The frosts may still be on the ground as February dawns, but the excitement is building as rugby fans await the start of the RBS Six Nations 2012 Championship, which kicks off on Saturday when RWC 2011 finalists France host Italy at the Stade de France.
France will be eager to avenge last year’s shock loss to Italy in Rome and the theme of revenge continues across the weekend with Scotland desperate to banish the memories of their early departure after defeat to England in the RWC pool stages and Ireland their quarter-final heartbreak to Wales.
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There is more, though, at stake than just revenge from last outings between long-time rivals because this weekend marks the first internationals of a busy year which will determine the pools for Rugby World Cup 2015 in England.
The 12 automatic qualifiers from Rugby World Cup 2011 will be drawn into three bands according to their IRB World Rankings at the end of the autumn internationals in Europe, with each band then being drawn across the four pools.
If the RWC 2015 Pool Allocation Draw was to take place today, this would mean world champions New Zealand, Australia, France and South Africa would form band one, England, Ireland, Argentina and Wales band two and Tonga, Samoa, Scotland and Italy band three.
RWC 2011 runners-up France, therefore, could not be drawn in the same pool as any of the three southern hemisphere giants, although they could face another of their 2011 conquerors in Tonga or even their RWC 2007 nemesis Argentina.
It would also throw up the potential of hosts England facing the challenge of a pool encounter with defending champions New Zealand. This is just what happened in 1991 when the All Blacks won the tournament’s opening match 18-12 at Twickenham.
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With the leading nations all playing 10 or more internationals over the next 10 months there is plenty of scope for movement among the 12 automatic qualifiers for RWC 2015, but no-one will want to get left behind and playing catch-up after a slow start to the Six Nations.
Italy may have won their last meeting with France, but history is not on their side to repeat the feat under new coach Jacques Brunel with Les Bleus having not lost a home match in the opening round of the Championship since 1975.
A winning start under new coach Philippe Saint-André will not have an impact on France’s rating of 84.70 points – regardless of the margin of victory – because of the nine places and 10.71 rating points that separate the two sides.
France will, though, surrender third spot if they lose to Italy and could even drop as low as sixth if they lose emphatically and England and Wales both win by more than 15 points on the road against Scotland and Ireland respectively.
Wales to fourth?
Defending champions England, who beat Scotland 16-12 in Pool B at RWC 2011, haven’t won on Scottish soil since 2004, but if they can give Stuart Lancaster a winning-start as interim coach then they will remain fifth as neither a victorious Wales or Ireland can dislodge them.
Another defeat by the Auld Enemy would prove costly for Scotland as they will slip below Samoa to 11th, equalling their lowest ever ranking of mid 2007. It would get worse for Scotland if Italy were to stun France as they would then drop another place to 12th.
The best Scotland can hope for with victory is a climb to ninth place and potentially to within half a point of a losing Irish or Welsh outfit depending on the results. England would meanwhile fall one in defeat with the Aviva Stadium winner, whoever it be, taking over fifth.
Wales are currently eighth in the IRB World Rankings, but if they repeat their 22-10 win over Ireland in the RWC 2011 quarter finals with victory in Dublin on Sunday then they will climb to sixth and swap places with their Celtic rivals.
Sam Warburton’s men could even end the weekend as the leading northern hemisphere nation in the rankings in fourth spot, although that would need them to win by more than 15 points and France and England to both lose by that margin.
Beyond the Six Nations
However, it is not only the Six Nations which gets underway this weekend involving teams who graced the RWC 2011 stage, as the European Nations Cup 2012 title races resume with Georgia looking to retain their mantle as the “best of the rest”.
Georgia, the defending European Nations Cup champions, travel to face Division 1A bottom side Ukraine on Saturday hoping for a repeat of their emphatic 62-3 win over the same side 12 months ago.
A repeat performance, while preserving Georgia’s unbeaten start to the competition spread across two years, will not improve their ranking of 14th, a consequence of the Lelos sitting 18 places and 17.87 rating points above their hosts.
The same is true in positional terms for Romania if they taste victory over lower ranked Portugal as they can only inch towards USA above them, but if the visitors emerge the winners then they could rocket up as many as six places to assume Romania’s 18th spot.
For this to happen Portugal must win in Bucharest by more than 15 points, a smaller margin of victory would leave Romania clinging on to that 18th position while lifting the Portuguese back into the world’s top 20.
The IRB World Rankings update every Monday at 12:00 UK time.
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