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The big four era: where the World Rugby rankings will end after 2024

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Paul Harding/Getty Images/Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images/Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images/Franco Arland/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

The rise of Ireland and France over the 2023 Rugby World Cup cycle has altered the world order of power in the international game, joining South Africa and New Zealand as the new ‘big four’.

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The quality of the contests played during the World Cup quarter-finals has been praised as being all-time great, setting expectations going forward that any of these big four clashes will be special.

The quarter-final defeats to the old guard does not overshadow Ireland and France’s newfound status as giants of the international game.

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Ireland won 74 per cent of their Tests over the cycle, the best rate of any nation with 20 from 27 wins, closely followed by France with 21 from 29. New Zealand and South Africa finished third and fourth respectively under 65 per cent.

Ireland and France demonstrated dominance over the southern hemisphere powers, collectively sporting a record of 17 wins and just three losses against Rugby Championship teams and Fiji. This level of success is unprecedented.

England, whilst well-resourced and powerful at the organisation level, are no longer the force on the field they were.

Through the early 2010s they enjoyed U20s success at the World Championships and a golden generation of players helped capture three Six Nations titles in 2016, 2017 and 2020 and a World Cup final appearance in 2019.

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Ireland and France have been dominating at Six Nations U20 level since the late 2010s, as well as the World Rugby U20 Championships where France has taken the last three titles.

The last two Six Nations titles have been shared by the pair and they are favoured again for 2024.

England has clearly fallen behind despite a bronze place finish at the Rugby World Cup and don’t look like getting back on top anytime soon.

Wales are overachievers and certainly galvanise under Warren Gatland.

However, the results over the last cycle were disastrous winning just 24 per cent of their Tests despite managing to capture a Six Nations title in between.

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They have not proven they can beat the best of the southern hemisphere regularly, if at all in New Zealand’s case, and their U20 side has not been relevant for over 10 years.

The third southern hemisphere old power, Australia, has languished to a worst-ever ranking following a first-ever pool stage exit at the Rugby World Cup. There is a long road ahead to catch up that will take years and now a top five ranking is almost beyond reach for the fallen power.

The international game is now between the big four and everyone else. The difference in standard is palpable as illustrated by last year’s quarter-finals.

At the end of 2024 this will still be reflected in World Rugby’s rankings, but there will still be movement.

By virtue of winning the Rugby World Cup and earning the ‘boosted’ points towards their ranking, South Africa have a clear lead that will take time to chip away at.

The Springboks will hold the number one ranking for most of the year.  Only a catastrophic home series against Ireland, losing 2-nil, and then losing 2-nil at home to the All Blacks would do enough damage.

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But having farewelled Johnny Sexton at the Rugby World Cup, Ireland will take a step back in 2024.

Despite still possessing the world’s most agile and explosive pack, the loss of Sexton means they won’t return to the world number one any time soon.

Sexton is the standard-driver, the lynchpin of the entire attacking system, the leader and on-field dictator. Finding his replacement is not an easy task.

They will head to South Africa with a strong squad but there is a real risk they lose 2-nil.

Ireland will drop from second to fourth by the end of the year, overtaken by both New Zealand and France.

France are primed to bounce back and claim the 2024 Six Nations title fuelled by the bitter taste of their home World Cup. They have a favourable schedule, playing Ireland and England at home.

Should they win the Six Nations title, they travel to Argentina for the easiest of the July tours.

New Zealand under Scott Robertson will start with a bang and plough through Borthwick’s England side with shades of the 2004 tour. It will be one-sided, the All Blacks will ravage the English.

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Heading to South Africa will be Robertson’s first real challenge and odds are that honours will be shared 1-all, with the All Blacks winning at altitude in Johannesburg and South Africa winning in Cape Town.

Not all of the November schedules are released, so the ramifications for rankings are hard to predict.

The All Blacks have two blockbuster clashes against Ireland and France which will matter greatly. They will likely lose one of them.

However, if South Africa has a cakewalk November tour and avoid any big four opponents they will skate through and remain world number one at year’s end.

World Rugby rankings end of 2024 prediction:

1. South Africa
2. New Zealand
3. France
4. Ireland
5. Wales

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J
Jon 2 hours ago
Sam Cane was unfairly cast in Richie McCaw's shadow for too long

> McCaw’s durability and sustained excellence were unique, but we seemed to believe his successors were cut from the same cloth. It’s easy to forget McCaw was just as heavily critiqued for the last two years of his career. The only real difference was his captaining criticisms and his playing criticisms happened at different times, where Cane was criticized for a few things in both areas for all of his last 4 years. This was also heavily influenced by another McCaw esque presence, in Ardie Savea, being in the team and pushed out of his original position. It could be said we essentially didn’t have the 3 prior years with Ardie as world player of the year because he was changing into this new role. I say “original” position as despite him never coming out and saying his desire is to perform his role from, that I know of, clearly as part of a partnership with Cane as 7, I don’t think this was because he really wanted Cane’s playing spot. I think it most likely that it comes down to poor All Black management that those sort of debates weren’t put to bed as being needless and irrelevant. It has been brought up many times in past few months of discussions on articles here at RP, that early calls in WC cycles, to say pigeonhole an All Black team into being required to have a physical dynamo on defence at 7 (and ballplyaer at 8 etc) are detrimental. In the end we did not even come up against a team that threw large bodies at us relentlessly, like why we encountered in the 2019 WC semi final, at all in this last WC. Even then they couldn’t see the real weakness was defending against dynamic attacks (which we didn’t want to/couldn’t give 2019 England credit for) like the Twickenham Boks, and Irish and French sides (even 10 minutes of an English onslaught) that plagued our record and aura the last 4 years. It really is a folly that is the All Blacks own creation, and I think it pure luck, and that Cane was also such a quality All Black, that he was also became an integral part of stopping the side from getting run off the park. Not just rampaged. > The hushed tones, the nods of approval, the continued promotion of this nonsense that these men are somehow supernatural beings. I bet this author was one of those criticizing Cane for coming out and speaking his mind in defence of his team that year. Despite the apparent hypocrisy I agree with the sentiment, but I can only see our last captain as going down the same road his two prior captains, Read and McCaw, have gone. I am really for Cane becoming an extra member to each squad this year, June, RC, and November tours, and he is really someone I can see being able to come back into the role after 3 seasons in Japan. As we saw last year, we would have killed for someone of his quality to have been available rather than calling on someone like Blackadder. Just like the Boks did for 2023.

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