Rugby World Cup 2015 may be three years away, but the Game’s leading nations are already gearing up to secure a vital advantage over their rivals when the tournament kicks off in England.
The Pool Allocation Draw will take place in London on 3 December and will see the 12 directly qualified teams from RWC 2011 placed into three bands of four teams based on their IRB World Rankings as of 12:00 UK time that day.
For the teams ranked one to four after the end of year internationals they can prepare for RWC 2015 safe in the knowledge they cannot face one another until the knockout stages, a significant bonus for the lucky quartet.
As they did for the Rugby World Cup 2011 draw, New Zealand (92.91 points), Australia (86.37) and South Africa (84.69) currently lead the way as the top three sides.
Lurking in fourth this time is Stuart Lancaster’s England on 83.09, but the battle is far from over for the tournament hosts. Just behind are France (83.03) and Six Nations champions Wales (82.26), with all three sides set for tough November schedules.
At one stage or another, England, France and Wales have occupied fourth spot in the world rankings over the course of the last 12 months, and the finishing straight is likely to prove equally keenly fought.
France begin their campaign with a must-win encounter with Australia in Paris on 10 November, particularly given the fact that the world rankings have an allowance for home advantage – as well as the relative strength of each team and margin of victory – which is something all of the northern hemisphere teams will have to overcome.
Watching from the other side of the channel will be their rivals, with England up against Fiji in week one following by a daunting schedule of back-to-back Tests against the three teams above them.
The ball is very much in their court as victories would put them out of sight of their European rivals, although the history books show that beating any of the southern hemisphere sides is easier said than done.
France follow up their clash with the Wallabies by taking on Argentina and Samoa, who will also travel to Cardiff to meet Wales in the intimidating Millennium Stadium. Warren Gatland, who has been seconded as British & Irish Lions coach for 2013, will hand the coaching baton to Rob Howley for these fixtures before returning in time for a run at the All Blacks and Wallabies.
With all the leading European teams facing similar fixtures, results elsewhere will also have a large part to play, and a knock-on effect on each country’s ranking, while any team that can muster a victory by more than 15 points will gain an added boost in the final shake-up.
Pressure on in all corners
The action will be equally fierce as the teams on the cusp of bands two and three attempt to secure the best possible seeding for the Pool Allocation Draw. After a successful June tour to Australia, Fiji and Samoa, Andy Robinson’s Scotland (77.97) will be desperate to climb just one place into band two.
They face New Zealand, South Africa and Tonga during November and will be keen to repeat their feats of 2010, when the Springboks were toppled 21-17 at Murrayfield. Robinson will also have one eye on Ireland (79.85) and Argentina (78.63), who currently lie seventh and eighth, while Samoa could stage a late run if they can spring an upset or two.
Los Pumas, fresh from their impressive displays in The Rugby Championship, face Wales, France and Ireland, while Samoa have plenty to play for against Canada, Wales and France. Declan Kidney’s Ireland, meanwhile, also take on South Africa before an Ireland XV tackle Fiji.
It is not only the Pool Allocation Draw which adds a bit of spice to the traditional November internationals, but a record programme of Tests for Tier Two and Three nations means the world rankings could be set for plenty of movement up and down in the top 30.
Keep an eye on www.irb.com as the action unfolds to see just how the IRB World Rankings and the three Pool Allocation Draw bands change with each packed weekend of internationals.