Another busy weekend of international rugby is almost upon us with Rugby World Cup 2019 qualifiers and the second round of the NatWest 6 Nations and Americas Rugby Championship to look forward to.
With only one team from the Rugby Europe Championship guaranteed to qualify for Japan 2019 as Europe 1, and the next best-placed side facing a more circuitous route to Asia’s first Rugby World Cup, Russia know they cannot afford to lose any more ground this weekend when they take on Spain in Krasnodar.
The Bears are currently third in the RWC 2019 qualification standings at the halfway point of European qualification, four behind Los Leones and a further two adrift of defending champions Romania, who face Germany, the only side to beat them last year, in their opening fixture.
Spain won 16-6 when they met Russia in Madrid last February and a repeat of that result could open up a nine-point gap between the nations in the race to Japan 2019.
For Georgia, safely through to RWC 2019 after finishing third in their pool at England 2015, it is all about reclaiming the Rugby Europe Championship title from the Oaks. With a home game against a Belgium side that has traditionally struggled to adapt to the top tier, they couldn’t have asked for a better start.
In total, nine of the 10 matches taking place this weekend count towards the World Rugby Rankings. Here’s a quick look at what impact the Rugby Europe Championship games plus one in the Rugby Europe Trophy between Portugal and the Netherlands, and those in the second round of both the Six Nations and Americas Rugby Championship, might have on the respective sides points totals and positions.
RUGBY EUROPE CHAMPIONSHIP/RUGBY WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS (NOT GEORGIA v BELGIUM)
Romania (15) v Germany (27)
Veteran prop Andrei Ursache is available to Romania again after a two-year absence and starts at tight-head. The 33-year-old has not played for the Oaks since RWC 2015 and wins his 33rd cap. Florin Vlaicu gets the opportunity to extend his all-time points scoring record for Romania (854 points) having been selected at fly-half.
The German line-up for Pablo Lemoine’s first game in charge only shows three survivors from last year’s famous 41-38 victory over Romania in Offenbach. All three play their club rugby in France – prop and captain Julius Nostadt (Aurillac), second-row Eric Marks (Atlantic Stade Rochelais) and scrum-half Tim Menzel (RC Strasbourg).
- Romania have scored 60 points or more in their last three home games against Germany
- Germany have won on Romanian soil twice before – back in 1937 and 1938
- Germany conceded the most points in last year’s Championship (201) on their way to a fifth-place finish, but only scored one point fewer than champions Romania (122)
With more than 13 points between the sides in the rankings, a win for Romania will not come with any reward. Germany, on the other hand, could jump as many as four places back up to 23rd if they win by more than 15 points and other results go their way. Romania will fall between one and three places in defeat.
Russia (19) v Spain (20)
Russia coach Alexander Pervukhin has named a potent-looking back three with leading points scorer and full-back Yuri Kushnarev flanked by captain Vasily Artemyev, the Bears’ all-time record try scorer, and sevens star German Davydov. Kushnarev wins his 93rd cap as does flanker Viktor Gresev, while a vastly experienced squad boasts four other players with 50 caps or more.
Brad Linklater, last season’s top scorer in the Rugby Europe Championship, is selected on the right wing instead of his normal position at full-back. New Zealand-born Linklater is one of six players over 30 in an experienced Los Leones line-up, including captain and number eight Jaime Nava who wins his 75th cap.
- Russia have won the last six meetings at home, a run dating back to 2002
- Spain scored the second-fewest tries in last year’s Championship (nine) but only one team conceded fewer tries than them (five)
- Russia conceded as many tries (14) as they scored in 2017
Russia can climb to 17th, their highest position for nearly eight years, if they win comfortably, although Canada and Brazil would also have to do them a favour against the USA and Uruguay respectively. The best Spain can hope for in victory is to move up one place to 19th.
Georgia (12) v Belgium (29)
Centre David Kacharava wins his 105th cap to close to within three of Merab Kvirikashvili’s all-time Georgian record. Vasil Lobzhandize, the youngest-ever player to appear at a Rugby World Cup, has to settle for a place among the replacements with World Rugby U20 Championship 2017 star Gela Aprasidze preferred at scrum-half. Replacement forwards Mikheil Gachechiladze and Guram Shengelia will make their test debuts if called upon from the bench. Second-row Giorgi Nemsadze will captain the team in his home city of Kutaisi.
