With less than six months to go before the Rugby World Cup 2019 pool draw takes place on 10 May in Kyoto, this weekend’s matches take on added significance for a handful of the teams who've already confirmed their place in Japan.
For the likes of South Africa and Argentina, who won’t play again until after the draw, victory on Saturday could mean the difference between a top eight seeding or the prospect of being drawn in the proverbial ‘Pool of Death.’
Even for those nations with further opportunities to boost their ranking between now and then, via the Six Nations or Rugby Europe Championship, it is getting to crunch time, as Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby acknowledged.
“The world rankings are in the background. That is there and it’s always going to be there until May 10 when they decide on the positions,” he said.
Ireland’s encounter with Australia at the Aviva Stadium arguably takes top billing on a weekend when memories of games of a bygone era and the not-too-distant past will no doubt come flooding back.
It is 25 years since Gordon Hamilton’s try sparked wild scenes of celebration at Lansdowne Road only for the old ground to fall silent following Michael Lynagh’s late match-winner in the Rugby World Cup 1991 quarter-final. If this weekend’s game is half as dramatic, we’re in for a treat.
Also, two of last year’s quarter-finals are to be re-enacted, with Wales and France hoping to exact revenge on South Africa and New Zealand respectively.
Here, we take a check on the team news and some interesting facts and figures, while also working out the rankings ramifications.
IRELAND (4) v AUSTRALIA (3)
Ireland have made four changes to their side to face Australia at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Garry Ringrose and Paddy Jackson start in place of the injured Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton, while Keith Earls comes onto the left wing and Iain Henderson starts in the second row.
Rory Best will win his 100th cap as he leads the team out on Saturday, becoming only the fifth Irish player to reach the milestone.
Israel Folau and Michael Hooper are two notable returnees in an Australian starting XV showing six changes from the one that beat France 25-23 in Paris.
Stephen Moore is back at hooker and in doing so will join Adam Ashley-Cooper and Nathan Sharpe as Australia's joint-second most capped player with 116 tests. Elsewhere, Dean Mumm will start at blindside flanker in a reshuffle of the back row with Lopeti Timani named on an extended bench alongside fellow Melbourne Rebels star Sean McMahon.
Quade Cooper has also been named among the replacements after being ruled out prior to kick-off against France last Saturday because of an ankle injury.
- Since the first meeting in 1927, Australia have won 21 times and Ireland 10, with one draw
- Johnny Sexton kicked 16 points the last time the sides met: a 26-23 win for Ireland in Dublin in November 2014
- Only once has either side scored more than 30 points in a match in the last 10 years (Australia's 37-15 win in Perth in June 2006)
- Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the most famous match between the two, the RWC 1991 quarter-final where Michael Lynagh’s late try broke Irish hearts
An Australian victory by more than 15 points comes with a gain of 1.25 rating points. The Wallabies will move up to second if any form of win is combined with a positive result for Argentina against England at Twickenham. Ireland cannot climb any higher than fourth, although a big win of more than 15 points would come with a gain of 1.75 points. Defeat is likely to cost them one place and a drop to fifth.
ENGLAND (2) v ARGENTINA (9)
Eddie Jones has made four changes to his starting XV – split equally between backs and forwards – as England look to rack up their 13th straight win.
Mike Brown and Jonny May return at full-back and wing respectively, while George Kruis takes his place in the second row alongside Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood is re-instated to the back row. Teimana Harrison is named as a replacement on an otherwise unchanged bench.
Argentina have made three changes to the team that narrowly lost to Scotland for their 13th and final match of the season. Nicolas Sanchez is rested and Juan Martin Hernandez steps into the playmaker role, while Tomás Cubelli is chosen at scrum-half ahead of Martin Landajo. Leonardo Senatore replaces Facundo Isa in the pack.
- This is the 21st test between the nations, dating back to 1981
- Argentina have beaten England four times but only once at Twickenham – 25-18 in November 2006
- England’s biggest win is 51-0, at Twickenham in November 1990
An England victory will not come with any rating points due to the seven-place and near-10 rating point differential between the sides before home advantage is factored in. But Eddie Jones’ men can lose as many as three points if beaten by more than 15 points. England will surrender second place to Australia should they fail to beat Los Pumas and the Wallabies win in Dublin.
For Argentina, this is their last chance to pick up valuable rating points ahead of the RWC 2019 pool allocation draw. A five-place rise to fourth is possible for Daniel Hourcade's men if they win by more than 15 points and Wales, Scotland and France draw or win narrowly at home.
