Power Ranking the World's Top 15 Rugby Nations After the Six Nations
The Six Nations is over for another year and the European order of things is rejigged.
Ireland and England have little between them, with England perhaps with the advantage of youth on their side and a better record against the big boys from down south. Wales have slipped, and France are, well, France.
Nothing achieved in the Six Nations was ever going to disturb the top two slots in any rankings system, but for this power ranking, the IRB’s list is not the only guiding principle.
This top 15 examines what happened in the autumn as well as the Six Nations and comes to a few different conclusions about the world order as a result.
Where stats and results are cited as evidence, a thank you must go to the clever folk at ESPNScrum.com.
1. New Zealand
The All Blacks were perfect in 2013 and thus still command the top spot in the rankings.
Based on the form of most of New Zealand's Super Rugby franchises in the 2014 competition, they may not enjoy such a dominant year, but there is time for form to be found and rust to be shaken off.
Can the All Blacks conquer all before them once again?
Their next goal is to set a new winning streak. They sit on 14 consecutive victories, with England due to tour there in June for a three-Test series.
If New Zealand secure a clean sweep against Stuart Lancaster’s side, they will be one game away from breaking the record. In that case they will have an opportunity to surpass when they play Australia on June 16 in Sydney in the first round of The Rugby Championship.
2. South Africa
After running the All Blacks close in last year’s championship, South Africa beat all before them in Europe to retain their status as the second-best side in the world.
This season their franchises in the Super 14 are enjoying differing fortunes, but the Springbok-laden Sharks look in ominous form.
Victor Matfield has also returned from retirement and could be in the mix for an Indian summer to his international career should coach Heyneke Meyer opt for experience alongside such young thrusters as Eben Etzebeth.
The Stormers lock is due back in action in May following ankle surgery, which is plenty of time to get up to speed for The Rugby Championship.
Here is where this list departs from the IRB rankings. England’s autumn promise blossomed into something more menacing in the Six Nations.
In the past England, ranked No. 4 by the IRB, have thrown away Grand Slams. This season they could count themselves horribly unlucky not to have the trophy and a perfect five wins from five sitting on the sideboard at RFU headquarters.
Stuart Lancaster’s young side is growing up fast, with strength in depth in most positions and individuals such as Mike Brown and Danny Care enjoying the form of their lives.
They beat Australia in the autumn without touching anything like the heights they reached in the Six Nations. If the two met tomorrow, England would go in as favourites.
Australia could have beaten England last autumn but lacked the killer punch.
They improved as their grueling autumn continued and won every game thereafter, somehow coping without much of a scrum and the fluctuating form of key man Quade Cooper.
In Israel Folau they possess a man who could be the world player of the year in 2014 if his progress continues at its current pace.
Their collective quality doesn’t match England’s at present, but their match-winners are probably more dangerous.
Ireland are improved from the side beaten easily by the Wallabies in the autumn, but Australia edge this ranking on that result.
A second Six Nations title in five years was deserved for a side coping well with the changing of the guard in some areas.
In Joe Schmidt, they have a coach respected throughout the game who seems to have injected consistency into his team’s play and may well elevate them to greater heights before the World Cup arrives in England next year.
Suddenly, a pool containing a basket case in France and a transitional Italy holds no fears for this team.
If they win that section, their route to the last four is likely be blocked only by Argentina, who are a shadow of the great side that put Ireland out in the 2007 World Cup.
Has everyone worked Warrenball out, or are Wales, so heavily involved with the Lions last summer, simply knackered?
What’s not in doubt is they were a shadow of the side that blew England away on the final day of the 2013 championship.
Their autumn campaign was pretty miserable as well, losing to both South Africa and Australia.
They face the Boks again this summer and need to shake off this lethargy if they are to stand any chance of ending their ugly run of results against the big three from down south.
What are we going to do with France? More’s the point, what is Philippe Saint-Andre going to do with them?
Any side would suffer the loss of a trio as talented as Thierry Dusautoir, Yannick Nyanga and Wesley Fofana, but their stand-ins are all talented players. It's they way they are playing as a team that baffles.
Attempting to decipher Saint-Andre’s game plan is as easy as nailing a trifle to a wall.
The fog seemed to have lifted a little by the time they played Ireland, but not to the extent that you could say this is a team on an upward trajectory.
Like a rogue firework, they’ll most likely continue to fizz from brilliant to awful. And like a rogue firework, they’ll probably damage a few unsuspecting folk on their way.
The Samoans have the same problem that has always dogged them: The sum is never as great as its talented, muscular parts.
