1 New Zealand
Well out in front with 12 months to go, as usual. No one makes opponents pay for mistakes as ruthlessly – and tactically the All Blacks remain the brightest of buttons. Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith, Julian Savea and Beauden Barrett are beginning to rival Richie McCaw and Dan Carter for influence and Kieran Read is the world’s best No 8. Winning a World Cup away from home remains uncharted territory. It gives their rivals a sniff, if only in their imaginations.
IRB ranking 1 World Cup best Winners 1987, 2011
2 South Africa
If the Springboks put their best side out they have the muscle to worry anyone. The question is whether their old stagers can repeat their deeds of 2007; last weekend’s defeat by New Zealand also raised doubts over their composure. A fit Fourie du Preez would make a difference but Willem Alberts, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen offer serious back-row clout. Both Wales and Argentina could have beaten them this year, though, which suggests the Bok management still have work to do.
IRB ranking 2 World Cup best Winners 1995, 2007
Fourth in the world rankings but home advantage in 2015 will be massive. Their 3-0 series defeat in New Zealand in June should not obscure the progress made under Stuart Lancaster; this autumn will show how far they still have to travel. Three key questions remain: a) what is their best midfield combination? b) who starts on the wings? c) who are the optimum back row to beat Wales, Australia and Fiji in Pool A? Get that right and the final will be a realistic target. They are a growing threat, no question.
IRB ranking 4 World Cup best Winners 2003
They still occasionally flatter to deceive but have lost only one of their past 10 Tests. Ewen McKenzie is certainly in a better place than a year ago, with Quade Cooper, Will Genia and David Pocock still to be welcomed back into a squad of increasing depth. The big wing Henry Speight is about to become eligible, Israel Folau would skip into any team in the world and Will Skelton could be a real force in 12 months’ time. If Toulon’s Matt Giteau were to return as well, England and Wales really would start to twitch.
IRB ranking 3 World Cup best Winners 1991, 1999
The more you study the 2015 draw the more you wonder if Ireland can break the habit of a lifetime and come good at a World Cup. With France and Italy in their pool they could advance to the semi-finals at least, with a puncher’s shot at the main prize. Joe Schmidt is an outstanding coach and any squad would love a motivated Paul O’Connell at its heart. Jonny Sexton is heading home from France, some of the younger Irish forwards are maturing nicely and last season’s Six Nations title was no fluke.
IRB ranking 5 World Cup best Quarter-finals 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011
Warren Gatland played it perfectly at Twickenham last week, announcing Wales would not be showing their full hand before the tournament. In one sentence he managed to keep the opposition guessing, cut himself some slack in the event of autumn defeats and advise his own players to assume nothing. If they can finally beat southern hemisphere opponents this autumn it will be another significant psychological plus; the way they finished in South Africa in June showed how dangerous they can be.
IRB ranking 6 World Cup best Semi-finals 1987, 2011
Unlucky to lose to both South Africa and Australia in this year’s Rugby Championship, they have regrouped well under coach Daniel Hourcade. Their IRB world ranking of 12 does not reflect their scrummaging strength or their improving back line galvanised by Nicolás Sánchez at fly-half, Joaquín Tuculet at full-back and Juan Martín Hernández at 12. The Pumas’ confidence will also soar when their first Rugby Championship victory materialises.
IRB ranking 12 World Cup best Semi-finals 2007
It has reached the point, surely, where France cannot get any worse, with five defeats in their past six Tests. As New Zealand can testify, World Cups stir something deep inside the Gallic psyche; either that or the extended break from gruelling Top 14 club duties makes a huge difference. The eligibility of the South African-born Rory Kockott will bring much-needed organisation and Wesley Fofana is world class, but if they reach another final it will reflect poorly on their rivals.
IRB ranking 7 World Cup best Final 1987, 1999, 2011
Independence or not, Scotland need fresh impetus on the rugby field. Their Kiwi coach Vern Cotter could just be the man to provide it and Glasgow are possibly the most improved side in – ahem – the United Kingdom in recent times. Adam Ashe, Jonny Gray and Stuart Hogg should all develop further over the next 12 months and three wins from Cotter’s first four games made a welcome change. Unfortunately for the Scots, their Pool B opponents – South Africa, Samoa, Japan and the United States – are all improving, too.
IRB ranking 8 World Cup best Semi-finals 1991
Fiji’s first-choice back line could be spectacular but Samoa are probably the Pacific nation best equipped to dent reputations next autumn. It remains to be seen what their squad will look like, but next year’s historic home Test against the All Blacks will lend an extra edge to their preparations. They have already beaten Italy 15-0 in June and Northampton’s Kahn Fotuali’i and George and Ken Pisi add a touch of class behind the scrum.
IRB ranking 9 World Cup best Quarter-finals 1991, 1995