WALES (6) v SOUTH AFRICA (5)
Wales have made one change from the side that beat Argentina a fortnight ago to face South Africa at the Principality Stadium with Dan Lydiate coming into the side at blindside flanker in place of Sam Warburton, who picked up an injury in training on Tuesday.
There are two further changes among the replacements with Taulupe Faleatu returning from injury to take his place on the bench alongside Sam Davies, who kicked the last-gasp drop goal that secured Wales a 33-30 win over Japan last weekend.
Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Jamba Ulengo and Uzair Cassiem will make their Springbok debuts against Wales on Saturday, while a fourth uncapped player has been included on the bench in Jean-Luc du Preez.
Strongly-built inside centre Janse van Rensburg, who takes over from Damian de Allende in a rotational switch, and winger Ulengo, who is in for Bryan Habana, are part of a reshuffled backline announced by Springbok coach Allister Coetzee that also sees Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies reunited at half-back. Johan Goosen returns at full-back.
In the other change upfront, Lourens Adriaanse comes in at tight-head in place of Vincent Koch as South Africa look to bounce back from a first-ever loss to Italy last weekend.
- Wales won for only the second time in 31 outings when they defeated South Africa 12-6 in Cardiff in November 2014
- South Africa clinched a thrilling, comeback victory when the sides last met at the quarter-final stages of RWC 2015, Fourie du Preez’s try sending the Springboks through to the last four
- South Africa’s record score against Wales is 96 points, in Pretoria in June 1998
- With only a total of 40 caps, South Africa will be fielding their most inexperienced backline since 1994
Wales will move up to fourth at Ireland’s expense if both they and Australia win, and one of the victories is by a margin of more than 15 points. Lose heavily and Wales could drop as low as ninth. If the Springboks’ disappointing run of results continues with a heavy defeat in Cardiff, they could fall as low as eighth – a position they have never occupied since the rankings were introduced in October 2003. Argentina and France would have to pull off shock wins for that to happen though. They could be back in the top four, however, if they find their form and win well at the Principality Stadium and Ireland come unstuck in Dublin.
FRANCE (8) v NEW ZEALAND (1)
France coach Guy Noves makes three changes to the team that started last week’s narrow 25-23 defeat to Australia.
Camille Lopez is promoted from the bench and wears the No.10 jersey, while Brice Dulin has been selected alongside wings Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci in an exciting-looking back three. Dulin hasn't played since France's record RWC 2015 quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks. The only other change comes at loose-head prop, where Cyril Baille is replaced by Xavier Chiocci.
- New Zealand have won 43 of the 56 previous tests compared to France’s 12. The only draw (20-20) came in Paris in November 2002
- Saturday’s game will be only the third time that the All Blacks have played at the Stade de France in the last 10 years
- New Zealand are on a nine-match winning streak against France, dating back to the Dunedin test in June 2009
- Julian Savea equalled Jonah Lomu and Bryan Habana's record for most tries in a single World Cup with eight after scoring a hat-trick in the record 62-13 win over Les Bleus in the RWC 2015 quarter-final
No rating points are on offer for New Zealand, who recently celebrated a seventh anniversary atop the World Rugby Rankings, as they start the game seven places higher and nearly 15 points better off than France in the rankings. A French victory would result in a gain of two rating points (three if the winning margin is greater than 15) and a possible climb of two places to sixth.
SCOTLAND (7) v GEORGIA (12)
In-form centre Huw Jones sits this one out with a foot injury and is replaced by Olympic Games silver-medallist Mark Bennett. The rest of the changes come in the pack, with with cap centurion Ross Ford returning to the front-row alongside returning props Allan Dell and Zander Fagerson.
Richie Gray has recovered from his suspected concussion to re-join brother Jonny in the second-row, while Rob Harley and Ryan Wilson come in to start in the back-row with the reinstated Hamish Watson.
Lelos coach Milton Haig names an unchanged pack for the second match in a row. In the backs, though, he has made one personnel and two positional changes. Tamaz Mchedlidze moves to inside-centre, with Giorgi Aptsiauri plugging the hole on the right wing, and Merab Sharikadze shifts to outside-centre in place of Giorgi Koshadze, who drops out of the match-day squad.
