Race for rankings points steps up in June
The IRB World Rankings are worth much more to rugby nations than just bragging rights in 2012 as they will be used to determine how the 12 automatic qualifiers for Rugby World Cup 2015 will be seeded for the Pool Allocation Draw in December.
The top four nations in the IRB World Rankings after the climax of the end of year internationals in Europe will be drawn into band one for the draw, meaning - at the time of writing - New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England would be the top seeds and unable to be drawn in the same pool.
However, the internationals taking place in June could result in numerous changes to the rankings.
Grand Slam winners Wales tour Australia for a four-match tour with Tests on 9, 16 and 23 June in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney respectively. A midweek match against the Brumbies on 12 June will also challenge Wales’ strength-in-depth.
Even though injuries have hit Wales, ruling out both star centre Jamie Roberts and, more unusually, head coach Warren Gatland, the Six Nations champions have been boosted by the return to fitness of inspirational captain Sam Warburton, while injured centres Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams look like they may make the trip.
The Wallabies, who have fly half Quade Cooper and the versatile James O’Connor on their own injury list, are ranked second in the world, while Wales lie fifth. Australia narrowly beat the Welsh in their previous two encounters – 21-18 in the RWC 2011 Bronze Final and 24-18 during a December international at the Millennium Stadium. Wales are keen to push on from their Six Nations triumph to gain a southern hemisphere scalp and possibly move into a crucial top four spot in the rankings.
England travel to South Africa for their first ever three-Test tour there, hoping to leapfrog the hosts in the IRB World Rankings with a series win. England play two midweek matches against SA Barbarians South on 13 June and SA Barbarians North on 19 June with the three Tests take place on consecutive weekends from 9 to 23 June in Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.
Tom Croft, Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes are all missing for England with injuries, but Dylan Hartley returns after his eight-week biting ban for coach Stuart Lancaster's first tour. For South Africa it looks like a chance to bring through new faces, as the likes of Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie are set to be unavailable.
Ireland, currently ranked eighth, have perhaps the toughest task, travelling to New Zealand for their first ever three-Test series against the All Blacks with Tests against the world champions in Auckland, Christchurch and Hamilton.
It’s a mountain to climb for Ireland after a disappointing Six Nations and the news that Paul O’Connell may miss the trip due to injury, joining star wing Tommy Bowe on the sidelines. Rumours circulate that new All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen may play his star fly half Dan Carter at 12 through the series, with Aaron Cruden set to take the No.10 jersey. Richie McCaw has recently returned from injury for the Crusaders, and looks set to lead the All Blacks once again.
France and Argentina, currently lying sixth and seventh in the rankings, will face-off in two Tests on 16 and 23 June. Meanwhile Scotland, currently occupying their lowest ever rankings of 12th after collecting the Six Nations wooden spoon, enjoy a physical tour with Tests against Australia (5 June), Fiji (16 June) and Samoa (23 June).
Italy, ranked 11th, will face Argentina (9 June), Canada (15 June) and the USA (23 June). Tonga and Samoa, the remaining automatic qualifiers for RWC 2015, will be in action in the IRB Pacific Nations Cup, the annual tournament also involving Fiji and Japan.