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The two best teams in the world

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images and David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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The two best teams in the world are clearly France and Ireland and the latest rankings by World Rugby finally reflect that.

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France have been on the up since the last World Cup and currently sit on a 10 test winning streak, having claimed a Grand Slam Six Nations title earlier in the year.

Ireland’s 2-1 series win over New Zealand continued their great run, before that they had won 12 of their last 15 tests over a two-year period.

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Scott Robertson’s potential All Blacks side
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Scott Robertson’s potential All Blacks side

Two of their three losses were to France, while an early red card to Peter O’Mahony led to a close loss to Wales in Cardiff in the 2021 Six Nations. They have now won 14 of their last 18 tests, a touch below 80 per cent.

The France side that has defeated Ireland twice over the last two Six Nations is their antithesis when it comes to style.

They have the polar opposite game to Ireland and it worked to defeat them, albeit on both occasions by a small margin.

France kick the most out of the Six Nations sides, keeping the ball-in-hand the least. Yet, when they decide to play, they take the most risks. They offload more than any of their European rivals.

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France and Italy were the only sides to kick out-of-hand more than 30 times against Ireland this year. Wales (15), Scotland (25), and England (24) were all short of that mark and lost.

Ireland of course have the world’s best attacking patterns and play a ball-in-hand possession game, while kicking and offloading the least.

Despite the differences between Ireland and France, the consistency of results from these two teams is far beyond any other team right now, including the 2019 World Cup winners South Africa, who haven’t backed up the win in Japan with any sort of dominance to suggest they were ever the best team to begin with.

The Lions series was a decent start but taking results against the other top regarded sides (France, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and England), the Springboks were one from five against them at a 20 per cent win rate in 2021 after skipping out on 2020.

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They haven’t played Ireland since 2017 or France since 2018 so they sit in the dark about where they sit against the top two and their 20 per cent win rate against the other three isn’t pretty for a team that was crowned and trumpeted as the world’s best.

The Welsh were tough opponents in South Africa but ultimately they were the ninth-ranked team heading into the series and should have been swept 3-0. They nearly stole the first test and won the second, before finally a comprehensive Springbok win.

Considering how the Welsh sides played in South Africa during the United Rugby Championship, to lose one of the tests is remarkable, experimentation or not.

The expectation from inside South Africa from figures like former coach Nick Mallet, rightly assumed wins of 15 points or more from the first test.

The Boks are 60 per cent since the World Cup which is below the mark Ian Foster currently has with the All Blacks, 66 per cent, and the reaction from each country’s public and media couldn’t be more different.

The two sides will meet in South Africa where the home side finally have a chance to start prove themselves against the worst performing All Black side of the last 25 years.

The Springboks went one from four against New Zealand and Australia Down Under last year, qualified by the ‘we played away’ excuse.

In the Rassie Erasmus/Jacques Nienaber era, the Springboks have a 36 per cent win rate against their annual rivals, Australia and New Zealand, with just four wins from 11 tests since 2018. It’s hardly the mark of greatness.

There will never be a better time to put the All Blacks away, with back-to-back tests on home soil, to help improve that dire return.

The real challenge will be France and Ireland away at the end of the year, while they have also historically struggled in Australia. The least they can do is take the opportunity being handed to them right now with New Zealand.

England’s comeback to win the series in Australia was a significant achievement on their path back into the top five nations, highlighting the importance of the Saracens’ core with the return of Billy Vunipola.

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With the barnstorming No 8 back in the mix, England were a completely different side and sparked into life in Brisbane. The breaking up of the Saracens core was detrimental to England and now it looks like it might have a second wind.

The way they played in the second test was the best they had played in almost two years, with new halfback Jack van Portfliet igniting their tempo on a dry surface helping England play a fast and accurate passing game.

Australia have still struggled without Quade Cooper available. They went on a five test win streak once he returned last year and then went winless on the end of year tour. Still, just four points separated England and Australia in the third and final test suggesting there was not much between the two sides.

France, despite a lesser series against Japan, still deserve to be considered the best side with the current run they are on. Ireland is in the same league and they are the top two sides in the world followed by the rest of the pack.

The Rugby Championship will sort out numbers three through five, with England there or thereabouts.

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