Last summer’s quadrangular series against Scotland, Italy and South Africa was a step forward and they beat Scotland and Italy, but it was only held because it was a Lions year. Most recently they got hammered by Ireland and lost at Georgia in Tblisi.
They must look enviously at the entry of Argentina to The Rugby Championship. Geographically and according to the IRB rankings, it should have been them. It isn’t, and they’ll have to make do with the fixture scraps they get from the top table.
An occasional warm-up against one of the big boys before the main event, the odd autumn hit-out at Twickenham and the Celtic citadels will come their way. To truly challenge, they need these fixtures regularly.
The class of ’07 is becoming a distant memory with the departure of the great names. Contepomi, Ledesma, Pichot are all gone.
Some remain. Juan Martin Hernandez a shadowy remnant of the great man known as El Mago. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe is still fighting the good fight; he is a back rower of such talent that, were he an All Black, he’d be regarded on par with McCaw and Co.
Their job is to marshal the young blood, to rekindle that rabid desire that carried them to the brink of a World Cup final.
Entry to the Southern Hemisphere’s premier competition is deserved, but so far it has served up a diet of defeat.
The green shoots of recovery need to start sprouting.
Rugby fans whose memories reach back beyond the dawn of the Six Nations will remember a Scottish side fuelled with passion and talent and that was capable of great things.
Those same fans—well, perhaps the Scots and the neutrals—will hope that now, rock bottom has been reached.
Curious selection, a cabbage patch of a home field and four defeats from five matches made this a soul-sapping Six Nations for Scotland.
But change is in the air, not least in the shape of some better grass at Murrayfield, but more significantly in the coach’s chair. Vern Cotter takes over from Scott Johnson this summer.
The man who has steered Clermont Auvergne to the heady heights of French and European rugby is set to take the reins. He has less to work with, granted, but he is a winner.
We have seen what new coaches can do for a team. Gatland walked in the door and Wales won the Grand Slam, while Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt both claimed Six Nations trophies while the inked settled on their contracts.
Over to you, Vern.
The Azzurri sit 14th on the IRB list but deserve to be higher.
They may have had a poor Six Nations as they attempt to switch to a more expansive game, but they beat Fiji in the autumn and lost narrowly to Argentina.
There are promising young players in the back line such as Tommy Allan, Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto, and their forward pack is one of the best scrummaging units in the world.
Better results will come if they keep the faith in the path coach Jacques Brunel has set them out on.
Fiji are in a financial mess after the IRB suspended its funding amid concerns over how the union was being run. The union then got rid of their coach and four others in a restructuring and have yet to appoint a new one.
On the field, though, they have won five of their last six, their only reverse coming in a helter-skelter 37-31 defeat at Italy.
Their victories also need to be put into context, coming against Romania, Portugal, Tonga, the USA and a Classic All Blacks side bizarrely containing Fiji’s own Rupeni Caucaunibuca.
Fiji haven’t played a Tier 1 nation since losing to England in autumn of 2012, which underlines another of their problems.
Talented though they are, without regular fixtures against high-class opponents, they will only rarely threaten the established order.
Victories over Wales, Canada and the USA in 2013 made it a fine year for the Brave Blossoms.
Expected defeats in the autumn to New Zealand and Scotland were followed by wins over minnows Spain and Russia.
They suffered a blow when coach Eddie Jones suffered a stroke last year, but the wily Australian who led the Wallabies to the 2003 World Cup final has recovered and told reporters in November he wants his team to crack the IRB’s top 10 by the time the World Cup is staged in Japan in 2019.
Tonga have only won twice since beating Scotland in 2012 and have lost five of their last six, although their most recent defeats were a 10-point reverse to Wales and a 38-18 beating by France.
They have a hard group in next year’s World Cup with New Zealand, Georgia and Argentina in their section.
They have a chance to move up the rankings in the forthcoming Pacific Nations Cup.
In the official rankings, Georgia are 16th behind Canada, but they beat them in Tblisi in November and also beat Romania last weekend to qualify for the 2015 World Cup.
Romania themselves beat the Maple Leaves last autumn, so Georgia deserve to be placed a little higher.
As Scotland floundered their way through the Six Nations, it was muted in some sections of the media that they should be slung out and replaced by a side such as Georgia.
That’s far-fetched, but it doesn’t change the fact that few sides would fancy a wintry trip to the Georgian capital to take this lot on.
A hard, uncompromising pack spearheaded by Montpellier flanker Mamuka Gorgodze will give as good as it gets to anyone.
And it will need to next year. Georgia play the All Blacks on October 2.