The only constant in the IRB World Rankings in 2011 was New Zealand as the number one side, a position the All Blacks have now held for the last 25 months and more so than any other teams put together since the rankings were introduced in October 2003.
New Zealand have sat at the summit for almost 80 per cent of this time and ensured they would enter another year as the top ranked side with victory over France in the RWC 2011 Final, albeit with a smaller cushion over Australia than they began this year with (3.44 rating points to 5.74).
A first World Cup success for France would have lifted them to the top of the rankings for the first time, but while the Webb Ellis Cup still eludes Les Bleus, they have at least broken the 16-month long southern hemisphere stranglehold on the top three, climbing above South Africa after reaching the title decider.
France’s three place rise over the last 12 months is not the biggest in the top 10, although they did have a hand in that honour, their Pool A loss to Tonga rocketing the Ikale Tahi to ninth, equalling the highest ever position occupied by their fellow Pacific Islanders Fiji and Samoa.
But while Tonga were celebrating a first ever appearance in the top 10 and eight-place gain over the year, Fiji were going into the opposite direction, sliding six places to their lowest ever ranking of 16th after two defeats on home soil in the IRB Pacific Nations Cup and then RWC losses to Samoa, South Africa and Wales.
Battle for the biggest climb
Tonga and Fiji were among 85 nations on the move in the IRB World Rankings over the course of 2011, many of them as a result of the disbanding of the Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union in an exciting restructure of the West Asia region. The AGRFU’s removal from the IRB World Rankings meant that 57 nations had a belated Christmas present with one place climbs on 3 January.
Some nations may only have climbed one or two places in 2011, but others enjoyed massive climbs with Hong Kong, Israel, Malta, Switzerland and Zimbabwe all into double figures. Hong Kong were the last of these nations to climb the rankings, lifting themselves to a new high of 26th by beating Kenya and Brazil to win the Emirates Airline Cup of Nations in December.
Israel matched Hong Kong’s climb of 11 places to continue their rapid ascent up the rankings, two wins over Austria and Norway in the European Nations Cup lifting them to 61st for a 30-place rise in just three years. Malta’s 12-place surge comes on the back of ENC victories over the higher ranked Lithuania and Croatia, while Zimbabwe’s unbeaten run with the scalps of Uganda (twice), Kenya (twice) and Madagascar has rocketed them up 17 places to 33rd.
This elevation, though, was not enough to claim the biggest climb of the year honour for Zimbabwe. Instead that went to Switzerland, who bounced back from a 10-place drop last year to climb 18 places to 49th – their highest ranking for three years – after a perfect record of four European Nations Cup victories from four in 2011.
Europe home to biggest fallers
Three other nations enjoyed significant climbs in 2011 with Denmark, Solomon Islands and Poland all ending the year nine places higher than they began it. Poland’s run of form was impressive with wins over Belgium, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Germany and a draw with Moldova meaning they lead the race for promotion to the top tier of the European Nations Cup.
It was not all positive for European nations though with Slovenia and Latvia both suffering falls into double figures. Four heavy defeats in Division 1B saw Latvia slide 13 places to 68, only slightly better than Slovenia who are the year’s biggest fallers with a 15-place plummet to 77th after losing four times to teams ranked below them.
Madagascar and Colombia both fell eight places after defeats in their respective regional competitions, the latter coming after another disappointing South American B Championship campaign which included defeats by Peru and Venezuela in August. Colombia had fallen nine places in 2010 after losing to the same two sides.
Ninety-three of the IRB’s Member Unions have a ranking with Finland remaining the bottom side. However, this figure could soon rise again with Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines all inching closer to the criteria of playing 10 matches against Full Member Unions since becoming one themselves required to earn a ranking.
The IRB World Rankings are published every Monday on www.irb.com. They are calculated using a points exchange system in which teams take points off each other based on the match result. Whatever one team gains, the other team loses. The exchanges are determined by the match result, the relative strength of the team and the margin of victory. There is also an allowance for home advantage.
Ninety-three of the IRB’s Member Unions have a rating, typically between 0 and 100 with the top side in the world usually having a rating above 90 – New Zealand’s was 91.43 at the end of 2011.
Any match that is not a full international between two countries or a Test against the Lions or Pacific Islanders does not count towards the rankings. Likewise neither does a match against a country that is not a Full Member Union of the International Rugby Board.
The IRB World Rankings will remain unchanged until the beginning of February, when the Six Nations and European Nations Cup kick off what will undoubtedly be another year of changing fortunes in the IRB World Rankings.