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While Georgia, title holders since 2012, have already qualified for Rugby World Cup 2019 through their third-place pool finish at the last tournament in England, for the remaining Rugby Europe Championship teams the journey to Japan starts this Saturday.
Results in the Rugby Europe Championship, formerly known as the European Nations Cup Division 1A, over this year and next – other than those against the Lelos – will count towards the European qualification process, with the best-placed side other than Georgia booking their spot at Asia’s first Rugby World Cup as Europe 1.
All results, however, count when it comes to deciding the Rugby Europe Championship winners and now a try bonus point will be awarded to teams scoring three tries or more than the opposition rather than the four tries or more model adopted previously.
For the first time, a play-off will now take place between the bottom-placed side in the Rugby Europe Championship and the winners of the Rugby Europe Trophy (formerly the European Nations Cup Division 1B) to decide which team plays in the Championship the following year.
Here, we take a look at this weekend’s opening fixtures which will all count towards the World Rugby Rankings.
Kevin Williams captains Belgium from fly-half but his brother, Alan, has to settle for a place on the bench for the game against Georgia at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels.
Williams has Julien Berger inside him at scrum-half in an experienced back line that features a number of France-based players. The Black Devils pack, however, is callow by comparison and only includes one player, number eight Thomas de Mulder, with a double figure tally of caps to his name.
Georgia head coach Milton Haig has followed through with his promise to blood a number of inexperienced players as the Lelos look to build up their strength in depth ahead of RWC 2019.
The Georgian pack is virtually unrecognisable from the one which took to the field in the November series, with Bristol second-row Giorgi Nemasadze and blindside flanker Lasha Lomidze the only forwards whose test appearances run into double figures. The rest of the pack has just 26 caps between them.
At the other end of the spectrum, veteran full-back Merab Kvirikashvili wins his 99th cap for the Lelos, while scrum-half Giorgi Begadze is another with a half-century of caps to his name. The side is captained for the first time in a test match by 47-cap centre Merab Sharikadze. His only other experience in the role came in the World Rugby Tbilisi Cup in 2014 when Georgia were beaten by Argentina XV.
Georgia cannot move any higher than their present position of 12th, but they could be overtaken by Italy if the Azzurri win by more than 15 points against Ireland in Rome.
If Belgium end Georgia’s unbeaten run in the competition and beat their higher-ranked opponents, they are guaranteed to move above Portugal into 25th place on the back of a two rating point gain. If they win by more than 15 points it is possible for them to climb as high as 23rd depending on how Germany fare against Romania.
Belgium will remain unchanged on 56.87 points if they are beaten by Georgia due to the 14-place differential between the sides, however they will fall a place if they lose and Chile enjoy a big win against Canada in the Americas Rugby Championship.
Jordi Jorba, a star performer for Spain during their run to the final of last year’s World Rugby U20 Trophy, is named on the left wing by Los Leones coach Santiago Santos.
The 19-year-old is one of 11 survivors from the starting-line up that took on and beat Uruguay 33-16 in Malaga back in November. Jorba, the youngest member of the match-day squad at 19 years of age, scored his maiden test try in that game.
In an otherwise unchanged pack, Ignacio Villanueva Martin, who turns 26 on Friday, comes into the second row for the first time in nearly two years.
The rest of the changes are in the backline, with Guillaume Rouet, Dan Snee and Sebastien Ascaret selected at scrum-half, centre and wing respectively.
Russia's joint most-capped players, flanker Victor Gresev and fly-half Yury Kushnarev, are included in a starting XV bursting with experience.
Gresev and Kushnarev will make their 85th test appearances, while Andrei Garbuzov will draw level with Andre Kuzin as Russia's third most-capped player on 78.
Captain Vasily Artemyev, who wins his 68th cap on the wing, is just one try away from matching Russia's record for tries scored (26) currently held by Kuzin.
A Russian win will be accompanied by a two-place rise in to 17th if the USA fail to beat Brazil in Texas. A victorious Russia is guaranteed to move up at least one place, ahead of Canada, regardless of their result against Chile.
Any form of victory for Spain will be enough for them to supplant Uruguay in 21st place as Los Teros are not in test action this weekend, playing against Argentina XV in the Americas Rugby Championship. If Spain win by more than 15 points, they can close the gap between themselves and the higher-ranked Russia to just five-hundredths of a rating point.
Germany coach Kobus Potgieter has chosen to make three changes to the team that started last November’s historic 24-21 win over Uruguay.
In a back-row reshuffle, Jarrod Els switches from openside to number eight and Sebastian Ferreira takes over in the number seven jersey.
Highly-experienced tight-head prop Damien Tussac comes in to bolster the front row, while the only other change sees Raynor Parkinson replaced at full-back by Harris Aounallah to enable Germany’s record points scorer to move to fly-half.
His Romania counterpart Lynn Howells has named an experienced starting XV boasting more than 550 caps.
Six players have a half-century of test appearances behind them, with two, goal-kicking centre Florin Vlaicu and full-back Catalin Fercu, approaching their centuries.
Prop Mihai Lazar will captain Romania in the absence of injured number eight Stelian Burcea.
If Spain don't win, a victorious Germany will climb three places to 21st regardless of results elsewhere. It is possible for Germany to climb four places and break into the top 20 for the first time since the rankings were introduced in October 2003, but both they and Chile (away to Canada) will have to win by more than 15 points for that to have any chance of happening.
Romania will gain a maximum of four-tenths of a point, not enough for them to catch Samoa in 15th place, although the gap between themselves and the Pacific islanders will be down to just one-and-a-half points if they win by more than 15 points, while also increasing their cushion over the USA to a fraction under five points.
The World Rugby Rankings will update at 12:00 GMT on Monday.
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