Australia considering their victory in Sydney in June, but the defeat by Fiji soon after brought Gregor Townsend’s side down to earth. Still, optimism is rife in Scotland, and understandably so, even if Vern Cotter’s departure continues to jar somewhat. Townsend’s task of demonstrating progress after replacing the New Zealander will be aided with Dave Rennie and Richard Cockerill, in charge at Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, but Scotland’s problem, for a while now, has been the absence of any brute force in the forwards. Solve that and the future is bright indeed.

7) Wales

Among the more unpredictable teams in terms of what the autumn holds with Warren Gatland back at the helm. Gatland in the past has used the run of games to experiment with players and will likely do so against Georgia, not so much New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. It is clear that Wales need some young blood though – players such as Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate, perhaps even Leigh Halfpenny, are past their best and he must start integrating their long-term replacements. The talent is there – Sam Warburton may be missing but they have a wealth of promising young opensides for example – but the longer Gatland leaves it, the harder it will become.

8) France

They are quite possibly the team that will worry Eddie Jones most in England’s World Cup pool, even if their summer exploits in South Africa did not go to plan. The feeling is that France are slowly reaping the rewards of prioritising the national team in the face of the once all-powerful Top 14. They undoubtedly have the player resources to worry Jones and always have frightening forward muscle. A win in one of their two autumn matches against New Zealand would be some statement.

9) Argentina

Two victories – against Japan and Georgia – in their last 13 matches tells its own story. Argentina have regressed since they joined Super Rugby and are hamstrung by refusing to pick overseas-based players such as Facundo Isa.

The absence of overseas players such as Toulon’s Facundo Isa, right, is hurting Argentina. © Provided by Guardian News The absence of overseas players such as Toulon’s Facundo Isa, right, is hurting Argentina. The absence of overseas players such as Toulon’s Facundo Isa, right, is hurting Argentina.Photograph: Alexandre Dimou/Icon Sport via Getty Images

10) Fiji

On a run of five wins from their last six matches including victories over Scotland, Japan and Italy. They are currently ranked No9 in the world and are upwardly mobile under John McKee.

11) Japan

Outclassed by Ireland twice over the summer but will have benefitted from the experience considering they play tier one nations so infrequently. Showed what they are capable of against Wales last year.

12) Georgia

Lost an entertaining match in Argentina in the summer after wins over the USA and Canada and will relish playing Wales in Cardiff this autumn. Have reportedly lined up a showdown with Italy the following November.

13) Italy

After the high of last autumn’s win over South Africa, things have gone steadily downhill for Conor O’Shea’s side. Italy are not helped by the parlous state of their Pro14 clubs but Treviso did shock Edinburgh last weekend.

14) Tonga

Qualified for the next World Cup by virtue of Fiji’s win over Samoa in July, which sent them through and into England’s pool. Lost to Fiji last time out but edged past Samoa 30-26.

15) USA

Cruised past Canada 52-16 to claim top spot in the Americas qualifying pool. Making progress within USA rugby is hard though, as the Premiership recently found out in Philadelphia.

Elsewhere...

Of the five remaining World Cup spots, one will be taken by the winner of a play-off between Canada and Uruguay. Then it gets complicated.

Samoa will also have a play-off against a team from Europe which will be decided by a match between the winner of Portugal v Czech Republic and the second-placed team in the European qualifying group, currently Spain. The top team in that group – currently Romania – will also qualify for the World Cup, as will the winner of the 2018 Africa Gold Cup.

The final place is taken by the winner of the four-team repechage which will include the loser of Samoa’s play-off, the loser of Canada v Uruguay, the runners-up of the 2018 Africa Gold Cup and the winners of a play-off between Tahiti and either Hong Kong, Malaysia or South Korea.

The absence of overseas players such as Toulon’s Facundo Isa, right, is hurting Argentina. © Icon Sport via Getty Images The absence of overseas players such as Toulon’s Facundo Isa, right, is hurting Argentina.

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