From Suva to San Juan and all points in between, there is a feast of international rugby to look forward to this weekend, including the start of the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2018.
We take a brief look at some of the facts and figures from the matches taking place and how the World Rugby Rankings could look when they update at 12:00 on Monday.
SOUTH AFRICA (7) v ENGLAND (3)
Exciting wingers S’busiso Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi and imposing second-row forward RG Snyman will make their Springbok debuts on Saturday when South Africa face England in Johannesburg. Experienced full-back Willie le Roux and lively scrum-half Faf de Klerk return to the fold for the first time since 2016 and Siya Kolisi captains the side from the blindside for the first time.
Owen Farrell will captain England while his Saracens team-mate Mako Vunipola will run out for his 50th England cap. Another Saracen, Nick Isiekwe, will make his first start for England while two uncapped players – Brad Shields and Ben Spencer, the latter also from the English league champions – are named on the bench.
- England have not won at Ellis Park in Johannesburg in 46 years
- England are on a four-match losing streak
- England ended a winless run of 12 matches in fixtures between the two teams when they beat the Springboks 37-21 last time out at Twickenham in November 2016
- Coach Rassie Erasmus takes charge of the Springboks for the first time in a home test
With as many as 1.43 points up for grabs for a big win, England can reclaim second place from an Ireland side heavily beaten in Australia. Defeat for England could cost them a two-place fall to fifth if other results go against them. South Africa could shoot up three places to fourth if they begin the three-test series with a convincing win and other teams do them a favour.
AUSTRALIA (4) v IRELAND (2)
Michael Cheika has named two debutants – hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa and number eight Caleb Timu – in his starting line-up for the first test in Brisbane. Timu will partner David Pocock in the back-row in what will be the Zimbabwe-born flanker’s first test since December 2016. The Wallabies have named an otherwise settled starting XV that boasts 623 test caps between them and includes the experienced Will Genia, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale.
Six Nations champions Ireland have also named a hugely experienced starting line-up boasting 510 caps and led by Peter O’Mahony, who takes over the captaincy from the injured Rory Best with fellow Ulsterman Rob Herring filling in at hooker. Joey Carbery gets the nod at fly-half ahead of Johnny Sexton, the Munster-bound player getting only his third international start in the pivotal position.
- Ireland have won the last four meetings (a record run), with the last two victories, both in Dublin, coming by a margin of three points
- Ireland need 20 points to bring up 500 in tests against the Wallabies
- Neither side has clocked up a half-century of points in the fixture. Australia’s highest is 46, Ireland’s 27
Ireland cannot move any higher than their current position of second, but their rating will be increased by 1.42 points if they win well at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. A victorious Australia can claim third spot if accompanied by a defeat for England. Ireland will pass through the 90-point mark if they win well but a bad defeat could cost them second place if England hit the ground running in South Africa.
NEW ZEALAND (1) v FRANCE (8)
Beauden, Scott and Jordie Barrett will start the test at Eden Park, the first time in All Blacks' history that three brothers are in a starting line-up. Luke Whitelock and Sam Whitelock, captain on the occasion of his 97th cap, will play alongside each other in a test for the second time. There is one new cap in the squad with Chiefs prop Karl Tu'inukuafe.
France coach Jacques Brunel welcomes back six experienced players who sat out the Six Nations in Yoann Maestri, Maxime Médard, Morgan Parra, Uini Atonio, Judicael Cancoriet and Fabien Sanconnie. Centre Mathieu Bastareaud retains the captaincy, having led the side in the 14-13 defeat to Wales back in March.
- New Zealand need 31 points to bring up 1,500 in tests against France
- New Zealand won 14-10 the last time the sides met in Wellington in 2009
- The All Blacks are on a 12-match winning run against Les Bleus
- New Zealand and France played out the lowest-scoring final in Rugby World Cup history in 2011, the All Blacks winning 8-7
- France have lost their last five away matches
New Zealand top the rankings, as they have done since November 2009, and hold a 4.88-point cushion over nearest rivals Ireland. It is not possible for them to improve their current rating of 93.99 points but, in the event that they lose by more than 15 points and Ireland beat Australia by the same margin, the gap at the top could come down to just under half a point. Despite three full rating points being on offer for a France victory of more than 15 points, Les Bleus will only move up the rankings, to seventh, if South Africa suffer a rare home defeat to England.
