The All Blacks, world No. 1 for five years, are set to head into next year’s World Cup in England as the favorites to win, but coach Steve Hansen, who was recently named World Rugby’s coach of the year for the third consecutive time, said that the tag of favorite should be given to someone else, as no team has won back-to-back world titles and New Zealand has never won the World Cup on foreign soil.
NEW ZEALAND (No. 1)
The All Blacks did not produce vintage rugby during much of last month, but their fitness, efficiency, decision making, execution and defense were more than England, Scotland and Wales could handle. Hansen rotated his roster and gave fringe players — and the returning Sonny Bill Williams — opportunities to stake a claim for the World Cup next year.
Hansen faces selection headaches that most coaches would crave — the All Blacks have an embarrassment of riches, especially at flyhalf, midfield, fullback/wing and lock, as well as in the loose forwards.
Areas of concern, however, are depth at hooker and scrumhalf. Dane Coles and Aaron Smith are clearly the first choices in those positions, but no one behind them has made a strong case for inclusion.
SOUTH AFRICA (No. 2)
The Springboks were the only team to beat the All Blacks this year, but losses to Ireland and Wales took some of the gloss off that success. Their European campaign was hampered by injuries, with captain Jean de Villiers sustaining a serious knee injury against Wales.
Inconsistency, poor decisionmaking and an abundance of handling errors have plagued South Africa, too.
If there is one positive to come from all the injuries, it is that coach Heyneke Meyer has had to test new players. Cobus Reinach, Handre Pollard, Teboho Mohoje, Lood de Jager, Jan Serfontein and Nizaam Carr have now played under the same conditions they would most likely face at the World Cup.
If they can produce the staunch defense, attacking and error-free rugby they showed in victories against New Zealand and Australia on a more regular basis, the Springboks will be one of the favorites to win the World Cup.
IRELAND (No. 3)
Six Nations champions Ireland rose to third in the world thanks to victories against South Africa and Australia. Under their New Zealand-born coach, Joe Schmidt, Ireland have made few mistakes. Their no-frills approach plays for territory, tightens up on defense and uses the excellent kicking of Jonathan Sexton, or Conor Murray, to put teams under pressure.
Ireland have also shown that they can hold up under pressure. One year ago, the Irish lost to New Zealand as time ran out, but this year the team did not crumble in similar circumstances against Australia, despite being under pressure for the final 10 minutes.
Bringing more variation in its attack is the next stage in the evolution under Schmidt, and midfielder Robbie Henshaw is an exciting prospect who might be able to help that cause.
ENGLAND (No. 4)
England finished on a positive note, beating Australia after losses to New Zealand and South Africa, and an underwhelming victory against Samoa.
England’s set-piece play, particularly the scrum, and defense were the foundation of its success against Australia, while George Ford provided the direction at flyhalf against Samoa and Australia.
However, creativity and punch on offense are lacking. Injuries have played a part — center Manu Tuilagi has been a big loss — but coach Stuart Lancaster’s constant changes in midfield have not helped.
AUSTRALIA (No. 5)
A turbulent year on and off the field has resulted in the Wallabies slipping to fifth in the rankings after their worst European tour since 2005. New coach Michael Cheika went 1-3 in tests last month, with a victory against Wales and losses to France, Ireland and England.
The scrum has been Australia’s Achilles’ heel and is constantly targeted by opponents. It crumbled against England and led to two tries for Ben Morgan. The Wallabies’ backs might be laden with talent, but if the forwards cannot get the basics done, winning becomes difficult.
WALES (No. 6)
Wales finally ended their losing streak against the Southern Hemisphere powers, with a victory against South Africa to cap a roller-coaster performance last month.
Another narrow loss to Australia — their 10th straight — a combative, but fruitless effort against New Zealand and an uninspiring win against Fiji put coach Warren Gatland under pressure. The hard-fought victory against a depleted South Africa team relieved some of that. It was just the second victory over a major Southern Hemisphere team under Gatland.
FRANCE (No. 7)
France’s performances in victories against Fiji and Australia proved they cannot be discounted, but their loss to Argentina also highlighted just how inconsistent they remain.
Winger Teddy Thomas is one to watch. He scored a hat-trick against Fiji on his debut and produced a dazzling solo try against Australia. However, after missing a practice, he was dropped from the team that lost to Argentina.
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