Lithuania target record win and ranking rise
The race to secure Asia's berth at Rugby World Cup 2011 may enter the final stage this weekend, but it is Lithuania who could steal the headlines with a record-breaking 18th consecutive test victory.
Lithuania were denied the chance to surpass the 17 achieved by New Zealand (1965-1969) and South Africa (1997-1998) when they were unable to travel to Switzerland as a result of the volcanic ash cloud grounding flights across Europe.
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Seven days on from that postponement, Lithuania travel to Belgrade to face Serbia, their European Nations Cup Division 3A rivals who they overwhelmed 50-9 when they met in Vilnius a year ago to make it 13 matches unbeaten.
Lithuania are unbeaten in Division 3A and already confirmed as champions, not to still involved in the European race to reach the cross-continental play-off to determine the 20th and final qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2011.
Their next challenge in this quest is an encounter with Division 2A winners Ukraine on 8 May with the winner to face Romania home and away for the right to face Tunisia initially in that play-off.
Lithuania will hope to go into that match with their unbeaten record dating back to 6 May 2006 with captain Mindaugus Miscevicius telling Total Rugby Radio last week that "the Game is becoming quite popular because of this record".
An 18th consecutive test victory could see Lithuania also climb one place in the IRB World Rankings to 36th, although with six other matches across Europe and Asia taking place on Saturday there are several outcomes which could remain in situe.
New high for Serbia?
Serbia, ranked 23 places below Lithuania, will slide a couple of places with defeat, but could jump to a new high of 53rd with victory by more than 15 points. In this instance, Lithuania would plummet seven places with their record-breaking dream over.
Lithuania's upcoming opponents Ukraine are also in action with a trip to Chisinau to take on Moldova in one of two Division 2B matches this weekend, the other seeing Belgium host Poland in Brussels.
Belgium are currently the higher ranked of that quartet in 28th, one place above Ukraine with Poland 35th and Moldova 38th and have the potential to rise two places with a convincing win on home soil.
A confidence-boosting win for Ukraine ahead of their meeting with Lithuania could improve their rating by three places, but on the other hand they could fall by as many with Belgium potentially sliding six places in defeat.
Poland have the potential to make the biggest climb of the quartet with victory over the higher ranked Belgians, a side they have not lost to in six previous meetings, the most recent a 14-3 win in Warsaw last May.
Top 30 for first time?
An away win will lift them into the top 30 for the first time since the rankings were introduced in October 2003, but a loss by more than 15 points could see them fall a place. Moldova could themselves climb three places with an emphatic win, depending on other results, but by contrast slide as many as five spots in defeat.
There are also two matches in Division 2B with the Netherlands needing only to avoid defeat against Croatia in Split to clinch the title and with it promotion for next season, while Latvia must win in Malta to keep alive their hopes of avoiding relegation to Division 3B.
The Netherlands are ranked eight places above Croatia in 33rd and if they preserve their unbeaten record in Division 2B they could climb to 30th, condemning their hosts to a three or four place slide.
Croatia have the potential to climb the same amount with a first victory over the Netherlands - having most recently lost 18-12 in November 2008. Their visitors could fall as many as five places with a loss by more than 15 points.
Malta and Latvia both enjoyed climbs in the IRB World Rankings to 51st and 56th respectively, despite the former suffering a 19-0 loss to the Netherlands as they benefitted from losses by Singapore and Chinese Taipei.
Huge rise on cards for Austria
A third successive victory for Malta over Latvia could take them into the IRB World Rankings top 50 for the first time, depending on the margin of victory, but defeat will mean a slide of around five places with their conquerors taking over their previous position.
Austria have never beaten Denmark, their most recent loss being 27-9 on home soil a year ago. However, if they can taste victory in this Division 3B encounter then Austria will climb a minimum of 12 places to 82nd.
Denmark, currently ranked 24 places and 6.47 rating points above Austria, would slide three places in defeat, but could actually plummet as many as 11 places to 79th with a loss by more than 15 points.
This would leave Denmark only two places and 0.63 rating points above Austria. By contrast, if Denmark were to win emphatically in Odense they will climb one to 67th at Andorra's expense with Austria remaining in 92nd, albeit only three hundredths above Vanuatu.
The weekend's final European Nations Cup encounter between Bulgaria and Greece in Division 3C will not impact the IRB World Rankings as the latter are not yet a full Member Union of the International Rugby Board and therefore not ranked.
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Away from European shores, the top tier of the HSBC Asian 5 Nations gets underway with the mouth-watering Hong Kong v Korea encounter and Arabian Gulf's trip to Almaty to tackle 2009 runners up Kazakhstan.
Japan, the favourites to continue their dominance with a third successive title to join New Zealand, France, Tonga and Canada in Pool A at Rugby World Cup 2011, will sit out the opening Top 5 weekend with a bye.
Korea are the higher ranked of the quartet in action at 24th - two places above Kazakhstan with Hong Kong 39th and Arabian Gulf 45th - and will remain so even if they were to suffer defeat in Hong Kong.
A defeat, regardless of the margin, would see them slip below Spain with Hong Kong climbing as many as six places with a win by more than 15 points. Korea will, though, rise to 23rd at the expense of Chile with any margin of victory.
Hong Kong can slide three places with a heavy loss on home soil, but with five other sides around them in the IRB World Rankings also in action this weekend this could alter depending on results in Europe.
Kazakhstan have averaged 52 points in their last two matches with Arabian Gulf and even another emphatic victory will not alter their rating points, given the 19 places and 7.25 points separating the opponents.
However, Kazakhstan could win comfortably and actually fall one or even two places in the rankings, if Belgium and/or Ukraine win their European Nations Cup matches. Kazakhstan could slide as many as nine places with a heavy loss.
A first win over Kazakhstan since a 14-13 triumph in April 2004 could see Arabian Gulf climb as many as seven places and a potential best every standing since the rankings were introduced in October 2003.
The IRB World Rankings update every Monday at 12:00 UK time.
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