2015 Rugby World Cup
Stage set for rankings rumble
November 5, 2012
England coach Stuart Lancaster will not be the only one left scratching his head when pondering the IRB Rankings battle © Getty Images
As if plotting the All Blacks' downfall was not perplexing enough, Europe's finest face an even bigger head-scratcher this month in the form of the International Rugby Board's world rankings.
Since their much-trumpeted debut in 2003, the rankings have rarely been more than a mildly interesting sub-plot to the real battle for world domination on the field. All that changed when the IRB struck on the idea of using the rankings to decide the seeding for the 2007 Rugby World Cup and for at least the last month leading up to the draw what was normally the exclusive domain of the finest mathematical brains became the talk of the average fan.
With the draw for the 2015 World Cup almost upon us, the rankings are set to enjoy another month in the spotlight with the global pecking order poised to define the battle lines for the sport's next showpiece event.
The top four countries in the final rankings issued ahead of the draw on December 3 will be kept apart in the pool stages. At present, that would see New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England assured of avoiding each other but they will not be sitting too comfortably - thanks in part to the convoluted nature of the mechanics by the rankings and the more familiar challenge of a gruelling end of year campaign ahead of them.
With a feast of international rugby set to played out in the coming weeks there are countless variables and possible scenarios. While form and ranking would suggest the world champion All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks can sit relatively comfortably the same cannot be said for England whose 4th place is well within the sights of their Six Nations rivals France and Wales.
The key to bolstering their respective rankings is their results against higher-ranked opposition. Victories against those sides brings greater reward in terms of a ranking boost with a win by 15 points or more providing the biggest possible boost. England would appear to be in the strongest position not only thanks to their ranking but the fact that they play all three of the sides ranked above them in a testing autumn campaign.
Wales are only playing two - New Zealand and Australia - while France will only tackle one - Australia. Of equal concern to both Wales and France should be their results against lower-ranked opposition that can be equally pivotal in handing their rivals an advantage and ultimately deciding their own fate.
It is a battle that is likely to go down to the wire with England and Wales able to leverage an advantage not enjoyed by others. The commercial clout of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and their Welsh counterparts allows them to stage one more international than their European neighbours that this year gives them one final and priceless opportunity to improve their ranking. The Unions' ability to flex that financial muscle and the fact those games will fall outside of three-week Test window laid down by the IRB is perhaps a debate for another day, but will not prevent Wales' clash with Australia and England's date with New Zealand going some way to deciding their draw.
Those sides seemingly out of the running for a top seeding will also be dusting off their calculators with the battle for a place within the second band of seeds - those ranked 5-8 in the IRB list - set to be just as fierce. Those sides among the 12 already qualified for the tournament that fail to claim a place in this bracket face the prospect of tackling two of the world's leading sides during the pool stages of the 2015 tournament.
Scotland suffered that fate in 2008 and their pairing with Argentina and England at the 2011 tournament eventually resulted in them not reaching the quarter-finals for the first time in World Cup history.
France, Wales, Argentina and Ireland currently occupy these places but the likes of Scotland, Samoa and Italy are on the cusp and have plenty to play for this month with ample opportunity to upset the world order. In particular, Ireland's date with Argentina could prove key to both side's World Cup hopes. Tonga round out the current top 12 in the rankings with all those sides guaranteed of a place at the World Cup having finished in the top three of their respective pools at the last year's tournament in New Zealand.
The benefit of a more preferable ranking and therefore seeding is clear to be seen. Surely Europe's leading sides would welcome the chance to avoid the big guns from the southern hemisphere in the pool stages? Not all of them - or so it would appear. England boss Stuart Lancaster has repeatedly played down the battle for a top four spot insisting he is more focused on the 'process' that he hopes will eventually bring a bigger reward at the tournament itself.
His RFU employers would no doubt be little more comfortable about the hosts' World Cup chances should they be the highest ranked side in their pool due to the fact that second billing come the end of the pool stages could result in a quarter-final away from their traditional Twickenham HQ - a fate that befell France in 2007 and one eventuality that may be considered when the match schedule is formulated in the coming months.
As much as English rugby chiefs would welcome a preferable draw, to focus on such a short-term goal would also contradict Lancaster's long-term planning. He is adamant that every game is stepping stone to the World Cup and you cannot doubt his commitment to that goal with his refusal to pick form players such as Quins No.8 Nick Easter if their age suggests they will not be in the mix in three years' time. In addition a policy of not selecting overseas-based players despite their notable performances leaves England open to further criticism should they come up short in the coming weeks.
Lancaster's determination to play the long game is both admirable and understandable as the World Cup will ultimately define his tenure and decide his fate. But the trouble for the England boss is that the following month or so will go a long way to deciding his side's World Cup fate whether he likes it or not and those conflicting priorities could be as headache-inducing as the IRB's formula for their rankings.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.