- Scotland won the only previous meeting between the two, 15-6 in Invercargill at RWC 2011. Dan Parks kicked all of Scotland’s points that day
- This is Scotland’s second venture to the Ayrshire ground of Rugby Park, after defeating Tonga 37-12 at the home of Kilmarnock FC in November 2014. That game was ground-breaking as it was the first time a tier one nation had played an international on a fully artificial pitch
The most Scotland stand to gain is one-tenth of a point, making it impossible for them to climb ay higher than seventh. Any form of defeat, however, would see them slip back to ninth, while a victorious Georgia would move into the world’s top 10 for the first time in the 13-year history of the rankings.
SAMOA (14) v CANADA (18)
Veteran forward Jamie Cudmore is back to bolster the Canadian ranks as they look to end their three-game European tour on a high.
Rob Brouwer, Phil Mack, Nick Blevins and Ciaran Hearn also receive starts as coach Mark Anscombe makes five changes. Brouwer joins Ray Barkwill and Jake Ilnicki in the front row while Brett Beukeboom starts alongside Cudmore in the second-row.
Evan Olmstead shifts to blindside flanker while Heaton again gets the nod at openside with Burnaby’s Admir Cejvanovic starting his second straight game at number eight. Mack replaces Gordon McRorie at scrum-half with Connor Braid outside him at fly-half. Conor Trainor joins captain DTH van der Merwe on the wings while Blevins and Hearn form the centre duo. Matt Evans occupies his usual spot at full-back.
- Samoa have won all five previous meetings, dating back to 1999
- Samoa overturned a 13-3 half-time deficit to win 21-20 when they last met at the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2015 in Toronto
With 3.32 rating points between themselves and the higher-ranked Italy, it is impossible for Samoa to leapfrog the Azzurri and move into 13th place. A big win would see them pick up a fraction over half a rating point. Canada will replace North American neighbours USA in 17th place if they win or draw against Samoa in Grenoble.
ITALY (13) v TONGA (15)
- Tonga won the first meeting, 28-25 at RWC 1999, but Italy have won the last three matches
- Italy edged Tonga 28-23 when they last met in Brescia in November 2012
- The Azzurri’s biggest win is 48-0, on 12 November, 2005 in Prato
An Italy win, combined with wins for Fiji and Scotland, could move the Azzurri up as high as 11th, while a defeat would result in them dropping back to 14th. Tonga stand to gain 2.55 rating points if they win by more than 15 points, which would lift them up two places to 13th, relegating Italy and Samoa in the process.
FIJI (10) v JAPAN (11)
- Fiji have won 13 and Japan three of the previous 16 meetings
- Fiji’s highest score against Japan is 47 points (47-22 in Tokyo in May 2000)
- Japan have scored 30 points on two occasions against Fiji yet have still lost (35-31 at RWC 2007 and 40-39 in the Pacific Nations Cup in 2009)
- Fiji played at the Stade de la Rabine in Vannes, back in 2014 when they beat USA 20-14
A place in the world’s top 10 is on the line in Vannes, as a Japanese win of any description will see them usurp Fiji. The Pacific islanders could drop as low as 12th if they lose and Georgia are unbeaten in Kilmarnock. If both Fiji and Italy win, Japan will drop to 13th.
ROMANIA (16) v URUGUAY (21)
- Romania and Uruguay have never played each other before outside of the World Rugby Nations Cup or a Rugby World Cup qualifier.
- In the overall head-to-head, Romania have six wins and there has been one draw (21-21 in a RWC 2011 qualifier)
- The last time these sides met the match was played across two days after a severe thunderstorm caused play to be brought to a halt, not once but twice. Romania eventually won 20-0.
Romania are within touching distance of Tonga and Samoa but they’ll have to wait until the Rugby Europe Championship starts in February before having any hope of overtaking either nation as no rating points will be awarded for a home win over the lower-ranked Uruguay. That is unless Samoa are beaten by Canada, in which case the Oaks would move up to 15th.
Switzerland will attempt to bounce back from last week's home loss to Portugal when they entertain Moldova in Yverdon. Victory would lift them above their opponents in the rankings. Moldova have a won one, lost one record from their first two matches in the Rugby Europe Trophy, which doubles as part of the region's RWC 2019 qualifying process.
In Leipzig, Germany take on Brazil for the second consecutive Saturday, hoping to repeat their 16-6 win in the first meeting. A five-place rise to 31st in the rankings is on the cards for Brazil if they can beat Germany for the first time at the fourth time of asking.