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November Report Card: How the world's top 10 are shaping up for Japan 2019

We take a closer look at how the runners and riders fared 10 months out from the World Cup.

THE END OF the November Test window marks the beginning of the final run in to the 2019 World Cup, with the 20 competing nations left with a handful of games before the tournament gets underway in Japan next September. 

For the northern hemisphere nations, it was a hugely encouraging month as Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England all head into the new year with reasons to be optimistic and cheerful ahead of the Six Nations. 

Based on the results in recent weeks, the chasm between the north and south appears to have closed and while different factors — such as injuries and the southern hemisphere teams touring Europe at the end of long, hard seasons — must be considered, the 2019 World Cup is shaping up to be the most competitive and intriguing edition in recent times.

Here, we take a closer look at how each of the top 10 teams in the world rankings fared in November, and their current health just 10 months out from the World Cup. 

1. New Zealand 

Kieran Read speaks to the team after the game The All Blacks rounded off their year with a big win in Rome. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While still officially top of the World Rugby rankings, Steve Hansen’s assertion that the All Blacks have been knocked off their perch following defeat in Dublin has certainly been bought into by the Kiwi media.

Ireland’s epic victory at the Aviva Stadium has raised questions over the aura of invincibility so long associated with the All Blacks, but the one certainty is that they will come back stronger and more energised next year. 

Two defeats in the calendar year, while also failing to score a try in that seismic, match for the ages in Dublin, is otherwise unheard of for the back-to-back world champions, yet 2018 was still a superb season for the All Blacks. 

Vastly contrasting victories over Japan and England got their European tour up-and-running, before they rebounded from the loss to Ireland with that 10-try rout of Italy in Rome last Saturday.

For all the talk of a changing of the guard, the All Blacks still recorded 12 wins from their 14 Test matches this year, once again reminding the rugby world they have an innate ability to find a gear opponents simply cannot live with. 

They remain strong favourites for a third straight World Cup win in Japan, but it will be fascinating to see how they respond in 2019 ahead of their Pool B opener against the Springboks.

November results: Japan [W], England [W], Ireland [L], Italy [W]
Next fixture: v South Africa [Rugby Championship, 27 July 2019]
World Cup odds: 11/10

2. Ireland

Ireland’s Garry Ringrose Garry Ringrose was superb for Ireland through November. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

A momentous year rounded off with a November clean sweep and a triple success at Sunday’s World Rugby awards in Monaco, Joe Schmidt’s side are leading the northern hemisphere charge.

Victories over Italy, Argentina, the All Blacks and USA this month moved Ireland to within striking distance of New Zealand at the top of the world rankings, and firmly installed them as genuine contenders heading into Japan.

Ireland have won 18 of their last 19 Test matches, en route to Grand Slam glory, a first tour win in Australia since 1979 and Autumn quadruple, including a famous first home win over the All Blacks.  

Furthermore, the defeats of Italy, Argentina and USA underlined the depth chart within Schmidt’s squad, all of which was done without the talismanic Conor Murray, while also coping with injuries to Robbie Henshaw and Sean O’Brien.

Irish rugby has never hit such rarefied heights and there is every reason to be upbeat moving into 2019, starting with the Six Nations defence in February.  

November results: Italy [W], Argentina [W], All Blacks [W], USA [W]
Next fixture: v England [Six Nations, 2 February 2019]
World Cup odds: 7/2

3. Wales

Wales v Tonga - Autumn International - Principality Stadium Wales recorded a November clean sweep. Source: Mike Egerton

Up to third in the world, Wales are developing rather nicely under Warren Gatland, who has implemented an expansive and exciting game plan which has yielded strong results in recent times. 

A first clean sweep of their Autumnal programme was completed with a hard-fought and gritty win over the Springboks in Cardiff on Saturday, adding to their confidence-boosting and momentum-building wins over Scotland, Australia and Tonga earlier in the month.

The 20-11 victory was Wales’ ninth successive Test triumph –  a feat they have not achieved since 1999 — while also representing their fourth straight win over the ‘Boks, sending out a strong statement of intent. 

Dealing with the loss of Sam Warburton was always going to be a tricky transition for Wales, but they did so seamlessly, showing tangible signs of growth under Gatland and they must be considered contenders in Japan, given their exploits in the last two World Cups. 

The leadership and influence of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric is monstrous for Gatland’s side, and as Ireland grab the headlines in this part of the world, Wales are happy to go quietly under the radar.

