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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Dan Sheridan/INPHO
# Power Rankings
Where in the world do Ireland really rank? It isn’t No1
Ireland have had a brilliant year but if you’d to choose a World Cup winner for 2023, you’d go France first, South Africa second and toss a coin for third.

THE WORLD CUP IS just under a year away and after a dramatic November when Ireland added Springbok and Wallaby scalps to their 2022 CV, the country is full of hope and hype.

But haven’t we been here before, a year out from a World Cup? While it is one thing to be on top of a convoluted ranking system, it is another thing to bring the Webb Ellis Cup home. Only four countries know what that feels like but next year there is a strong chance of a newcomer tasting success.

The trouble is, it’s unlikely to be Ireland. Here is our rankings, based on who we believe have the best chance of winning next year’s tournament.

1: FRANCE

DAVE RENNIE CALLED France the real No1 side in the world ahead of Australia’s clash with Les Bleus earlier this month and nothing has happened since to make us argue with the Wallaby coach.

Unbeaten in all 10 of their Tests in 2022, including a win over Ireland in the Six Nations, France are not only winning games but delivering the kind of flawed performances that suggests better days lie ahead.

Dig a little deep and you can see why they are on a roll. First, their disciplinary record is better than any of the other leading nations.

And then there is the Shaun Edwards factor. Outplayed by Australia, France’s defence kept them in it. They missed 14 tackles to Australia’s 27 while their offloading game (they had 16, Australia just two in the 30-29 Test) was a further reflection of their power and skill.

There’s more. They averaged 29.8 points per match in 2022. Only New Zealand, with 32.3, were better.

“They’re a big team with great athletes,” said Rennie. “To stay with them, you’re going to have to bar up defensively and put yourself in harms way.

“They have really good generals at No.9 and 10 and a big midfield. They’re the complete side.”

They certainly are although memories of how they cracked under pressure in 2007, when they last hosted a World Cup, haven’t gone away. Still, if you had to choose a World Cup winner right now, it’s them.

antoine-dupont-celebrates-after-the-game Dave Winter / INPHO Antoine Dupont is France's key man. Dave Winter / INPHO / INPHO

2: SOUTH AFRICA

They haven’t had a brilliant 2022, losing this month to Ireland and France, after a home defeat to Wales and two losses in the Rugby Championship earlier in the summer. Still, context is always required.

This time four years ago they were in a far worse position, haunted by the bitter memories of 2017 when they shipped record defeats to New Zealand and Ireland. And we all know how 2019 worked out.

Tournament rugby suits them, not just because they have the depth to cope with injuries better than others but also because of their style of play. They absolutely hate the stick-it-up-the-jersey slights that others throw at them, to the extent they’ve spent a fair bit of this year tinkering with their tactics.

“It’s just a matter of finding the balance (to our gameplan),” said their head coach, Jacques Nienaber. “It’s not that we’re not capable of doing it. We’ve shown it, proven it. We play according to our strengths, and know as South Africans what our strengths are. If we’ll get respect, ever, I don’t know.”

It irks South Africans that the rest of the world showers other teams – New Zealand especially – with more love; that their Lions series win was depicted as bad for rugby.

It was, though, because, to be blunt, the Springboks aren’t easy on the eye. But nor are they easy to beat. Write the defending champions off at your peril.

cheslin-kolbe-scores-a-try Luca Sighinolfi / INPHO Cheslin Kolbe is a constant danger. Luca Sighinolfi / INPHO / INPHO

3: IRELAND

You can make an argument for Ireland to be number one. That’s what the official rankings say, isn’t it? Didn’t they win a three-match series in New Zealand? Didn’t they record a record away win over England in March? Didn’t they beat all three Southern Hemisphere giants over the space of six months?

Yet the question we’re asking here is which side is likeliest to win a World Cup next autumn and quite frankly, Ireland have a lot of convincing to do. If Johnny Sexton goes down, what will happen then? And what if there is a repeat of 2015, when your best second row, your two flankers, your starting 10 and your 13 are all missing?

Well this time Ireland would be in a better spot, as there isn’t much between James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne or Iain Henderson in the engine room; while the current depth of backrow options is phenomenal. Plus, Joey Carbery is a more credible alternative now than Ian Madigan was in 2015, while the alternative to Garry Ringrose now (Robbie Henshaw or James Hume) is strong.

Cover in other positions isn’t as good, though. Really, when it comes to next year’s tournament, prayers will be said for the health of Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, Sexton and Hugo Keenan.