- Last year was the first time Georgia hadn’t won the Championship title since 2010
- Belgium escaped relegation from the second tier after beating Rugby Europe Trophy winners Portugal in a play-off
- Belgium have only scored one try against Georgia in three previous meetings, and none in the last two
- Georgia scored two converted tries in the final five minutes to win last year’s meeting in Brussels 31-6
- The senior Lelos play in Kutaisi for the first time since 2005
Due to the 18.09-point differential between themselves and Belgium, Georgia cannot improve their points tally or position this weekend. However, they could fall three places to 15th if they suffer a heavy home loss. A famous victory would result in Belgium moving up the rankings, by as many as five places to 24th if the margin of victory is more than 15 points and other results fall favourably for the Black Devils.
RUGBY EUROPE TROPHY
Portugal (24) v Netherlands (28)
Portugal coach Martim Aguair has made five changes, four personnel and one positional, from the team that brushed the Czech Republic aside, 45-12, last time out in Lisbon. Hugo Valente and Salvador Vassalo come into the pack, while Antonio Vidinha and Jose Lima form a new-look midfield. Tomas Appleton shifts to the right wing to accommodate Lima’s arrival.
Arno Macken, Sam Hoogland, Kevin Krieger and Ross Bennie Coulsen are in line to make their test debuts for the Dutch.
- The Netherlands sit top of the Trophy table after winning both their opening games, away to Moldova and Switzerland.
- Portugal beat the Czech Republic 45-12 in their only outing back in November
- Portugal have never lost at home to the Netherlands
- Portugal have won nine and drawn one of the 13 previous matches
- Last year’s fixture in Amsterdam ended 26-10 to Os Lobos.
- The Netherlands have failed to score more than one try in each of the last six fixtures
With 0.77 of a point the most they can gain, Portugal cannot move any higher than their present position of 24th. A defeat would make Os Lobos vulnerable to a significant fall in the rankings, especially if combined with victories for Belgium in the Rugby Europe Championship and for Brazil in the Americas Rugby Championship. The Netherlands would overtake Portugal in victory and could climb even higher, possibly to 24th, if other results go their way.
Ireland (4) v Italy (14)
Ireland change half their starting pack for the visit of Italy. Jack McGrath replaces Cian Healy in the front row and will start alongside Tadhg Furlong and captain Rory Best. Devin Toner and Dan Leavy come in at second row and flanker, while Jack Conan starts at number eight, with CJ Stander dropping to the bench. There is a place among the replacements for Jordan Larmour, who will make his debut if he comes off the bench.
Italy’s three changes also come exclusively in the pack. Braam Steyn is named in the back row in place of Renato Giammarioli, while Benetton pair Nicola Quaglio and Luca Bigi get the nod in the front row.
- Ireland have won 17 of their 18 Six Nations games against Italy, their solitary defeat coming in 2013 in Rome
- Ireland have not lost at home in the Six Nations since England beat them 12-6 in 2013, since then they have won nine and drawn two
- Italy have just two wins in 45 away games in the Six Nations, both those wins coming at Murrayfield
- Italy have never won in round two of the Six Nations, losing all 18 such games; only three times in that run have they managed to finish within 12 points of their opponents
- The Azzurri have lost 13 consecutive matches in the competition, the record for most losses in a row in the Six Nations is 14 (since 2000), set by themselves between 2000 and 2002
Ireland cannot climb any higher than their current position but will lose third place to Australia if they suffer a shock defeat at the hands of the Azzurri, and will only be five-hundredths of a point better off than South Africa in fifth if they lose by more than 15 points. The three points on offer for a big Italian victory would be enough to lift the visitors up two places to 12th.
England (2) v Wales (6)
Danny Care comes in for the injured Ben Youngs to become England’s most-capped scrum-half, while the only other change to the starting line-up from the team that defeated Italy in Rome last Sunday is at outside centre where Jonathan Joseph replaces Ben Te’o. Richard Wigglesworth provides the scrum-half cover.
Wales boss Warren Gatland gives a vote of confidence to the XV that trumped Scotland by naming an unchanged line-up. There is just one change among the replacements with British and Irish Lion George North returning to wear the No.23 jersey.
- England have won their last 14 home games in the Six Nations; however, the last side to win at Twickenham in the competition was Wales, back in 2012
- Overall England are also on a 14-game winning run at home, last losing on their own patch to Australia and Wales at RWC 2015
- Five of the last seven Six Nations matches between these sides have been decided by the margin of a converted try or less
- Wales have won just one of their last five away games in the Six Nations, with that win coming against Italy last year
- Eddie Jones has won six of eight games as a coach against Wales, winning two of three with the Wallabies, one of two with Japan and all three with England
England are unable to improve their rating and close the gap on the world’s number one side New Zealand. Wales, however, stand to gain between two to three points, depending on the margin of victory. A win of over 15 points would be enough to lift them above both Australia and a beaten Ireland into third, their highest position since 5 October, 2015 when the euphoria of their World Cup victory over England was still very much fresh in the memory.
