As Steve Hansen said at the time of the All Blacks' squad announcement on Wednesday, Rugby World Cup 2019 looks like being "the most fiercely contested yet". And this is reflected in what now seems to be the weekly battle to get to the top of the World Rugby Men's Rankings.
On Saturday at the Principality in Cardiff, Wales and Ireland will face each other with the Irish knowing that a win by more than 15 points would see them crowned the world's number one team for the first time in history once the rankings are officially updated at 12 noon on Monday.
Wales have enjoyed that status for the past fortnight after ending the All Blacks' 509-week reign with victory over England on home soil, but anything other than a win for Warren Gatland's men would see them relinquish that position. An Irish win by a lesser margin or a draw would see the All Blacks return to the top.
Three other RWC 2019 warm-up matches and the final round of fixtures in the Oceania Cup and Americas Rugby Challenge will also count towards the rankings, with historic highs possible for some nations.
RWC 2019 WARM-UPS
FRANCE (8) v ITALY (13) (Friday)
France coach Jacques Brunel has made wholesale to the team that was narrowly beaten by Scotland at Murrayfield last Saturday.
In the front row, Jefferson Poirot inherits the captain's armband from Guilhem Guirado, who is replaced as the starting hooker by Camille Chat. Rabah Slimani retains his place at tight-head. It is all change in the second-row with the inclusion of Arthur Iturria, who moves from blindside flanker, and Romain Taofifenua. Wenceslas Lauret wears the number six jersey vacated by Iturria and he is joined in the back-row by openside Yacouba Camara and number eight, Louis Picamoles.
The Antoine Dupont-Romain Ntamack partnership is revived at half-back with Camille Lopez dropping out of the match-day 23 altogether. Wesley Fofana replaces Gaël Fickou at inside centre and plays alongside Sofiane Guitoune in Les Bleus' midfield. Fickou shifts to the left wing and Yoann Huget comes in for double try-scorer Damian Penaud on the right. Maxime Medard completes the back three.
Azzurri boss Conor O'Shea has largely kept faith with the team that started the 85-15 win over Russia in San Benedetto del Tronto a fortnight ago. The only changes to the XV come in the tight five with props Simone Ferrari and Marco Riccioni coming into the side at the expense of Andrea Lovotti and Tiziano Pasquali, while Alessandro Zanni will win his 114th cap at lock.
- France have 38 wins to Italy's three since the teams met for the first time in an official test in 1937
- France won 25-14 when the sides played each other in Rome in this year's Six Nations
- Les Bleus are on a seven-match winning run against Italy
- Italy's last win came in Rome in February 2013 (23-18)
- France cannot improve their rating in victory and will only climb if Scotland also fail to beat to Georgia
- France will drop below Japan if they lose by more than 15 points to Italy – they could drop to 10th (equalling their lowest ever position) if Fiji also beat Tonga
- Italy will climb above Georgia if they win and the Lelos lose to Scotland
- A two-place gain is possible if Georgia lose, the Azzurri win by more than 15 points and Fiji lose to Tonga by the same margin
FIJI (10) v TONGA (15) (Saturday)
In-form hooker Sam Matavesi joins experienced props Campese Ma’afu and Kalivati Tawake in the Fijian front-row while Tevita Cavubati and Leone Nakarawa pack down behind them for the Pasifika Challenge at Eden Park in Auckland. Skipper Dominiko Waqaniburotu and Semi Kunatani are on the flanks and Peceli Yato starts for the first time at number eight this season.
In the backs, Frank Lomani and Ben Volavola maintain their places at scrum-half and at number 10. Head coach John McKee has named a powerful centre combination of Levani Botia and Semi Radradra at number 12 and 13 respectively. Vereniki Goneva and Josua Tuisova are on the wings while Alivereti Veitokani is at full-back.
Number eight Sione Kalamafoni returns to the Tonga team for the first time in over three years and is in line to win his 32nd cap, while Siegfried Fisi'ihoi makes his long-awaited return from injury. Fellow prop and former U20 international Vunipola Fifita is set to make his test debut off the bench.
In addition to the inclusion of rookies like second-row Sam Lousi, who wins his third cap, there is plenty of experience in the 'Ikale Tahi line-up with Steve Mafi packing down at blindside flanker and Soane Takalua and Siale Piutau selected at scrum-half and outside centre respectively. Piutau captains Tonga for the 14th time in the last 15 tests.
- Fiji lead the head-to-head record with Tonga 61-27 with three draws
- Tonga won 27-19 when the sides last met in Suva in June 2018
- Tonga warmed up for the match with a 19-15 victory on Saturday against Super Rugby side Western Force
- This is Fiji's first run out since they beat Samoa 10-3 in the Pacific Nations Cup three weeks ago
- Fiji will climb one place in victory, swapping places with Japan
- They could equal their highest ranking of eighth, but this would require France to also lose by more than 15 points
- However, Fiji will fall two places if they lose and Georgia beat Scotland – three to 13th if they lose by more than 15 points and Italy beat France by the same margin
- Tonga will climb above the USA with any margin of victory
- Tonga can also go above Italy if they win and the Azzurri lose, and potentially also Georgia but that requires Scotland and Tonga to both win by more than 15 points
- Tonga cannot fall from 15th place even with an emphatic defeat
WALES (1) v IRELAND (4) (Saturday)
World Rugby U20 Championship graduates Rhys Carre and Owen Lane will make his test debuts in a much-changed Wales team to play Ireland this Saturday.