“We’ve got a good group of players that the Welsh public should be really proud of,” Gatland said.

The way they conduct themselves, prepare and train. They’ve been outstanding. I’ve been very proud of them but we’re not getting too carried away.

“We just keep our head down, work hard and start thinking about the Six Nations.”

They’re not the finished product by any stretch of the imagination, and that may just be a powerful formula heading to Japan.

November results: Scotland [W], Australia [W], Tonga [W], South Africa [W]
Next fixture: v France [Six Nations, 1 February 2019]
World Cup odds: 12/1

4. England

Eddie Jones ahead of the game Can Eddie Jones' men be considered World Cup contenders? Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

England appear to be back on an upward trajectory again after a rocky period under Eddie Jones’ stewardship, and a strong end to the year suggests they are building positively towards the World Cup.

A fifth-place finish in the Six Nations, followed by a series defeat in South Africa, heaped the pressure on Jones heading into November but his side responded with victories over the Springboks, Japan and Australia, while they pushed the All Blacks all the way and were perhaps unfortunate not to pick up a famous win.

Saturday’s defeat of the Wallabies will leave grounds for optimism and three from four is not a bad return, particularly when Jones managed to increase his squad depth in the absence of the Vunipola brothers among others.

The emergence of Joe Cokanasiga was another standout feature, and the 21-year-old is already being heralded as a real star of the future, with his performance against the Wallabies making people sit up and take notice.

As for Jones, he’s worried about Ireland.

“I’m worried about Ireland,” the head coach said. “They’re the top team in Europe now. We want to be the top team in Europe. It’s pretty simple.”

That Six Nations opener in Dublin next February looks pretty tasty already. 

November results: South Africa [W], All Blacks [L], Japan [W], Australia [W]
Next fixture: v Ireland [Six Nations, 2 February 2019]
World Cup odds: 8/1

5. South Africa

Wales v South Africa - Autumn International - Principality Stadium It was a mixed month for the Springboks. Source: David Davies

Rassie Erasmus claimed he was one result away from the sack during the Rugby Championship, and then the Springboks went and beat the All Blacks in Wellington. A couple of months later, it’s hard to accurately assess just where South Africa are under the former Munster director of rugby.

November was a mixed bag for the two-time World Cup winners, wins in Paris and Edinburgh coming in between defeats to England and then Wales. There are still many question marks hanging over the ‘Boks, but Erasmus has been able to build a settled squad after much chopping and changing.

Pieter-Steph du Toit and Cheslin Kolbe were two of their best performers and the encouraging thing for the ‘Boks is that they have vast improvements to make in all departments, including adding a cutting edge to their attack. 

They’ll be there or there abouts come next September, it’s just whether they can fine-tune enough of their game to stake a claim for the Webb Ellis Trophy.

November results: England [L], France [W], Scotland [W], Wales [L]
Next fixture: v All Blacks [Rugby Championship, 27 July 2019]
World Cup odds: 15/2

6. Australia

Israel Folau on his way to scoring a try Israel Folau was one of Australia's standout performers. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Where to start? Michael Cheika is under fire after their November tour yielded a sole victory over Italy in Rome, with this Wallabies side a shadow of their world-beating teams of old.

Down to sixth in the world, these are bleak times for Australia and after a disappointing year, their performances and results in Europe did little to lift the gloom and take the pressure off Cheika. 

With just four Tests remaining before their World Cup opener against Fiji, it would seem absurd for Rugby Australia to sack the former Leinster head coach and leave his successor with so little time before the tournament — but it has been a truly miserable season for the Wallabies.

One which started in hope after victory over Ireland in that first Test in Brisbane ended with nine defeats from 13 matches, leaving them with a wretched 31% winning record in 2018.

Cheika is going to have to perform miracles over the next 10 months to get his side playing with confidence, clarity and conviction again, while the incident involving Adam Ashley-Cooper and Kurtley Beale didn’t help matters.

That’s not even the worst of Cheika’s problems. He watched the set-piece unravel into a disastrous mess at Twickenham, and if the head coach is to remain in charge for Japan, something else will need to drastically change. 

November results: Wales [L], Italy [W], England [L]
Next fixture: v All Blacks [Rugby Championship, 17 August 2019]
World Cup odds: 14/1

7. Scotland

Scotland v South Africa - Autumn International - BT Murrayfield Scotland have made good progress under Gregor Townsend. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

As it has always been, consistency is the big thing for Gregor Townsend’s Scotland, who finished the year with an even-par November schedule as wins over Fiji and Argentina were offset by losses to Wales and South Africa.

