Rugby is officially in a World Cup year and the implications of that will overshadow every first-class match between now and when hosts Japan face Russia in the opener on 20 September.
At the start of the new year, New Zealand, Ireland, England, Wales, South Africa and Australia occupy the top six spots on the World Rugby rankings. We dived into the archives to see how the Springboks are tracking and to gauge what historical impact the rankings have had in a World Cup year.
The above chart reflects the world rankings for the current top six teams as reported in January of each year from 2004.
During that 15-year span, the All Blacks have only twice ‘dipped’ to second place, a position most often occupied by the Boks. Ten years after Jake White guided South Africa to the top of the pile, Allister Coetzee’s reign ended with the Boks kicking off 2018 in sixth place.
Rassie Erasmus went 7-7 in his first season at the helm and thus the Boks begin this year in fifth place. It’s an improvement on recent seasons but worryingly as low we were in the wake of Kamp Staaldraad and a failed 2003 World Cup under Rudolf Straeuli, previously considered by many to be the low point in Bok history.
Meanwhile, spots two, three and four are occupied by the Six Nations trio of Ireland, England and Wales. Since the last World Cup, Ireland have twice beaten the All Blacks, Wales have four wins against the Boks, and England have won two Six Nations titles. This marks the first time in the history of the World Rugby rankings that the year has dawned with northern hemisphere nations occupying two of the top-three spots.
As ominous as that seems, there’s reason to be mildly optimistic about South Africa’s chances in Japan later this year. The Boks started 2007 in fourth place and went on to hoist the Webb Ellis Cup, while better rankings (3rd and 2nd respectively) did not result in victory in either of 2011 or 2015.
Perhaps even more encouraging is the standing of the losing finalists. In 2007, England (ranked 7th) reached the decider, France went from sixth place in January of 2011 to a nail-biting finale against the All Blacks at Eden Park in October of that year, and the Wallabies faced New Zealand for all the marbles in 2015 after starting that year in fifth place.
Sure, every Bok fan longs to see a grinning Siya Kolisi covered in confetti later this year, but few would grumble if South Africa recovered from the valleys of 2016 and 2017 to walk away from the 2019 World Cup with the silver medal.
— Staff Writer