With the Rugby World Cup kicking off exactly one year hence come Thursday, Iain Morrision takes a look at the nine runners and riders by World Rugby ranking.
Here we take a look at those nine runners and riders by World Rugby ranking one year ahead of the big one:
1 NEW ZEALAND
Coach: Steve Hansen
Winning percentage: 90
RWC record: Winners in 1987, 2011 & 2015
Several furlongs ahead of their nearest rivals, at least until we see whether yesterday’s loss to South Africa has caused any lasting damage. The All Blacks have let their defence go soft, relying upon scoring more tries than the opposition. They conceded three tries to the Argentine backs and another five to the Bokke yesterday in Wellington.
New Zealand can be beaten, the Lions and Bokke proved as much, but it isn’t easy with so much depth across the board. When England won the World Cup in 2003 they boasted the best player in the world in about half a dozen key positions and the same is true of this All Blacks squad, who remain favourites.
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Winning percentage: 73
RWC record: Horrible, never further than the quarter-finals!
Ireland share many of the best bits of New Zealand – small island nations that punch well above their weight thanks to a brilliant development programme.
Their Achilles heel of old has disappeared because they now have four world-class props. There are more breakaways than Schmidt can possibly accommodate but little enough back up at nine and ten.
Ireland may struggle in the midfield and back three. They play New Zealand in November when we will get a better read on their relative merits.
Coach: Warren Gatland
Winning percentage: 53
RWC record: Third in 1987, fourth in 2011
Wales are in the same pool as their Australian nemesis but should have enough to tough it out against Georgia and Fiji. Once into the quarters, they will view France or England as very beatable so “Gats” could get a decent send off.
Coach: Eddie Jones
Winning percentage: 81
RWC record: Winners in 2003, finalists in 2007
That 81 per cent winning percentage looks handy enough but tells only half the story because England have lost five of their last six matches with only a win in that dead rubber against South Africa this summer to salve the wounds.
Eddie Jones’ abrasive style usually gets results in the short term but that same confrontational approach from the Aussie will eventually come to grate with too many, players and coaches alike.
Jones has had to watch walkouts by his head of sports science, his defence coach, his attack coach and the England psychologist; it doesn’t take a shrink to see that something is rotten.
That said, a successful autumn series will put the chariot back on track especially if they can give the All Blacks a hurry up on 10 November at Twickenham.
Coach: Michael Cheika
Winning percentage: 51
RWC record: Winners in 1991 & 1999, finalists in 2003 & 2015
The Wallabies have a canny habit of peaking just in time to mount a serious World Cup challenge but the current squad have a way to go before they can pose a serious threat in Japan.
At least they are pooled with Wales, although their long run of 13 successive wins over the team from the principality, stretching back to 2009, must come to an end at some point. Or maybe not.
Coach: Gregor Townsend
Winning percentage: 64
RWC record: Semi-finalists in 1991, and mighty close last time out
Scotland have become a force to be reckoned with for the first time this millennium thanks to Vern Cotter and the emergence of some genuine talent.
If everyone is fit, Scotland will challenge the best but Duncan Taylor, below, is already a doubt and they can’t afford to lose Alex Dunbar as well.
7 SOUTH AFRICA
Coach: Rassie Erasmus
Winning percentage: 43 (after seven matches, before yesterday’s result)
RWC record: Winners in 1995 and 2007, third in 1999
Something is stirring in the sleeping Springboks, who won in New Zealand for the first time in a decade yesterday having been written off by everyone. Rassie Erasmus keeps his job but can he replicate that performance on a regular basis through a World Cup?
You have to hope so because the rugby world needs the Bokke at their best.
Coach: Jacques Brunel
Winning percentage: 25% (after eight games)
RWC record: Bridesmaid in 1987, 1999 and 2011, never the bride
The French squad are together for sufficient length of time ahead of the World Cup to make their mark on this tournament. Not that that means they will.
Coach: Mario Ledesma
Winning percentage: 33 (after three).
RWC record: Third place in 2007
Argentina are in the same pool as France and England who will both be sweating buckets at the Pumas’ recent revival.
Italy: In the same pool as New Zealand and South Africa.
Fiji: Could cause an upset given the talent at their disposal.
Samoa: Not the force of old.
Namibia: The force of old.
Japan: A live threat at home.
Tonga: See above.