WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The release of World Rugby rankings this week was accompanied by little fanfare, though at a glance it seemed to represent one of the most significant power shifts in the global game for several years.
Four Northern Hemisphere teams won the second matches of their three-test series against Southern Hemisphere opponents last weekend, taking those series to deciding tests which will be played across three continents on Saturday.
At the same time, France completed a sweep of its two-test series against Japan in Japan, using a relatively young squad with an eye to the World Cup it will host next year.
New rankings reflect those successes while hinting at a wider shift in rugby’s balance of power a little more than a year out from a World Cup. Since the ranking system was introduced, Southern Hemisphere teams mostly have occupied the top spots: New Zealand held the No. 1 spot for most of the first decade.
France has risen three places and now tops the rankings list for the first time after winning 11 consecutive tests including the Japan series, a test against New Zealand last November and a Six Nations Grand Slam.
Ireland rose four places to No. 2 ahead of World Cup champion South Africa, which moved from second to third place. New Zealand now is fourth, the lowest ranking the All Blacks have occupied since the system was introduced prior to the 2003 World Cup.
England has moved back into the top five after its second test win over Australia, which dropped steeply into sixth place. Scotland and Wales also have improved their rankings after wins last weekend over Argentina and South Africa respectively.
News of New Zealand’s record-low ranking dropped on a team already under extreme pressure after its first ever loss at home to Ireland. The 23-12 loss in Dunedin has the All Blacks scrambling to avoid an unprecedented series defeat at home which almost certainly would force New Zealand Rugby to review the performances of head coach Ian Foster and his assistants.
At an impromptu news conference on a rain-swept training ground Tuesday, All Blacks captain Sam Cane did his best to play down New Zealand’s rankings slide, though it is unlikely to have gone unnoticed in a team already facing severe criticism for its performance in the second test.
“If I’m honest we haven’t paid too much attention to that,” Cane said. “We’ve got enough on our hands digesting what happened at the weekend and then focusing on the game to worry about things like world rankings.
“That takes care of itself when we’re playing well. I don’t even understand how the rankings work exactly but it’s certainly a goal of ours to make sure we get back to No. 1.”
England beat Australia to level that series and relieve some pressure on head coach Eddie Jones whose method, selections and personality have made him a regular target for the British media. Australia-born Jones said he relishes criticism.
“I like it. I think it is fantastic,” he said. “I love my mother ringing me up in the morning saying ‘Are you going to get sacked? When do you have to move? Are you going to come back to Australia?'
“My poor mother. But I don’t mind it because I have made the choice to take the job and that’s always going to happen because there’s infatuation with sacking coaches now, isn’t there?”
The question of why Northern Hemisphere teams now are out-performing southern rivals, both at home during end-of-year tours and during current mid-year series has many possible answers.
It seems likely the quality of domestic competitions in Britain and Europe now is higher than in the southern hemisphere, where Super Rugby has been diminished by the departure of clubs from South Africa.
Many leading coaches from Southern Hemisphere also have moved north in the absence of opportunities at home and their influence is seen in the improvement of skills among northern players.
Southern Hemisphere teams have won eight of the nine World Cup titles to date — England edged then defending champion Australia with an extra-time dropped goal in the 2003 final to break the southern sequence. But as the 10th World Cup approaches, teams from the north appear to hold the upper hand.
Foster, whose future with the All Blacks may pivot on a southern success this weekend, sees that as a good thing.
“It was a Northern Hemisphere weekend," last weekend, Foster said. "So while there’s a bit of doom and gloom in our camp, it's actually great for world rugby and it sets up next weekend really well.”
Away from the higher-profile southern venues, the Pacific Nations Cup continued last weekend at Churchill Park in Lautoka, where hosts Fiji were beaten by Australia A, a collection of players who missed Wallabies selection.
That again highlighted one of rugby's most intractable problems as the richest nations prosper while the comparatively lower-financed national teams struggle to compete.