Despite losing twice in 2018 New Zealand had extended their unbroken reign at the top of the World Rugby Rankings to just over nine years by the time the November international window came to a close. Defeats to Ireland in Dublin and South Africa a couple of months earlier in The Rugby Championship, however, saw their cushion over the Irish more than halved.
Steve Hansen’s side set out with a cushion of 3.12 points but that’s now down to just 1.37 points, a slim deficit that the Irish will have an opportunity to overturn when they defend the Six Nations in February and March.
Ireland, the World Rugby Team of the Year, started 2018 in third place in the rankings but their Six Nations triumph, together with a 2-1 series win in Australia and a first home victory over the All Blacks, helped them supplant England as New Zealand’s nearest rivals in the rankings.
While Ireland improved their overall total by 4.78 points, England lost an almost identical amount after failing to live up to previous heights achieved under Eddie Jones.
A disappointing fourth-place finish in the Six Nations and a 2-1 series defeat to South Africa in June saw England drop to fourth place. Some lost ground was made up in November thanks to wins over South Africa and Australia, but not enough to catch a rampant Welsh side.
Wales march forward
On the back of a nine-match winning run and an historic November series clean sweep, Wales rose four places to third, improving their rating by more than five points in the process.
By contrast, Australia endured a disappointing 2018. Starting the year ranked fourth, they dropped to a new all-time low of seventh before ending the year in sixth.
South Africa won seven and lost seven in 2018 but with three wins on the road, most notably against the All Blacks in Wellington in September, they managed to pick up 0.77 of a point and move up from sixth to fifth over the course of a rollercoaster 12 months.
Scotland flitted between fifth and seventh all year but had to settle for the latter position after falling to beat Wales and South Africa – the two November games that would have earned them rating points.
Fiji lost heavily to Scotland, 54-17 at Murrayfield, but rounded off the year in style with an historic 21-14 win over France in Paris, a result which lifted John McKee’s entertainers to an all-time high of eighth.
France and Argentina make up the top 10 with less than three tenths between the teams.
Rugby World Cup 2019 hosts Japan finished the year where they started it, in 11th, but the USA made massive strides under coach Gary Gold.
After retaining their Americas Rugby Championship title with a clean sweep of victories, the Eagles remained unbeaten in 2018 until Ireland spoilt their unblemished test record in Dublin in their final run out of the year.
Over the course of the 12 months, the Eagles picked up a fraction over six and three-quarter points which saw them leap from 17th to 12th, their best-ever position since the rankings were introduced in October 2003.
Italy were one of the sides to suffer at the USA’s expense, slipping to a new all-time low of 15th, in a year when they only won twice in 11 tests.
Home defeats to the USA and Uruguay cost Romania dear with the Oaks falling three places to 18th, one short of their record low.
Meanwhile, Canada’s win at the RWC 2019 repechage tournament in Marseilles not only confirmed their place in Japan next year but also helped the Canucks move back into the world’s top 20.
Of the lower-ranked nations, it was a particularly good year for the Netherlands who joined the USA and Fiji in climbing to an historic high. Big wins over Poland and Switzerland saw the Rugby Europe Trophy pacesetters climb up to 23rd.
Lithuania also entered uncharted waters having beaten Czechia, 30-10, in the same competition. Lithuania are now the higher-ranked of the two nations in 34th.
African nations Nigeria and Ghana also finished the year higher than ever, in 72nd and 89th respectively, while Finland, once ranked outside of the world’s top 100, are now looking down on eight other teams in 97th position.
1. Sweden +16
2. Zambia +12
3. Croatia +9
4= Hungary, Philippines +7
1. China -23
2. Kazakhstan -17
3. Pakistan -14
4. Niue Islands -12
5= Cameroon, Moldova -10