The Autumn Nations Series ends this weekend and the penultimate game in Paris between France and New Zealand is the one everyone with a keen interest in Rugby World Cup 2023 has been waiting for.
Saturday’s encounter at the Stade de France is a dress rehearsal for when the hosts meet the three-time winners and perennial favourites once again, in the same stadium, in the opening game of the tournament on Friday 8 September, 2023.
New Zealand come into this match with pride dented following the loss to Ireland in Dublin, while France are yet to taste defeat this autumn, albeit against far less vaunted opposition.
Romanticism has returned to French rugby but a win for Les Bleus in this fixture for the first time since 2009 is not beyond the realms of imagination given the feel-good factor permeating through the squad.
However, New Zealand rarely suffer back-to-back defeats let alone lose to France. With the prize of not only ending the year with a record 100 tries or more to their name and the chance to end the year as world number one, they’ll be doubly determined to strike an early psychological blow ahead of the Rugby World Cup curtain-raiser.
No doubt conscious of fatigue at the end of a 14-test year like no other, All Blacks coach Ian Foster has made seven changes to the starting line-up that went down 29-20 in Dublin.
Notably, there are recalls for Aaron Smith at scrum-half and former captain Sam Cane in the back row. Smith’s head-to-head with World Rugby 15s Men’s Player of the Year nominee Antoine Dupont will be one to watch, for sure.
If England exact revenge for their Rugby World Cup 2019 final defeat to South Africa at Twickenham in the earlier of the two kick-offs, a win in Paris would assure the All Blacks of the number one spot in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings – just so long as they win themselves. It would be the fifth time the leadership has changed hands between current leaders South Africa and the All Blacks in just over two months if that happens.
For England, a win of over 15 points would see them move up to second place in the rankings for the first time since February – as long as Les Bleus also pull one out of the bag against the All Blacks and win by the same margin. In such a scenario, New Zealand would equal their lowest-ever ranking of third, a position they last occupied in February 2021.
France will be desperate to deliver a big result given the extra spice that comes with the fixture against the All Blacks and head coach Fabian Galthié has opted to go with Romain Ntamack as his fly-half.
Galthié used the matches against Argentina and Georgia to try out the dual playmaker combination of Matthieu Jalibert and Ntamack but he has settled for prodigious talent Ntamack at 10 with the experienced, long-time Stade Francais midfield duo, Jonathan Danty and Gaël Fickou, outside him.
Saturday’s match will give Galthié a good indication of where his team are at just under two years out from the Rugby World Cup, and that could be as high as third in the world if other results fall their way.
Similarly, third place is within Ireland’s grasp if they can build on last week’s heroics against the All Blacks with a follow-up victory on Sunday against Argentina. But this would be dependent on England losing to the Springboks the day before.
Rugby World Cup 2019 rewind
This weekend’s schedule throws up a number of repeats of Rugby World Cup 2019 match-ups.
Aside from the aforementioned re-run of the 2019 final, Scotland will be hellbent on setting the record straight against Japan after the Brave Blossoms eliminated them from the pool stages, while Wales are up against familiar foes in Australia.
Wales and Australia have met every year since 2005 bar 2020 and have played each other at seven Rugby World Cups. Their last meeting came in Japan and Wales won a thrilling encounter 29-25.
Having also beaten the Wallabies 9-6 the previous November, Wales are bidding to beat Australia for a third consecutive match for the first time since the glory days of the 1970s.
A one-place gain is also possible for a patched up Wales side if they beat Australia and condemn the Wallabies to their first whitewash of results since the end-of-season series began in 2000. Should the Wallabies defy the loss of captain Michael Hooper to injury and win, a return to third place is possible.
Meanwhile, Scotland can only improve their rating by a maximum of 0.41 points so must win by more than 15 points and France lose by the same margin to climb one place to sixth.
Fiji versus Georgia, a game that can be watched on world.rugby, is another throwback to the last Rugby World Cup. A repeat of the 45-10 scoreline in the Pacific Islanders’ favour would see them return to the world’s top 10 – but only if combined with a heavy defeat for Japan at Murrayfield.
A new low of 17th could befall Italy if they lose to RWC 2023 Americas 1 qualifiers Uruguay and the Tonga v Romania results doesn’t fall their way.
Elsewhere, Russia could be set for a big fall unless they can put last weekend’s disappointing result against Spain behind them and beat Chile, while an improvement of three places is possible for Kenya as they prepare to take on Brazil in the Stellenbosch Challenge third-place decider.
Black Ferns’ fall from grace
In Castres on Saturday, France take on New Zealand in one of this weekend’s four eagerly-awaited women’s internationals.
A scoreline anywhere near as empathic as the 38-13 win enjoyed by Les Bleues in Pau seven days earlier would see France pick up just over one-and-a-half rating points.
While that would not be enough for France to overtake New Zealand and consign the Black Ferns to life outside of the top two for the first time in history in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings, it would see the gap between the two powerhouse teams close to just 0.15 of a point.
When you consider that the Black Ferns started the November internationals over nine points ahead of Les Bleus, it demonstrates what a difficult month it has been for the reigning world champions.
Two years of inactivity meant a slow start to November was inevitable but even the most pessimistic of Black Ferns supporters wouldn’t have anticipated 43-12 and 56-15 defeats to England, the world’s number one-ranked team, would be followed by another big loss to France.
Canada cannot improve their rating with victory over Wales due to the 17.13 rating points between the two sides before home weighting is factored in.
But Wales would return to the top 10, swapping places with Spain, if they manage to end their four-game losing streak against Canada. A third straight win under new head coach Ioan Cunningham by a margin of greater than 15 points would also see them climb above Scotland.
England are safe at the top even though they cannot pick up any points this weekend due to the large gulf between themselves and this weekend’s opposition, USA.
The Red Roses are three wins from three this autumn having followed up their back-to-back successes against New Zealand with a convincing 51-12 win over Canada.
A record-equalling fifth position is the prize waiting for USA if they can somehow stop the Red Roses’ momentum and win by more than 15 points.
Ireland cannot improve their rating with victory over Japan due to the 11.05 rating points between the sides before home weighting is factored in. But they will immediately surrender seventh place back to Italy if they fail to beat Japan.