With the opening match of Rugby World Cup 2023 just three weeks away, this weekend’s round of warm-up matches are vital to teams wanting to hone their game plans and try out new combinations in a competitive environment.
And for players from the teams who have yet to announce their final 33-man squads for the tournament in France, including Ireland, France, Italy and Georgia, it is effectively their last audition for selection.
Fiji face biggest test yet
Fiji were one of the first nations to declare their hand in terms of squad announcements and the players that travel to Nantes this weekend, to take on Rugby World Cup 2023 hosts France, go there safe in the knowledge that, barring injury, they will be returning to the country for the big event.
Three straight wins over Samoa, Japan and Tonga have given Simon Raiwalui a perfect start to his reign as head coach and the honeymoon period he is currently enjoying would move up another level if they could repeat the 21-14 win they enjoyed over Les Bleus the last time the sides met in 2018.
Another confidence-boosting victory would move Fiji up to eighth in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, matching their previous best, while also overtaking Australia in the process to become the highest-ranked team in Pool C at RWC 2023 as things stand.
A win by a record margin of more than 15 points would send the Pacific Islanders up to the dizzy heights of sixth.
Fiji, however, come up against a France side that set a new record for consecutive home wins (12) when they beat Scotland 30-27 in last week’s thriller in Saint-Étienne.
It was a win that came at a cost, however, with fly-half Romain Ntamack ruled out of Rugby World Cup 2023 with a knee injury and influential prop Cyril Baille sidelined for between five to six weeks.
As Les Bleus cannot improve their rating this weekend due to the fact they are playing a team with a significantly lower rating than theirs before home advantage comes into the equation, they are vulnerable to losing third place to South Africa.
Even if France do beat Fiji, a win for the Springboks over Wales in Cardiff would result in the sides swapping places.
All Blacks cheering on England
Like France, Ireland won’t pick up any points for a victory this weekend but a defeat to England at the Aviva Stadium would see their 13-month reign as the world’s best team come to an end.
A beaten Ireland would lose a minimum of two points and give them a new rating inferior to that of New Zealand.
It is possible for Andy Farrell’s side to drop as many as three places to fourth if they lose by a big enough margin and other results go against them. England would move up one place to fifth if that is the outcome.
In terms of the formbook, you would have to say it is unlikely, especially at Ireland’s ‘fortress’ where they have only lost two of their last 38 matches and are on a record 15-match winning run.
Wales currently occupy 10th place after last weekend’s 19-17 defeat to England but it will be for one week only if they can bounce back with a win over the Springboks. Eighth place is theirs for the taking, although they will have to settle for ninth if Fiji also win.
Defeat for Wales would see them remain as they are because Georgia, the side immediately below them, aren’t able to improve their position with a victory over USA in Tbilisi as there is a sizeable gap (a fraction over 10 points) between the teams’ respective ratings.
However, a shock defeat against the Men’s Eagles could lead to a fall of as many as three places, to 14th, if Italy – who welcome back Ange Capuozzo into the starting XV – do the business at home to Romania.
USA will move above Uruguay in victory and also Portugal if they win by more than 15 points. A gain of two places would take them up to 16th.
Italy cannot improve on 13th place in their own right but a win against the Oaks combined with a defeat for Georgia would see them climb to 12th.
Romania head to the Adriatic Coast knowing that a win over Italy has the potential to move them up the rankings but only if it is combined with a defeat for USA away to Georgia.
Colombia will move above Ukraine and into 36th place if they beat Paraguay in the opening round of the Sudamerica Rugby 4 Naciones.
Paraguay could fall by as many as seven places in defeat. But a win for Paraguay will be accompanied by a three-place rise whatever the margin.
Photo credit: Fiji RU