As a team, Ireland is certainly good enough to take a scalp or two. But winning a World Cup requires going into the trenches on October 14, 21 and 28 and beating a France or New Zealand, then an England or an Australia and finally a South Africa. Have they the squad to make that happen? Probably not.

tadhg-furlong Dan Sheridan / INPHO Furlong is crucial to Ireland's chances. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

4: NEW ZEALAND

We’ve spent so much of 2022 reflecting on everything they’ve got wrong so let’s look at what they have done right. They are currently unbeaten in seven games; they won the Rugby Championship; they have the best breakdown defence in the world; they have the highest points per game tally of any team and score the highest number of tries.

Plus in Ardie Savea, they have an absolute superstar, a player who deserves to be placed on the same pedestal as Antoine Dupont. It was Savea who destroyed Ireland in the first Test of the summer tour and who launched the comeback that nearly decided the final game of that series.

Yet they still lost. That’s the other thing about New Zealand. They lost to Ireland in 2016 for the first time; lost again to them in 2018, 2021 and now twice in 2022. The Pumas had never beaten them up until last year. They’ve done it twice now. England snatched a draw from nowhere last week. Fact is the All Blacks aura has slipped.

Here is Justin Marshall, their former scrum half in conversation with the Evening Standard’s podcast: “In the past, before the breakdown laws changed, the All Blacks were always so lethal – when opposition teams aimlessly gave them the ball back.

“You had a guy like Richie McCaw out there when you had a little more freedom at the breakdown, more freedom than you have got now. That is where the All Blacks really kicked into action and caught teams on the hop because of their counter-attack.

“You don’t see them doing that as much.”

Accordingly a great team has been downgraded to a good one.

5: ENGLAND

They are in danger of ending 2022 with more losses than wins and patience is running out with Eddie Jones. Here’s the Daily Telegraph’s assessment of their coach after their one-point loss earlier this month to Argentina.

“He is being paid £750,000 a year to turn England into world-beaters, and he has just been outsmarted by an old friend who has spent much of the past week coaching Lebanon’s rugby league team. The excuses are running out, fast.”

It reminds you of a line of questioning Jones received in March 2018, the day Ireland won their third Grand Slam. “Can you turn this around in time for the World Cup?” Jones was asked.

“Look at my record, mate,” he replied.

Okay we will. This is what he has done with Australia (World Cup finalists in 2003), South Africa (winner as a backroom staff member in 2007), with Japan (victors over the Springboks in 2015) and England (finalists in 2019).

Bearing all this in mind, you’d be a fool to give up on him, especially as England have a comparatively easy route through to the semi-finals, with the world’s leading four sides locked together on the other side of the draw.

Against that, you have to look at his constant tinkering with team selections and wonder if he knows, or will ever know, his best team. The Farrell/Smith/Tuilagi combo hasn’t worked yet. In fact so much hasn’t since 2019. The temptation is to write them off but World Cups are filled with stories of sides coming good unexpectedly, England in 2007, France in 2011, Australia in 2015.

Like it or not, they’re one of six sides with a shot of winning it.

owen-farrell-and-marcus-smith James Crombie / INPHO The Farrell/Smith combo has not fully clicked. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

6: AUSTRALIA

Winners of just four games from 13 this year, Australia face the Welsh today fretting over an unwelcome record. In short a defeat would spell the worst year the Wallabies have had since 1958.

As a result of this, Dave Rennie is a coach under pressure although the Rugby Australia board have gone on record to say they’ll stick by him.

You can see why. They performed really well against the All Blacks, Ireland and France this year yet lost tight games in the closing moments. Back home, the Italy defeat has been seen as a humiliation – but that was a de-facto Australian B team – so it’s not quite as drastic a situation as the scoreline suggests.

Their injury list has been nightmarish on this tour and Rennie’s battle to find a full back, out half and hooker has hurt. He needs Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper fit and healthy and needs to move Will Skelton permanently into his team.

Skelton, the scourge of Leinster with Saracens and La Rochelle in recent seasons, is world class and had been grossly underused by his country, starting just under a third of his internationals. “I’ve been nowhere near my best for Australia,” said Skelton this week.

Correct that issue and Australia have a chance next year, for the draw is kind, their attack is good and they showed spirit as well as skill against France and Ireland. Mad as it may seem, they could conceivably reach next year’s final.

7: ARGENTINA

This has been a big year for the Pumas. They beat the Scots in a summer series, defeated the All Blacks away, Australia at home, England at Twickenham.

However their indiscipline last week against Scotland — when they received one red card and three yellows – was shocking. So was their performance against Wales this month – a 20-13 defeat.

