The World Rugby Men’s Rankings have been an accurate predictor the quarter-finalists and semi-finalists at Rugby World Cup 2019 with the top eight and four nations respectively remaining in the hunt for the Webb Ellis Cup.
The same will apply after this weekend with the winners of both semi-finals at International Stadium Yokohama to occupy the top two places in the rankings, but will that be New Zealand, England, Wales or South Africa?
South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus expressed their desire to return to number one in the world – a position they haven’t held for nearly a decade – on Thursday after announcing his team to play Wales in the second semi-final.
“I think we have been under pressure for the past couple of years to redeem ourselves,” Erasmus admitted after being asked whether South Africa or Wales would be under most pressure come Sunday.
“We’ve been number five, six, seven in the world over the last three years since 2015, and we’ve got some proper hidings against almost all the teams. We’ve lost to Italy, Japan, beaten by 57 points (by New Zealand), lost 39-3 against Ireland.
“Some people lost a lot of faith in us at some stages, so we’ve got a different challenge all in all. We were just trying to get some respect back at the beginning, so that people could start believing in us as a team.
“Now we are at that stage where we want to become number one in the world again.”
South Africa cannot achieve that goal this weekend as the winner of Saturday’s semi-final, between defending champions New Zealand and 2003 winners England, will sit top of the rankings regardless of what happens 24 hours later at International Stadium Yokohama.
New Zealand, bidding for an unprecedented ‘three-peat’ of Rugby World Cup wins, are the current number one side, a position they had held for 509 consecutive weeks until Wales replaced them at the top on 19 August.
History in the making?
The All Blacks could increase their cushion at the top to as much as 3.94 points, if they beat England by more than 15 points and South Africa edge Wales in the other semi-final.
World Rugby Chairman Sir @BillBeaumont previews two huge semi-finals as @englandrugby get set to face @allblacks and @welshrugbyunion take on @Springboks #RWC2019 #ENGvNZL #WALvRSA pic.twitter.com/sUIr6Fn3BI— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 24, 2019
But if their 18-match winning run on the Rugby World Cup stage comes to an end and they suffer a first knockout stage defeat since 2007, then New Zealand will drop to second on Saturday with a narrow loss – third if England win by more than 15 points or on Sunday when the winner of Wales v South Africa climbs above them.
Third is the lowest the All Blacks have been since the rankings were introduced in October 2003 – and then only for one week after losing their RWC 2003 semi-final with Australia before bouncing back to second after beating France in the bronze final and the Wallabies’ loss to England.
A first victory for England over New Zealand on the Rugby World Cup stage will see them return to the summit of the rankings for the first time since 14 June, 2004 – when the All Blacks replaced them and began a 40-month reign at the top.
Wales are the only one of the quartet never to have reached a Rugby World Cup final, their best finish being third place in 1987 with a side that featured Ross Moriarty's father Paul and uncle Richard, the latter as captain.
They have occupied second spot as recently as 14 October, but for South Africa victory will see them return to a position they have not occupied since August 2015 – hence Erasmus’ desire to see the Springboks continue their climb back up the rankings.
In defeat, neither Wales nor South Africa can drop any lower than fourth.
During RWC 2019, where points exchanges are doubled to reflect the importance of the tournament, the World Rugby Men’s Rankings will update after every match.