On Saturday, South Africa celebrated the anniversary of their historic RWC 1995 triumph at Ellis Park in Johannesburg with a comfortable 35-12 victory over France at the same venue to complete a 3-0 series whitewash of Les Bleus and move up to fifth place in the World Rugby Rankings.
South Africa produced a powerful second-half performance to end the June internationals on a high, exactly 22 years on from the day that Francois Pienaar received the game’s most coveted trophy from Nelson Mandela.
Elton Jantjes and Jules Plisson kicked three penalties apiece in a tight first half where the sides were only separated by Jesse Kriel’s converted try. But the Springboks upped their game after the break to score 19 points without reply thanks to tries from Eben Etzebeth, Malcolm Marx and Rudy Paige.
Having dropped to an all-time low of seventh following a disappointing set of November results, Allister Coetzee’s side are now 3.37 rating points better off than they were at the start of the month – and only half a point away from reclaiming a place in the top four.
POSITIVE START FOR SABLES
The Rugby Africa Gold Cup, featuring the continent's best six teams below South Africa, got underway this weekend in Dakar and Nairobi.
Zimbabwe propped up the table in 2016 and would have lost their top-tier status had there not been a one-year moratorium on relegation as part of the competition’s expansion from four teams to six.
This year, however, there will be no such reprieve and the side finishing last will not only be demoted to the Silver Cup but also suffer elimination from the Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification process.
The early signs in Dakar suggested that another difficult campaign lay ahead for Zimbabwe as they trailed newly-promoted Senegal 13-6, but four second-half tries courtesy of Farai Mudariki, Stephan Hunduza and a brace from winger Tafadzwa Kadir helped them to a 28-16 victory.
As a result, they earn 1.18 rating points and climb one place in the rankings to 35th, at the expense of Moldova.
The other Gold Cup fixture between Kenya and Uganda doubled up as an Elgon Cup decider and ended in a thrilling 33-33 draw. It took a late penalty try from the Simbas to not only earn a share of the spoils but also secure a 10th title in the annual contest between the neighbouring nations.
Uganda can console themselves, however, with a five-place rise in the rankings to 40th, while the loss of one rating point sees Kenya slip below Portugal to 26th.
RECORD-BREAKER EARNS CANADA DRAW
Canada and USA also fought out a high-scoring draw in another game with RWC 2019 implications.
The first match of the two-leg Americas 1 play-off in Edmonton looked to be heading the way of the visitors with the Eagles 28-18 up with half an hour left to play. But Canada refused to throw the towel in and wiped out the 10-point deficit, scoring a converted try through most-capped player Aaron Carpenter 10 minutes from time before fly-half Shane O'Leary slotted a 79th-minute penalty to tie the scores at 28-28.
Nick Civetta and Mike Te’o both scored braces for the Eagles, while DTH van der Merwe’s try double saw him overtake Winston Stanley’s all-time Canadian try-scoring record. The 0.39 of a point on offer for the draw was not enough to affect either side’s position in the rankings, with the USA staying put in 17th and Canada still 23rd.
FIJI DOUBLE UP AS SCOTS FLOUNDER
Fiji warmed up for their World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup title defence with a superb 27-22 win over a Scotland side that had celebrated victory over Australia the week before.
In a performance that bore all the hallmarks of Fiji’s attacking brilliance, two superb tries were scored either side of the interval through Peceli Yato and Henry Seniloli, while the rest of their points came from the boot of Ben Volavola, their match-winner from the previous week’s win over Italy.
Despite recording back-to-back wins over tier one nations, Fiji are unchanged in 10th place in the rankings but with an improved rating of 78.06 points – putting them more than four clear of nearest rivals Japan, who suffered a second straight loss to Ireland. Scotland, who had been within touching distance of their highest position of fourth, finish their tour ranked sixth.
Fiji’s Pacific Nations Cup rivals Samoa came within a whisker of beating Wales for the fifth time in their history, the night before in Apia. Torrential rain had turned the Apia Park pitch into a quagmire but the inexperienced Welsh overcame the conditions and a sickness bug to edge an absorbing contest 19-17 thanks to two tries from Scarlets winger Steffan Evans.
With the loss of 0.28 of a point, Samoa fall one place in the rankings to 15th with Italy the beneficiaries despite their 40-27 loss to Australia in Brisbane.
WALLABIES HOLD ON TO FOURTH
The Wallabies led Italy 28-13 on the hour mark thanks to try doubles from Sefa Naivalu and Israel Folau, but two tries in as many minutes from Edoardo Padovani and Tommaso Benvenuti brought the Azzurri back to within a point of their hosts at Suncorp Stadium.
Late tries from Bernard Foley and Reece Hodge averted the prospect of a first-ever defeat to Italy and the loss of further rating points as the Wallabies battle to stay in the top four.
Elsewhere, Argentina edged closer to France in eighth place following a gain of 0.19 of a point for their 45-29 win over Georgia, while Romania’s 56-5 win over Brazil in Bucharest did not affect either side’s rating or position in the rankings.