With autumn comes a fall and a rise. For the first time since the world rankings were introduced in 2003, two European countries are in the top four at the midway point between World Cups.
England will remain there into the new year unless they manage to lose to Argentina and a Samoan side who have slipped from seventh in the rankings to 16th in four years but Ireland’s hold on fourth hinges on Saturday’s encounter with South Africa in Dublin.
South Africa were in the top two of the rankings in 2005, 2009 – when they were top – and 2013 but are fifth. Victory over Ireland would take the Springboks back into the top four with three Tests to play this year and it promises to be one of the matches of the autumn; not so much in terms of quality but as a measurement of the tilt in the game’s axis in the professional era.
Twenty years ago, South Africa were pre-eminent and Ireland were struggling but while the former are finding it difficult to keep players at home, the latter have largely managed to fend off the financial lure of clubs in England and France.
So while the Springboks failed to record a victory on tour last year, with Italy among their conquerors, and had a 50% record in 2014, beating England and Italy in between defeats in Dublin and Cardiff, Ireland have lost only once in their last two autumn campaigns, to New Zealand in Dublin a year ago – two weeks after recording their first victory over the All Blacks.
Under Joe Schmidt Ireland have developed into an efficient, organised side in which everyone knows his role down to the minutest detail. His style has been structured and hands-on, far more so than had he been coaching a side in his native New Zealand, the one rugby country where players come into the senior game armed with basic skills.
When Sean O’Brien criticised Rob Howley for delegating to Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell on the Lions tour to New Zealand in the summer, he was reflecting an approach that differed from Schmidt’s but as the game develops into one in which the ball is in play for longer and teams look to retain possession rather than kick it away, structure only goes so far.
Wales are ripping up a midfield system that has proved successful, in Europe anyway, for one that gives them an extra playmaking option at inside-centre because individual initiative is now counting for something. The way Ireland laboured in attack against France and Wales in last season’s Six Nations before beating England in the rain in a low-scoring, one try affair in Dublin, suggested change was taking time; yet it was largely the same team that scored 40 points and five tries against the All Blacks in Chicago.
When Schmidt took charge of Ireland in 2013, he discouraged offloading because of its inherent risk. He relaxed it last autumn, slightly, and he is poised to use this month’s three internationals, Fiji and Argentina follow South Africa to the Aviva Stadium, as opportunities to not only refine tactics but assess his strength in depth: 16 of the Ireland squad have four caps or fewer.
“If we want a window where we can be as competitive as we can but also grow the group a bit, this is it,” Schmidt said. “That is part of our strategy behind some of the guys in the back three, the second row and the front row. The next window is a massive pressure cooker for us, the Six Nations, the big competition of the year. We are excited to see how the new guys go: we want an immediate return on our investment but we are also prepared to take a longer-term view.”
South Africa have been taking the longer view this year, picking almost exclusively from players who are based in the country, although the Bath back-rower Francois Louw is an exception. In this month in 2005, South Africa were second to New Zealand in the rankings, ahead of France, another country that has declined this decade, partly for a reverse reason, the export and import of players.
France have slumped to eighth in the rankings, a fraction ahead of Fiji. If selection since Guy Novès has become more consistent, performances have not. In 2009, they had one of the more respectable records against New Zealand, 12 victories and a draw in 47 Tests, but they have lost the last 10 and their last victory at home over the All Blacks was in Marseille in 2000. They will try again in Paris on Saturday night, although their last victory in the fixture in the capital was back in the days when they called Parc des Princes home, 1973, having at one time preferred to take the game’s biggest draw card to rugby heartlands.
Argentina have also fallen in the rankings. In 2005 and 2013 they were eighth and in 2009 they were sixth. Now they are 10th, although they are not the lowest of the tier-one nations, with Italy 14th, just above Romania. If France and South Africa have been trying to be more attacking, the Pumas have carried on from the 2015 World Cup when, even in the semi-final against Australia, they would twist rather than stick.
They have become, as they showed against an England side in the summer shorn of 15 players, almost as much of a threat to themselves as their opponents, but their head coach, Daniel Hourcade, says there is no going back and that they have two years to turn mistakes into tries.
So, for once, the European autumn, New Zealand apart, looks more auspicious for the north than the south. The one caveat at a time when the ball is spent more in hands than in the air, is that the Rugby Championship sides are used to that. Scotland are the closest in the Six Nations, followed by England, but Wales, France and Ireland are a few passes behind. Will Sexton ask Schmidt for the licence he was given in New Zealand?
• This is an extract taken from the Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly rugby union email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.