ARGENTINA (9) v WALES (5)
Argentina team to follow.
Second-row Cory Hill will lead Wales for the first time in a side that contains eight personnel changes from the starting XV that narrowly beat the Springboks in Washington last weekend. Hill and number eight Ross Moriarty are the only members of the pack to have a double-figure tally of caps to their name. James Davies makes his second test appearance on the openside. George North reverts to the wing from centre while Josh Adams, the leading try-scorer in the English Premiership in 2017/18, is also named out wide.
- Wales lead the head-to-head in tests with 11 wins to Argentina’s five
- This is the first time in seven matches that the sides have met each other outside of Cardiff
- Games between the nations on Argentinean soil are traditionally high-scoring affairs with an average of 62 points scored across the six matches played.
A fraction under two points is up for grabs if Los Pumas put Wales to the sword and win by over 15 points. That would see them climb one place to eighth if they win well and France pull off a shock result against the All Blacks. Having climbed to fifth on the back of their 22-20 win over South Africa last weekend, Wales are in line for further gains if they win at the Estadio San Juan del Bicentenario in San Juan. A return to the top four for the first time since March 2016 or even the dizzy heights of third are also within their reach if they win well and other results go their way. Argentina will replace France in eighth if they win and Les Bleus lose.
JAPAN (11) v ITALY (14)
All but two of Japan’s starting XV come from Super Rugby side the Sunwolves. The exceptions are Melbourne Rebels’ impressive number eight Amanaki Mafi and second-row Samuela Anise from the Canon Eagles. Michael Leitch captains the side in his 54th cap for the Brave Blossoms while Will Tupou makes his second appearance at outside-centre having previously played against Ireland in June last year.
Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldhini, capped 94 times by his country, leads the Azzurri, while another veteran in Alessandro Zanni wins his 105th in the second row. Abraham Steyn has the unenviable task of filling the boots of Sergio Parisse at number eight, while front-row Giosuè Zilocchi will make his test debut if called upon from the bench. Michele Campagnaro returns ti the Azzurri backline almost a year since his last appearance.
- This is the seventh meeting between the sides. Italy won the first five but lost 26-23 last time out in Tokyo, in June 2014
- Only five players survive from the starting line-ups that day with Michele Campagnaro and Ghiraldhini still going strong for Italy and Fumiaki Tanaka, Shota Horie and Leitch back for Japan
- Italy are on a seven-match run without a win
- Japan drew 23-23 with France in their last international, at the U Arena in Paris last November
With less than four-tenths on offer for a resounding win, it is not possible for Japan to move up the rankings under their own steam, However, if combined with a Fijian defeat against Samoa, 10th place is within their grasp. Big gains are available to Italy if they can defeat the Brave Blossoms by more than 15 points with 2.63 points on offer and a potential rise of three places.
CANADA (21) v SCOTLAND (6)
Scrum-half Phil Mack and centre Nick Blevins both win their 50th caps in Edmonton on Saturday. But Canada will have to do without the services of Chiefs back-row, Tyler Ardron (concussion) and experienced utility back, Gordon McRorie (ankle). Canada's leading try-scorer and most-capped player in the squad, DTH van der Merwe will captain the home team in what will be their first taste of tier one opposition in nearly two years.
Edinburgh second-row Grant Gilchrist will captain Scotland against Canada at the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton in the absence of injured hooker Stuart McInally. Coach Gregor Townsend has selected two debutants for the match, with Edinburgh flanker and former Scotland U20 captain Jamie Ritchie and Harlequins centre James Lang set to earn their first test colours.
- Canada and Scotland have played each other four times in tests with Scotland winning three. Canada’s only success came in Vancouver in 2002 when they won 26-23
- Scotland need four tries for 1,200 in tests
- Canada won back-to-back test for the first time in two years when they beat Brazil and Chile in the final two rounds of this year’s Americas Rugby Championship
Scotland cannot improve their position however well they win, due to the gap of 15 places and nearly 21 rating points between themselves and Canada. Any form of win would put Canada back into the world’s top 20.