Scotland (7) v France (10)
Coach Gregor Townsend has made six changes to the starting Scotland side for Sunday’s match against France at a sold-out Murrayfield. The changes are split evenly between the backs and forwards with scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, winger Sean Maitland and centre Pete Horne promoted from the bench into the backline, while second-row Grant Gilchrist and back-row Ryan Wilson do likewise into the pack. Tight-head prop Simon Berghan is the only starting addition from outside of last weekend’s match-day 23, becoming available after serving a six-week suspension.
Fly-half Lionel Beauxis returns to the French squad almost six years after his last test in place of the injured Matthieu Jalibert in one of three changes to the starting line-up from the last-gasp loss to Ireland. Marco Tauleigne, who made his debut against Ireland, replaces the injured Kevin Gourdon at number eight, while Geoffrey Doumayrou takes over from Henry Chavancy at inside centre.
- Scotland have won seven of their last eight home games in all competitions, the only side to beat them in that period being New Zealand
- Scotland’s last three home wins over France in the Six Nations have come 10 years apart, 1996, 2006 and most recently in 2016, their last meeting at Murrayfield
- Games between these sides in the Six Nations have seen an average of just 37 aggregate points scored per game, making it the lowest scoring fixture in the competition’s history
- France’s only two wins in their last eight away games in the Six Nations have come against Italy, reaching 20 points in just one of those six defeats
- France coach Jacques Brunel oversaw two Italian victories over Scotland, including a 22-19 win at Murrayfield in 2015
Scotland cannot make up the ground they lost in defeat to Wales last week but will fall to eighth if beaten by more than 15 points with Les Bleus climbing three places, if such a scenario pans out, to seventh. Having fallen to their lowest ever ranking last week the good news for French fans is that it’s not possible for them to drop any further.
AMERICAS RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
Brazil (25) v Uruguay (18)
Uruguay coach Esteban Meneses has made seven changes to the side that secured RWC 2019 qualification in Montevideo last week. In the pack, the front row remains the same but second row sees a change with 76-cap veteran Diego Magno recalled to partner Ignacio Dotti, one of the try scorers in the 32-31 win over Canada. Rodolfo Garese is chosen at openside in place of Franco Lamanna.
Robert Tenorio is promoted to the right wing from the bench in the only change to the Brazil team that edged Chile 16-14 in Santiago seven days ago.
- Brazil has not beaten Uruguay since 1964, a 20-game winless run
- Uruguay have won their last 12 tests
- Brazil have won their last four matches at Estadio do Pacaembu in Sao Paulo – against Paraguay, Portugal, Canada and Chile
Brazil rose to their highest ever position of 25th with last week’s win over Chile and further progress is possible this weekend. A win by more than 15 points would lift Os Tupis up two more places to 23rd, to the detriment of Portugal and Namibia, while a smaller margin of victory would still result in a gain of one place even if Os Lobos beat the Netherlands. A comprehensive victory for Uruguay would take them above the USA into 17th place regardless of how the Eagles fare against Canada.
USA (17) v Canada (21)
Dylan Audsley is set to make his test debut for the Eagles at outside centre, while Will Hooley and Josh Whippy will make their debuts if they step off the bench. Captain Blaine Scully leads the side in his hometown of Sacramento as the defending champions look to build on their defeat of Argentina XV in California last weekend.
Canada’s record try-scorer DTH van der Merwe will win his 50th cap as part of a rejigged back three with Brock Staller moving to the right wing to allow Patrick Parfrey to start at full-back. Coach Kingsley Jones has made five further changes from last weekend’s loss to Uruguay with prop Djustice Sears-Duru, second-rows Josh Larson and Kyle Baillie, the uncapped number eight Luke Campbell and outside centre Guiseppe du Toit all coming into the starting line-up.
- USA scored 50 points or more against Canada twice in 2017. The other game between the two was drawn 28-28
- The Eagles beat Canada 80-44 on aggregate to claim the Americas 1 place at RWC 2019
- USA are unbeaten in their last seven meetings with Canada, winning six and drawing one
- Canada have only won two of their last 13 tests since the start of last year’s Americas Rugby Championship
- Canada still have a vastly superior head to head record, winning 38 of the 58 tests between the two sides
USA can only move up the rankings if they win by more than 15 points and Romania lose by a similar margin at home to Germany. In those circumstances, the Eagles would climb one place to 16th. Canada will move back into the world’s top 20 at Spain’s expense if they win well in California and Los Leones fail to beat Russia in Krasnodar.