Planet Rugby’s World Rankings for 2021

Date published: November 25 2021 - James While

With international rugby taking a well-earned breather after the Autumn Nations Series, here’s the Planet Rugby world rankings for the year ending 2021.

World Rugby’s list is somewhat different to our features writer James While’s run-down, so without further ado here comes our 10 sides in ascending order.

South Africa: Planet Rugby Ranking 1

If push came to shove, nobody in their right mind would bet against the mighty world champions in any form of knockout competition match. Yes, they might be jaded after 18 weeks on the road and it’s undeniable that without Faf de Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe and Pieter-Steph du Toit that they struggle to convert their power into points, but in the key aspects of set-piece and breakdown domination they are peerless.

The loss to England will sting them greatly, as will their mediocre Rugby Championship performance, but right here and right now, they’re the best team in the world.

Prospects: With a litany of talent at their disposal, only their own bloody mindedness in sticking rigidly to Plan A holds them back. But that in itself creates an opportunity – one to play more expansive and attacking rugby based upon the solid platform their forwards provide. We expect to see them improving in the next 12 months as their injured players return and their pride in their world champion status will ensure consolidation at the top of the rankings.

Ireland: Planet Rugby Ranking 2

It’s almost impossible to separate Ireland with their nearest couple of challengers, but again, set-piece solidity and breakdown competition see them just nudge ahead of the chasing pack. Whilst Joey Carbery has made progress, they are however a little reliant upon the ageing Johnny Sexton to steer their ship, but, with only four professional sides in Ireland, the units in the team know each other inside out and allow consistency from club style to country. With props like Andrew Porter, Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong, they’re the only team that have a scrum close to that of South Africa, with both their lineout and breakdown good enough to take on any team in the world.

Prospects: There’s a feeling that Ireland could have plateaued; they’ve benefitted greatly from the likes of Jack Conan and co. spending time on a Lions tour, but to kick on, they need a strong showing in the Six Nations in their World Cup build-up. We see them as potential champions this season, even considering the potential banana skin of a trip to Twickenham.

France: Planet Rugby Ranking 3

Our heart was in our mouths when calling France so high in the rankings as normally any press build-up of Les Bleus results in complete failure by this fickle and emotional side. Nevertheless, the talent in French rugby right now is staggering. They possess three of the best six half-backs in the world, a vast array of back-row talent (with Charles Ollivon, their best player, still to return from his ACL injury) and a litany of attacking three quarters.

However, remarkably for France, their propping stocks are at a low – outside of Cyril Baille, the other options have failed to impress, and in the second-row, they’re a little over reliant on the massive Paul Willemse for grunt and growl. Some will mention that they lost 2-1 to Australia but are forgetting that France were missing 32 players from that trip yet still were a kick away from a series victory. Their dismantling of the All Blacks showed just what they’re capable of when the mood takes them.

Prospects: Sort out the scrum and get some emotional and technical consistency and they could be the best side in the world. It is as simple as that.

New Zealand: Planet Rugby Ranking =4

There’s very little to separate the mighty All Blacks with England right now and we are calling them in joint fourth place. Yes, New Zealand have the best win rate (80%) of 2021, but there’s a feeling that they’re still not sure what their best backline or back-row is, and that when pressured early, their defence is not in the same league as their brilliant attack.

New Zealand are behind the rest in terms of their rebuilding programme at the moment. Whilst noise exists down under with regards to their performance, we’ve been watching them long enough to know they’re the epitome of the phrase ‘form is temporary but class is permanent’.

Prospects: New Zealand have used 2021 to explore their options without fixing any selection in tablets of stone. At fly-half, they’re unsure of which of their two talents, Richie Mo’unga or Beauden Barrett, is the starter and in the 12 channel, they’ve struggled to find the right player to offer a blend of power and skill to support the two brilliant fly-halves. Nevertheless, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs and the All Blacks will regenerate and improve in 2022, of that you can be sure.

England: Planet Rugby Ranking: =4

Eddie Jones remarked, upon his own appointment, that England played diesel powered rugby. Six years on, that diesel has been swapped out for Jet-A as it’s the Roses’ backs that thrill and the props that creak.

In terms of attacking options, the backline prospects that have emerged for England over the last 12 months are quite staggering, with Freddie Steward and Marcus Smith carrying the torch of hope for their nation. Up front, the news is not so great and there’s a real weakness in the tighthead shirt, with Kyle Sinckler the only real Test quality player available.

Nevertheless, a fast and mobile pack, a world class lineout and tonnes of ambition have punctuated England’s November campaign and they’re well aware of the issues that need fixing.

Prospects: Fix the scrum and England will soar, make no mistake. One wonders if they still have self-doubts when against the best on the road, but the style they’re playing tends to create infectious confidence and their matches versus France and Ireland will define their progress in 2022.

Scotland: Planet Rugby Ranking 6

Considering their playing pool of some 38,000 registered players, Scotland are punching so far above their weight it’s ridiculous. A solid scrum anchored by British & Irish Lions with a spiky back-row led by Jamie Ritchie, a player criminally left out of the Lions squad, they play high-tempo rugby inspired by the genius of Finn Russell and finished by their brilliant back three.