It caps a whirlwind rise for Carre, the 21-year-old loose-head prop from Cardiff who has been a mainstay of the U20s set-up for the last two seasons. Joining him in a new-look front-row is hooker Ryan Elias, who makes his third start in his eighth appearance, and tight-head Samson Lee. Adam Beard returns to the second-row and Bradley Davies makes his first appearance for over a year. Josh Navidi will lead the side from number eight with Aaron Shingler and James Davies, the only player to retain his place from the England defeat, named as flankers.
Aled Davies and Jarrod Evans make up the half-back combination and the midfield consists of Owen Watkin and Scott Williams. Steff Evans and the uncapped Lane, the Wales sevens international, are selected on the wings while Hallam Amos is given his first chance to shine since February at full-back.
Ireland boss Joe Schmidt has also opted to radically overhaul his team, which will be led by Peter O'Mahony. Rory Best is among the replacements.
Jack Conan and Tadgh Beirne join O’Mahony in the back-row with Iain Henderson and James Ryan packing down at lock. Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan make up an all Munster front row combination while Connacht pair Kieran Marmion (main picture) and Jack Carty fill the half-back berths.
Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell partner up in the centre for a fifth run out together with full-back Will Addison supported in the backfield by wings Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale.
- This is the 128th meeting. Wales lead the head-to-head 69-51 with seven draws
- Wales prevailed 25-7 when the sides met in Cardiff in March in the Six Nations, securing the Grand Slam in the process
- Wales have won 11 in a row at fortress Principality Stadium … their best run of home form for over a century since 1912
- Ireland's last win in Cardiff against Wales came in August 2015 (35-21)
- A draw or narrow defeat will see Wales’ two-week reign at the top of the rankings end with New Zealand returning to the summit
- Wales could increase their cushion at the top to 0.77 rating points from its current 0.03 with a win by more than 15 points
- Wales will drop to fourth if beaten at home
- Ireland must win by more than 15 points to become number one for the first time – a smaller margin will see them climb two places to second behind New Zealand
- If Ireland lose by more than 15 points, they will drop below South Africa into fifth
GEORGIA (12) v SCOTLAND (7)
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Only five of the players who started Georgia's 24-20 midweek win over the Southern Kings retain their place with Lelos head coach Milton Haig making 10 changes of personnel and two positional.
Otari Giorgadze swaps the number eight jersey for number six and Beka Saginadze moves to the openside. In the backs, centre Zurabi Dzneladze, wing Mirian Modebadze and full-back Ioseb make their second appearances in the space fo four days.
For Scotland, Sam Johnson will make his first appearance since his debut in this year's Six Nations at the Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi. The play-making midfielder is one of 10 changes to the side that defeated France 17-14 at Murrayfield last weekend. He will make his comeback alongside 23-year-old Rory Hutchinson, who will start his first test match for his country.
Hooker Stuart McInally returns to start the match and will captain the side once again, having done so in the opening test against France in Nice, while the team also features first campaign starts for full-back Blair Kinghorn, prop Allan Dell and number eight Matt Fagerson.
Wing Darcy Graham replaces the injured Tommy Seymour (head), with Sean Maitland remaining on the other flank of the back-three. Returning half-backs Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell complete the back division.
In the pack, prop Willem Nel starts again on the tight-head side alongside Dell and McInally in the front-row, while second and back-row forwards Grant Gilchrist and John Barclay have been promoted from the bench to start. Lock Ben Toolis comes into the squad to start alongside Gilchrist, while last weekend’s man-of-the-match, Hamish Watson, returns to link up with Barclay and Fagerson in the loose forwards.
- Scotland are the first tier one nation to play a test in Georgia
- Scotland have won both previous encounters (15-6 and 43-16)
- Georgia's last match was a 24-20 win against South African outfit, Southern Kings
- Scotland won one and lost one of their back-to-back RWC 2019 warm-up tests against France
- Georgia will replace Argentina in 11th place if they beat Scotland by more than 15 points, with just one-hundredth of a point separating them from Los Pumas
- An all-time high of 10th place is within Georgia’s grasp if they win by such a margin and Tonga beat Fiji in Auckland
- Defeat for Scotland will see them trade places with France for the third week running, as long as Les Bleus aren’t beaten
- It is not possible for Scotland to climb any higher than their present position
AMERICAS RUGBY CHALLENGE
The final round of the Americas Rugby Challenge takes place in Medellin on Saturday with the host nation Colombia aiming for a clean sweep of victories. Los Tucanes have already beaten the Cayman Islands (83-6) and Mexico (51-24) and they go into the match against Paraguay knowing that another emphatic victory will send them up to an all-time high of 32nd place in the rankings. If Paraguay lose and Mexico beat the Cayman Islands, Las Serpenties will set a new record high ranking for the second week running by climbing to 43rd place.
Papua New Guinea will face the Solomon Islands in the final round of the Oceania Cup on Saturday in what amounts to a title decider. The Pukpuks have won both their matches against Niue Island (29-10) and Nauru (89-5). The Solomon Islands picked up their first win of the campaign on Tuesday, 61-7 against Nauru. A third straight victory for the Pukpuks would see them overtake Serbia and move into 84th place in the rankings.