They lack consistency as does every team bar France and Ireland. That may arrive next year, though, as coach Michael Cheika deliberately experimented in 2022.

“We made a plan of what we wanted to achieve this year in terms of improvements in our game, and then with what we want to add next year,” said Cheika. “And there are certain things that we’ve really focused on. We want to make sure we deliver those things.”

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They did that in Twickenham but couldn’t follow it up in Cardiff or Edinburgh. Still, Gregor Townsend is a fan.

“They are well coached and play a very tough brand of rugby,” said the Scotland coach. “They have a good defence, a good lineout. They are rightly one of the best teams in the world right now.”

michael-cheika-and-julian-montoya-after-the-game Billy Stickland / INPHO Cheika and Julian Montoya celebrate. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

8: SCOTLAND

Finn Russell or no Finn Russell? That is the question Gregor Townsend has struggled to answer.

He left him out of his original squad, brought him back, saw him engineer a near shock against New Zealand and then destroy Argentina.

In a way Scotland should be ranked higher as they defeated the Pumas last week. Still, by the time next year comes around, it is Argentina who have an easier draw and a much better chance of launching a bid for the semis.

To their credit, Scotland play a decent brand of rugby, were exciting against New Zealand before panicking down the stretch, and have shown throughout 2022 that their backrow is top class and their defence teak tough.

That’s enough to win respect – but not World Cup pool games against Ireland or the Springboks.

9: WALES

Wales have won only three of their 11 matches this year, losing to Italy in the Six Nations and then to Georgia last week, when their scrum spent much of the game in reverse.

Already, there is talk of Warren Gatland returning as an emergency fix, as confidence in Wayne Pivac has completely disappeared, not just because of what happened against Georgia last Saturday but also because of the consistent decline since he took over three years ago.

The 2020 Six Nations title never gained him the kudos it could, or should, have, mainly because it was a Covid championship, won against the backdrop of empty stands, secondly because there were game-changing red cards for their opponents in the opening two rounds of the championship and bizarre refereeing decisions in the next two games.

Even this year’s summer Test win over the Springboks – a first by Wales on South African soil – was discredited because of the number of voluntary changes that Jacques Nienaber made.

For years Gatland covered over the cracks in Welsh rugby, assisted by a group of senior players, Ken Owens, Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate, Dan Biggar and Sam Warburton, who overachieved.

They couldn’t beat time, though. No sports person ever has and as that great Welsh team aged, no one has emerged to take their place, Warburton making it clear in his Times column this week that things aren’t going to change soon.

“Of the 12 directors on the Welsh Rugby Union’s board, there are eight community members,” wrote the former Wales captain. “That is like having eight people on the board of a company that are contributing to just one part of the business. It’s just way too many… farcical.

“It is such a mess. There is little trust on either side. I don’t think the WRU trust the regions with their money and then the regions don’t want to be owned by the WRU because their governance is so old fashioned and they do not trust their decisions.”

If Wales get out of their pool next year, the quarters will be as far as they’ll go.

georgia-players-celebrate-after-the-game Tom Maher / INPHO Georgia players react after the Wales win. Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

AND THE REST

Romania, in the 1980s and early years of the Nineties, was the closest thing rugby has ever had to a rebellion, coming seemingly from nowhere to the stage where, in a four-year spell between 1980 and 1984, they were drawing with Ireland in Dublin, beating Wales, Scotland and, on two occasions, France, while, in 1981, they had the All Blacks on the rack, before New Zealand escaped with an eight-point win.

When they defeated the Grand Slam-winning Scots in Bucharest, speculation was rife they would be invited to join the Five Nations. Some chance. In the political climate of the day, neither their location behind the Iron Curtain nor their ‘shamateur’ status sat well with the snobbish conservatives running the world game.

For Romania then, read Georgia now.

Their exclusion from Europe’s leading competition is a scandal, especially as they have beaten both Italy and Wales this year.

Not so long ago, you had to wait years for a shock result in international rugby. This month there was one a week, Argentina in London, Italy over Australia, Georgia over Wales.

The Georgians will fancy their chances of getting out of a group with Wales, Australia and Fiji next year.

If they have arrived, Italy have returned. They’ve beaten Wales and Australia and thumped Samoa 49-17 in 2022. “We asked them to die for Italy and they were ready to do that,” said their coach, Kieran Crowley, who oversaw a first win in 19 games for the Italians against Australia.

Fiji have gone four years since their last major scalp but showed enough against Scotland and Ireland to suggest another big win will happen one day soon while Japan ran the All Blacks to seven points. Depth, finally, is arriving into international rugby.

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