The bottom line for the Scots, who are in Ireland’s World Cup pool, is that there is work done, much to do. There was plenty to like about their performance against the ‘Boks and while the result went against them, it was a positive sign of intent.

And that’s the thing. Scotland, as we’ve seen during last year’s Six Nations and indeed 2018 as a whole, have a lethal attacking edge, complemented by the talent, ability and flair to mount a serious challenge on the world stage, but stringing a consistent run of results together has been their downfall. 

“We will learn a lot from these matches,” said Townsend after the win over the Pumas on Saturday.

“The Six Nations is two months away and we have to make sure that we keep improving as a team and play better than we did over this period.”

They need to learn how to win when they’re not at their eye-catching best.

November results: Wales [L], Fiji [W], South Africa [L], Argentina [W]
Next fixture: v Italy [Six Nations, 2 February 2019]
World Cup odds: 25/1

8. Fiji

France Fiji Rugby Union Fiji celebrate their famous win in Paris. Source: Christophe Ena

Up to an all-time high of eighth in the world rankings following their famous victory in Paris, November was a historic month for John McKee’s Fiji.

Their stunning win over France at the Stade de France sparked brilliant and memorable scenes in the centre circle, as the Fiji squad celebrated by singing a hymn to mark the long-awaited success. 

Indeed, it has been a landmark year for Fiji rugby. Over the last 12 months, the World Rugby Pacific Challenge and World Rugby U20 Championship titles have been won by the Fiji Warriors and Fiji U20s respectively, while Fijian Drua secured the Australia National Rugby Championship at only the second time of asking on the eve of this November’s senior tour.

In addition, the national team won a fourth straight Pacific Nations Cup over the summer and after coming close to causing an upset in Dublin last November, there is no doubt what Fiji will bring to next year’s World Cup. 

They’re in the same pool as Wales and Australia, and will certainly be a team to watch. 

November results: Scotland [L], Uruguay [W] France [W]
Next fixture: TBA
World Cup odds: 500/1

9. France

France Fiji Rugby Union France have dropped to ninth in the world rankings. Source: Christophe Ena

“Who do we think we are? We beat Argentina and we think we’re something special. We have to start from scratch now and we’re at rock bottom. Because we’re pathetic, shameful, we have to be aware of that.”

Mathieu Bastareaud slammed Les Bleus in the aftermath of their 21-14 horror defeat to Fiji, a result which serves as an alarming wake-up call for Jacques Brunel’s charges, who have slipped down to ninth in the world.

Their win over Argentina in Lille ended a five-game losing streak and was their first victory in nine months, but all of that positivity quickly evaporated into the Parisian air on Saturday night.

France’s November schedule — South Africa, Argentina and Fiji — looked relatively comfortable and three wins were eminently achievable, but 12 months after sacking Guy Novès, Les Bleus continue to flounder in a state of disarray. 

Virtually at full strength last Saturday, they failed to score a point in the second half having led 14-12 at the break, before slumping to an abject defeat which does not bode well heading into a World Cup year.

The perennial question remains — which France are going to show up?

November results: South Africa [L], Argentina [W], Fiji [L]
Next fixture: v Wales [Six Nations, 1 February 2019] 
World Cup odds: 22/1

10. Argentina

Matias Alemanno November has been a steep learning curve for Argentina. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

An unquestionably difficult tour for the Pumas, as the progressive development they made under Mario Ledesma during the Rugby Championship failed to materialise in Europe.

The major concern is the set-piece, and the way in which one of their previous strengths has completely folded during this World Cup cycle, with Argentina’s scrum obliterated by Ireland in Dublin.

It has been a long and arduous season for many of their squad, from Super Rugby with the Jaguares to their Rugby Championship campaign which yielded two victories over South Africa and Australia, and those mitigating factors must be considered when assessing their performances.

Ledesma has done a lot of good in his short reign in charge so far, most notably developing and fine-tuning the Pumas’ potentially devastating backline, which is led by the exciting Bautista Delguy.

Saturday’s run-out against the Barbarians at Twickenham will allow Ledesma run the rule over his wider squad, and as they’ve become famed for, Argentina will no doubt be in peak condition come World Cup time. As Ireland know all too well, they’re a dangerous proposition. 

November results: Ireland [L], France [L], Scotland [L]
Next fixture: v Barbarians [Saturday 1 December 2018]
World Cup odds: 40/1. 

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Ryan Bailey

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