Rugby union power list: ruthless All Blacks still the team to beat
1 New Zealand (previous position: 1st)
Still the team to beat after a ruthlessly efficient end of year tour. Brodie Retallick is the world player of the year and any global XV based on the past month would have to contain Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Owen Franks, Aaron Smith and Julian Savea as well. They rotated their squad cleverly, dotted the “i”s and crossed the “t”s squad-wise and ultimately proved too good for , , and . The best hope for their opponents is that the influential Smith and Read strain something in early September; otherwise the All Blacks appear to have most bases covered. The manner in which they extricated themselves from trouble against Wales in the last 13 minutes was masterful.
2 Ireland (previous position: 5th)
Ireland the second best team in the world? Slightly premature, perhaps, until you study the scoreboard. and lost in Dublin this autumn, despite the lengthiest of Irish injury lists, and the . In Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray they have the world’s most effective pair of kicking half-backs, and Joe Schmidt still has the shrewdest of rugby brains. They are Six Nations champions and, with England and France travelling to the Aviva Stadium, will start as favourites to retain their title. They also have a tantalising World Cup draw which could see them into the semi-final at least. With Schmidt pulling the strings and Paul O’Connell at the heart of their pack, anything then becomes possible.
3 South Africa (previous position: 2nd)
It may prove an illusion but the Springboks had a worrying November. Beaten in Ireland and and matched up front by , their captain Jean de Villiers has suffered a horrible knee injury and their old warhorse Bakkies Botha and the centre Jaque Fourie have retired from Test rugby. Will the rest of the 2007 World Cup-winning survivors make it to the Rugby World Cup 2015? Heyneke Meyer will hope so, although there is much to admire about their young fly-halves Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie and the new scrum-half Cobus Reinach. Away from home, nevertheless, the Springboks have become unreliable, not ideal with the World Cup being staged in Europe. Fourie du Preez, Willem Alberts and Francois Louw, however, could yet make a substantial difference and Willie le Roux is the world’s most inventive full-back.
4 England (previous position: 3rd)
Had they lost to Australia at the weekend it would have been a grim autumn indeed. Perversely, though, their lack of consistency and tactical savvy against , and has concentrated some minds; when the chunky chips are down their forwards are an increasing handful. Joe Marler, Courtney Lawes and Ben Morgan, in particular, all played with authority against the Wallabies and George Ford and Jonny May have both added something refreshingly different. People talk about having to beat the top southern hemisphere sides at the World Cup but it could yet be that England end up facing Wales, Scotland and Ireland in the tournament. It lends an extra edge to the Six Nations, not that their opening game in Cardiff needs it.
5 Australia (previous position: 4th)
Yes, the Wallabies must have been weary at Twickenham at the end of a long, difficult year. Yes, their passing and spatial awareness behind the scrum is as good as anyone’s. The elephant in the opera house, however, remains their scrum. It was almost revisited at Twickenham as the , a timely reminder rugby is not simply about clever running lines. They still have a psychological edge over Wales and David Pocock, Scott Higginbotham, Stephen Moore, Scott Fardy and James O’Connor could yet help them rise again. England, though, now know precisely how to beat them.
6 Wales (previous position: 6th)
Wales, strangely, are not unlike England; they play their most compelling rugby when their backs are right up against the wall. They led in the final quarter and beat , merely underlining how dangerous they could yet be at the World Cup. In the meantime Warren Gatland will be eagerly looking forward to the visit of England on the first Friday of the Six Nations in early February. Do not believe anyone who tells you it will have no bearing on the pool game between the countries in September, particularly if Wales happen to win. Some decent new players are forcing their way into Gatland’s side and team spirit looks buoyant, too.
7 Argentina (previous position: 7th)
Regular game-time in the Rugby Championship is starting to have a positive effect on the Pumas. They scored their first win in the tournament in October, coming back from 14-0 down to beat Australia 21-17, and defended heroically to beat in Paris last month – their first win over Les Bleus since the 2007 World Cup – having taken an early 15-0 lead. They also troubled South Africa this year and their fly-half Nicolás Sánchez is increasingly impressive. The captain Agustín Creevy is playing down his side’s World Cup chances but they are on the up.
8 France (previous position: 8th)
France’s head coach Philippe Saint-André must have thought all his troubles had evaporated when his side beat on the back of a . Then the sky fell back in thanks to . He has found an exciting winger in Teddy Thomas and Camille Lopez is a decent fly-half, but inconsistency continues to undermine Saint-André’s efforts. The coach has publicly doubted whether his team are physically and mentally equipped to win two big games on successive weekends, as they will have to do at the World Cup. With another lengthy period of European and Top 14 games to distract them either side of Christmas, the Six Nations will be a revealing period.
9 Scotland (previous position: 9th)
Close to leapfrogging France having beaten at Murrayfield in their opening November fixture. Also gave a reshuffled All Black side a hurry-up and seem to be responding well to their Kiwi coach Vern Cotter. Jonny Gray, Finn Russell and the injured Mark Bennett are all players to watch in 2015; there also seems to be greater collective belief than in recent seasons. If they can keep their best players fit and maintain their improved try-scoring rate they could surprise a few in the Six Nations. Their World Cup pool opponents – South Africa, Samoa, Japan and the United States – will be monitoring their progress.
10 Samoa (previous position: 10th)
The good news is the world now knows the difficulties Samoa’s players have to overcome every time they meet up. The bad news is their dispute with the Samoan Rugby Union continues, despite the bullish insistence of the country’s prime minister, Tuilaepa Malielegaoi – who is still the SRU’s chairman – that it has been resolved. At least next year’s historic home Test against the All Blacks in Apia is still in the diary and Samoa continue to attract good players. Tim Nanai-Williams, last seen starring for the Barbarians at Twickenham, is set to be available for the World Cup, having announced his intention to qualify via the Samoan sevens.