International rugby returns this weekend with the leading northern hemisphere nations looking to build on what was a successful and historic November campaign in the Six Nations.
At the end of the Autumn Nations Series, the Home Nations and France beat their counterparts from the south on the same weekend. It was the first time the clean sweep had been achieved since 2002.
England overturned their Rugby World Cup 2019 final defeat to South Africa, Ireland were convincing winners over Argentina and Wales edged Australia in a thriller. Rounding off an unprecedented weekend, Scotland saw off Japan and France scored a famous victory against the All Blacks – their first since 2009.
It all bodes well for a highly competitive Six Nations 2022, with the 23rd edition of the Championship in its current format beginning in Dublin on Saturday afternoon.
Ireland play Wales in the opening round for the second year running, their game is then followed by the always eagerly-awaited Calcutta Cup encounter at Murrayfield between Scotland and England.
Pre-tournament favourites France will be fully expected to extend Italy’s 32-match losing run in the competition when they meet in the final game of the opening round in Paris on Sunday.
With the majority of the teams in such close proximity to one another in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, there are almost certain to be changed to where the teams are positioned come the end of the weekend.
CAN ENGLAND RAIN ON SCOTLAND’S PARADE?
Second place is within England’s grasp but to overhaul New Zealand they must beat Scotland by over 15 points.
In ordinary circumstances, this would be no mean feat as it is, as Calcutta Cup matches in Edinburgh are notoriously tight affairs, but with the weather forecast looking fairly atrocious, the task is made even harder.
Anyway, Scotland, at least in the eyes of England head coach Eddie Jones, are favourites to win the match and retain the Calcutta Cup.
Scotland will climb above Australia into sixth place should they win and a record high of fourth is possible if the margin is significant and other results go their way.
IRISH HAVE EYES ON THE PRIZE
For Ireland, third place is a possibility, which would represent their highest position under Andy Farrell as head coach.
To return to the position they last held in September 2019 Ireland must beat Wales and hope Scotland do them a favour at Murrayfield.
Alternatively, a heavy loss to the defending champions could result in Ireland crashing down to eighth, depending on the outcome of the other two matches.
Wales will be the higher-ranked of the two nations if they win by more than 15 points and could climb as high as fourth if France also lose to Italy and Scotland win by a smaller margin
France cannot improve their rating with victory over Italy due to the 15.02 rating points between the sides before home weighting is factored in. However, with a win they will climb above a beaten Ireland.
As for Italy, a shock win in Kieran Crowley’s first Six Nations match in charge of the Azzurri would only result in upward movement in the rankings if Georgia slipped up against Portugal.
PORTUGAL HAVE SIGHTS SET HIGH
The Lelos’ game against Portugal is arguably the tie of the first round of the Rugby Europe Championship 2022.
Portugal were top try-scorers and top points-scorers in finishing third in last year’s competition and will no doubt throw down the gauntlet to the reigning champions, who are on a 20-game winning run in the Rugby Europe Championship, at the Avchala Stadium on Sunday.
If Romania fail to beat Russia in Bucharest the day before, Portugal will go into their game in the knowledge that a victory would see them establish a new rankings high of 15th as well as provide them with valuable Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification points.
Also in that scenario, Romania would drop down the rankings – below Tonga if they draw and a further three places if they are beaten.
Spain take on the bottom-of-the-table Netherlands in Madrid in Saturday’s other fixture and it would take a shock result – a win or a draw for the visitors –for there to be a chance of any movement.