USA (15) v RUSSIA (19)
For the first time this season, AJ MacGinty, Samu Manoa, John Quill and Eric Fry make appearances in the Eagles' starting XV. After making their debuts in the Americas Rugby Championship, Paul Lasike and Will Hooley also start, while newcomer Paul Mullen will earn his first official cap in the front row. Of the 23 players selected to face Russia, more than half (12) come from the newly launched Major League Rugby,
- USA have won all seven tests between the nations dating back to 2004
- USA won the last meeting in Sacramento in June 2016, 25-0
- USA swept all before them earlier this year to claim back-to-back Americas Rugby Championship titles
- Russia have qualified for their second Rugby World Cup, lining up in Pool A as Europe 1. USA are in Pool C
USA cannot improve on 15th place but would drop two places and end the weekend only 0.28 of a point better off than Russia if they lose heavily. A big Russian win would see them leapfrog Uruguay and move into 19th place.
WORLD RUGBY PACIFIC NATIONS CUP
In a revised format compared to previous editions, the winner of this year's World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup will be determined as the team to have scored the most competition points over the two fixtures that the four teams – Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Georgia – play. Matches are to be played as double-headers at the ANZ Stadium in Suva across the next two weekends.
FIJI (10) v SAMOA (16)
Newcastle team-mates, Fiji's Vereniki Goneva and Samoan Sinoti Sinoti, both wear the No.11 jersey for their respective nations as these great Pacific rivals lock horns once again in Suva. Fiji will be led for the 37th time in a test by veteran number eight Akapusii Qera, while Brive's Sevanaia Galala wins his first cap at centre. Samoa hand debuts to number eight Matt Luamanu and right winger Ed Fidow, who has experience of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. Utility back Rodney Iona will win his first cap if he comes off the bench.
- Fiji came back from a two-point half-time deficit to beat Samoa 38-16 in last year’s competition and successfully defend the PNC title
- While Fiji are already assured of a place at RWC 2019 as the top-ranked team from Oceania, Samoa will be using the PNC as vital preparation for their play-off against the winners of Portugal and Germany
- Samoa’s last win against Fiji came in the 2014 competition, 18-13 in Suva
With five places and nearly nine points between the nations, Fiji will not pick up any reward for victory on Saturday. Samoa, however, could climb as many as three places, to 13th, on the back of a three-point gain if they win by more than 15 points. Tonga would also have to lose against Georgia for that to happen, though.
TONGA (13) v GEORGIA (12)
Siale Piutau captains Tonga from inside centre as the 'Ikale Tahi hand debuts to three players – tight-head prop David Lolohea, former New Zealand U20 number eight Nasi Manu and full-back Sione Fifita. At the other end of the experience spectrum, half-backs Sonatane Takulua and Kurt Morath boast 55 caps between them.
David Kacharava will equal Merab Kvirikashvili’s all-time appearance record for the Lelos when he takes to the field for the 110th time in tests in Suva on Saturday, although Kvirikashvili could break his own record if he comes off the bench. Soso Matiashvili, the scorer of 89 points in nine tests, is preferred to Kvirikashvili at full-back. Giorgi Nemsadze captains the side from the second row.
- Georgia completed an unbeaten Pacific tour in 2016 which included a 23-20 win over Tonga
- In five previous meetings between the two sides, Georgia have won three and Tonga two
- Two in-form teams meet in Suva. Tonga beat Romania 25-20 in their last outing and have won five out of their last eight tests, only losing to the higher-ranked Japan, Fiji and Wales in that time, while Georgia are on a six-match winning run
- Georgia need 44 points for 5,000 in tests and seven tries to reach the 600-try milestone
Tonga will swap places with Georgia in 12th if they win. Georgia could climb into the world’s top 10 for the first time if they win emphatically and Fiji and Japan succumb to home defeats to Samoa and Italy. Fiji’s defeat would have to be by more than 15 points for that to happen though.
The only other match this weekend to count towards the rankings is the Rugby Americas North Championship match between the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.
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