With the mighty Pacific Islanders now behind the new-look England, all eyes will be on Martin Johnson’s men as they face the ultimate challenge of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in consecutive weeks. However, it isn’t just pride or a cemented place in the team at stake – the top four seeded places in the 2011 Rugby World Cup are now up for grabs.
World Cup seedings have always been based on performance at the previous tournament, but the system has been changed so that Australia and New Zealand are not seeded 7th and 8th. The top four seeds will now be determined by the IRB rankings as of 1st December 2008, so the Autumn Internationals represent the only chance to add to the ranking points tally.
So is the previously inconsequential IRB ranking system now all-important? To understand what England must do to, we need to understand the IRB system which seems unnecessarily complex and you need to have the brains of Einstein to comprehend it.
Fortunately, I have managed to do just that and in it’s most basic terms, teams accumulate points by winning matches and you’ll receive more points by defeating higher ranked sides. Countries also lose points in defeat, and there is a weighting for home advantage, so that teams get more points for winning Away from home.
England currently sits fourth, having just edged ahead of Argentina who has dropped out of the top four for the first time since the 2007 Rugby World Cup after losing to France, so if it stays this way, England will avoid having to face anyone ranked above them in the group stages.
Much now depends on Argentina’s performance against Italy and Ireland. If the Pumas lose both, England should be assured of a place in the top four along with the big three Southern Hemisphere teams, even if they lose all three matches this month.
If Argentina wins one out of two, it means that England will need to win at least one of their next three matches, and if Argentina overcomes both Italy and Ireland, England will need to win at least two matches.
Do you think Martin Johnson has been sitting down with his pencil and paper at Pennyhill Park to work out the different permutations? Or do you think he’s got both eyes firmly fixed on Robbie Deans’ Australia and nothing else, knowing that only a victory will suffice regardless of the world rankings.
And perhaps he’s thinking that by the time the World Cup begins, England will be capable of beating any team anyway, so it matters not who is in their group?
In that case, the baffling world rankings remain as inconsequential as ever but it’s worth understanding. One thing the rankings are good for however is that they will save the World Cup hosts from the ignominy of a group-stage exit at their own tournament.