South Africa started and finished the year on top of the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, but it wasn’t an unbroken reign as the Springboks fought for supremacy with the All Blacks on an almost weekly basis in the latter part of 2021.

From September through to the end of a compelling Autumn Nations Series, the lead changed hands four times with the Springboks’ finishing the season with 3.59 rating points fewer than when they kicked off the season with a 40-9 win over Georgia in July.

A 2-1 series win over the British and Irish Lions was undoubtedly the highlight of the reigning world champions’ year but in matches that counted towards the rankings, a record of six wins and four defeats saw their points total reduced from 94.20 points to 90.61 over the course of the 12-month period.

New Zealand started the year in third place and finished it in second – at the expense of an England side that endured a very disappointing Six Nations – but, again, their final points total was lower at the season’s end (88.75 points) than at the start (88.95 points).

The All Blacks were at their attacking best in 2021 and became the first side to score more than 100 tries in a calendar year, but defeats to Ireland and then France in their final two fixtures took the shine off the season.

Mixed fortunes in Europe

Despite achieving their first win over the All Blacks since 2009 and fractionally improving their overall rating, France actually fell in the rankings from fourth to fifth over the course of the year.

Les Bleus were beaten to the Six Nations title by Wales and then lost their summer series against Australia. However, a clean sweep of wins in the Autumn Nations Series ensures the Rugby World Cup 2023 hosts will go into 2022 on a high.

Momentum is definitely behind Ireland after a year in which narrow defeats to Wales and France were followed by eight straight wins, the 29-20 success over the All Blacks in November being the obvious highlight.

Ireland traded places with France in fourth as a result, with Wales the only other team in the top 10 to improve their position in 2021.

The Six Nations winners increased their rating score by 2,20 points to climb above Rugby Championship wooden spoonists Argentina, but Australia and Scotland still remain above them in sixth and seventh, respectively.

Outside of the top 10 nations, Romania were one of the teams to make the biggest improvement from a rankings perspective.

The Oaks’ renaissance under former England and Scotland head coach Andy Robinson saw them climb four places from 19th to 15th with a gain of 2,58 points. Tonga went the other way with a loss of 3.72 points causing them to fall from 13th to 16th.

Chile enjoy a red-hot year

Rugby World Cup 2023 contenders Chile are knocking on the door of the top 20 after making massive strides forward in 2021.

Having beaten Canada for the first time in eight attempts to set up an Americas 2 showdown with USA, Los Condores signed off with an impressive 2-0 series win over Russia in Sochi, moving up from 29th place in the rankings to a record-equalling 23rd as a result.

Rugby Europe Trophy high fliers Poland emulated Chile’s impressive six-place gain in moving up from 34th in the world to 28th. New head coach Christian Hitt has led the Poles to three straight wins in his first three games in charge and they will take a six-point lead over Germany into the new year.

A 24-19 win over Ivory Coast in July saw Madagascar jump five places from 51st to 46th but the biggest and only double-digit gain of 2021 belongs to African rivals Senegal.

Rugby Africa Cup wins over Kenya and Zambia have put the Senegalese through to the next phase of Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification and also sent them shooting up the rankings from 54th to 44th.

Read more: Two Rugby World Cups headline action-packed year in 2022 >>