Whilst consistency is an issue, Scotland have both the firepower and confidence to beat any side in the world and all they need is momentum to move right up the rankings. Their weakness is strength in depth, as evidenced by their shallow playing resources and underlined by something approaching a 48% utilisation of non-Scots born players.

Prospects: Momentum is everything for Scotland now. If they keep their key men fit and get on a winning streak, they are capable of surprising any side in the world. They score tries, they’re powerful enough but most of all, they’re a likable side and a team many neutrals respect for their running style and giant killing exploits. We expect great things of them in 2022.

Australia: Planet Rugby Ranking 7

With a fit Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi, Australia are capable of a top two ranking spot, make no mistake about that. Their superpower in the Rugby Championship was the improvement of their scrum, finally providing the platform for their brilliant backs to thrive upon, but injury and unavailability means we failed to see the very best of them in their November tour and the sending off of the otherwise outstanding Rob Valetini cost them a Test in Cardiff that they could ill afford to lose.

Player depth is their perennial issue and their back-up props and midfield are not in the same class of their starting options when fit. There’s also a feeling that their best players are growing old together and that there are not the quality of replacement coming through. Notwithstanding this, their lineout maul defence is the best in the business and on their day, they can beat anyone, as the Rugby Championship showed us.

Prospects: A real curate egg of a side, fitness is the key to their progression. 2022 might be a holding job for them as they build their veterans to a career swansong in France the following year but underestimate them at your peril; they can and will beat any team that takes them for granted.

Fiji: Planet Rugby Ranking 8

Add Semi Radradra to the team that toured the Northern Hemisphere in November and you have a side capable of unlocking any defence in the world. People forget they play very few home fixtures, that their team spend less time together than any other of the top 10 or 11 nations, yet they supply a conveyor belt of talent to the rugby world that is peerless in quality and unmatched in effectiveness.

Yes, they lost heavily twice away to New Zealand in July, but no more heavily than Wales did at home against the same team and they still managed to run in some scintillating tries. Give them the audience, facilities and most importantly, the home fixtures they so richly deserve and they will climb these rankings with the agility and speed that characterise their own playing style.

Prospects: Sadly, at the time of writing, there are precisely zero XVs fixtures in 2022 as Fiji have invested all of their development resources into their Sevens programme and into the forthcoming Fijian Drua in Super Rugby Pacific. It’s a crying shame that their talent is not getting the funding, audience and commercial respect they deserve, although World Rugby confirmed to Planet Rugby that they will have some XVs fixtures after current schedule issues are finalised.

If they played 10 Tests a year and five at home, their prospects are ridiculous considering the size of their nation, but right now, this is as high as they can get without that support.

Wales: Planet Rugby Ranking 9

Some might find this ranking a little pessimistic given how hard Wales pushed South Africa and considering they beat Australia. But for all the anticipated fire of the Dragon, it’s more about huff and puff these days, with a reliance upon an incredible run of good fortune over referees’ decisions and opposition indiscretion. Wales will argue it’s their pressure that creates cards, but any good rugby analyst will tell you that their fortuitous run has been built upon new law introductions and a series of one-off incidents that they cannot rely upon for the future.

Worryingly, Wales have little of a scrum platform to work off, with a few props that fail to show up in big games and others that seemingly cannot remain legal for the duration. But most of all they have an injury list that would make most sides wince – a list that is defined by quality of player as much as quantity. Only when the likes of Justin Tipuric, George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Josh Navidi are back can we judge Wales fairly, but right here and right now, they’re a poor relation to the rest of the Tier One nations.

Prospects: Wales are without doubt the most unpredictable side in our top 10. They look a shambles, they’ll stutter and flutter against a Tier Two side, then suddenly, they manage, through grit and good fortune, to beat the best teams around.

Their issue is age; their team, like Australia, are growing old together, and the new players, with the exceptions of Taine Basham and Louis Rees-Zammit, are not putting in the performances that are needed to consistently trouble the best. We know we’ve somewhat written them off here but fear not; it’s an unwritten rule of rugby punditry that every time you do that, they win a Grand Slam, so expect an impressive season if they can get their stars fit enough.

Argentina: Planet Rugby Ranking 10

Separating Georgia, Argentina and Japan is no easy task, and importantly, is a credit to how Georgia have sprung up on the rails to challenge the rugby world. Nevertheless, Los Pumas have a depth of player that the other two nations don’t have, and particularly in the back five of the pack, where the likes of Guido Petti, Marcos Kremer and Pablo Matera would get into any side in the world.

There’s a feeling that they’ve gone backwards this season, but they’ve spent the last six months on the road, away from the grassy plains and rich steaks of their homeland and it’s slightly disingenuous to be harsh upon them when they’ve not played a game in their own backyard.

Prospects: Argentina are in limbo. They’ve not kicked on from the promise they showed in their early Rugby Championship years, they are haemorrhaging penalties and cards of all hues and they look a side without direction or discipline. What we know is that they have the quality of player to eradicate this, so we can only assume something is not quite right behind the scenes.

Whether this is a coaching issue, or perhaps something caused by those long months on the road, we cannot say. But unless Argentina identify this and improve, they might well become the whipping boys of Tier One rugby and get overtaken by some of their doughty challengers.