The rugby world is set to reunite this July, with World Rugby’s Test window bringing the northern and southern hemispheres together across the globe.
Just under 15 months out from the start of next year’s Rugby World Cup, the next three weeks will offer some key insights into how each of the game’s big guns are tracking on the road to France.
The optimism has perhaps never been higher up north, but how many series wins might the Six Nations heavyweights claim down south?
Read on as we analyse each nation inside World Rugby’s top 10.
World Rugby Ranking: 8
Tests: Scotland: July 2 (Jujuy), July 9 (Salta), July 16 (Santiago Del Estero)
It’s the start of a new era at Los Pumas, with former Wallabies boss Michael Cheika assuming the head coach role from Mario Ledesma through to next year’s World Cup. It is a surprising turn of events for Cheika who once said he could never coach against Australia – he will now do so in August – but nothing should really shock when it comes to the Australian, who is also coach of the Lebanon rugby league team and earlier this year was NEC Green Rockets’ director of rugby.
On the face of it, Cheika and the Pumas appears to be a perfect match. The passionate, if volatile, Australian should pair well with the South American emotion, while Cheika has also previously been involved with the team in a consultancy role.
Pablo Matera will meanwhile bring his championship-winning experience with the Crusaders into camp, which should be invaluable for a team that last year dropped all six of its Rugby Championship Tests. Veteran Agustin Creevy returns to the squad after two years in exile, while this series serves as a return to home soil for the Pumas themselves after they played all of their Test rugby on the road the past two years.
The days of isolation training and quarantine bubbles behind them, Argentina should relish not only the comforts of home, but also the freedom in which to prepare.
World Rugby Ranking: 6
Tests: England: July 2 (Perth), July 9 (Brisbane), July 16 (Sydney)
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie enters his third season in charge, acknowledging that any grace period or COVID-generated compensations are officially over. Rennie’s job might not be on the line this July – it is safe through to the World Cup – but it’s high time his team found the consistency it needs to truly rejoin the game’s elite.
Three straight defeats to conclude last year’s spring tour reflected just that, but the Wallabies were without both Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi for those Tests – a situation that has been rectified by the updated Giteau Law. The duo is expected to recombine at 10-12 in the opening Test and beyond.
While Australia has a settled midfield, rising starts in Angus Bell and Darcy Swain at loosehead and lock respectively, and the world-class Michael Hooper and Rob Valetini in the back-row, hooker and fullback remain troublesome positions.
Tom Banks’ decision to head overseas at the end of the year means he is likely on borrowed time in the No. 15 jersey, perhaps opening the door for Jordan Petaia in Kurtley Beale’s absence. The situation at hooker calls for either of Dave Porecki, Folau Fainga’a or Lachie Lonergan to really step up and make the position their own. Powerhouse tighthead Taniela Tupou is also under an injury cloud.
World Rugby Ranking: 5
Tests: Australia: July 2 (Perth), July 9 (Brisbane), July 16 (Sydney)
After another shaky Six Nations, England were under heavy scrutiny. A lot rests on this tour this summer, but England head Down Under with several key personnel missing with the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Alex Dombrandt, Henry Slade, George Ford, Kyle Sinckler, Sam Simmonds and Joe Launchbury all absent.
But amidst the absentees is opportunity for the fresh faces, and some returning old stalwarts. Billy Vunipola and Danny Care are both back in the England mix while Fraser Dingwall, Tommy Freeman, Guy Porter, Patrick Schickerling, Jack van Poortvliet and Jack Walker are all uncapped along with apprentice players Henry Arundell and Will Joseph. Somewhere in the midst of this is Eddie Jones’ World Cup squad for next year. Jones is relishing the chance to head back to Australia and try to emulate their 3-0 series win from back in 2016, but he knows the magnitude of the test awaiting him.
He has several issues to solve: England’s attack is still waiting to click, their defence was at times poor in the Six Nations while they are still lacking that key Tuilagi factor in midfield, so they’ll need to find an answer to the power deficit there, which is likely in the form of Billy Vunipola. They may also struggle at tight-head with Sinckler missing while Jonny May’s positive COVID test is the last thing they needed.
But there’ll also be the tantalising prospect of seeing Marcus Smith play a series of matches alongside Owen Farrell at the heart of England’s team, with Farrell expected to be relieved of the captaincy with Courtney Lawes in line for that.
World Rugby Ranking: 2
Tests: Japan: Tokyo (July 2, July 9)
The Grand Slam champions are in fine fettle and head to Japan for their two-Test series with the benefit of being able to rest several of their top players. So this will be a trip for Fabien Galthie and Raphael Ibanez where they get to really delve into their squad depth – a pool of players which has already impressed this summer in the France-dominated Barbarians team that dispatched England at Twickenham 51-22 in mid-June, despite playing more than half the match with 14 men.
The likes of Gregory Alldritt, Antoine Dupont, Romaine Ntamack, Julien Marchaud, Cyril Baille and Uini Atonio are all rested while Charles Ollivon skippers the team as he continues his comeback from injury. Despite the halves already looking settled for the World Cup, Baptiste Couilloud and Nolan Le Garrec are given a shot to state their claim while there are familiar faces in Matthieu Jalibert, Melvyn Jaminet, Damien Penaud, and Virimi Vakatawa all featuring.
France’s plans were disrupted late on with their brilliant defence coach Shaun Edwards and attack coach Laurent Labit testing positive for COVID, alongside players Max Spring and Aymeric Luc so their arrival was delayed into Japan.
World Rugby Ranking: 10
Tests: France: Tokyo (July 2, July 9)
The Brave Blossoms have already opened their mid-year international campaign, defeating Uruguay in back-to-back Tests over the past fortnight. But the challenge increases significantly with France hitting Tokyo, even if the tourists have again left a number of frontline stars at home just as they did against Australia last year.
Well into his second World Cup cycle at the helm of Japan, coach Jamie Joseph has both a settled core of players and some fresh blood at his disposal. But he is playing catch-up in terms of their on-field development, with the Brave Blossoms having played only sparing Tests the past two years while the Top League was also curtailed. Thankfully the reconstructed League One went off largely without a hitch this year.
These two Tests against France should be open encounters, on hard, fast tracks in what is the Japanese summer. That will suit the Brave Blossoms’ up-tempo style, but it is at the set-piece and at the collision where they need to find greater authority in the run to next year’s global showpiece.
World Rugby Ranking: 4
Tests: New Zealand: July 2 (Auckland), July 9 (Dunedin), July 16 (Wellington)
Tour matches: Maori All Blacks: June 29 (Hamilton), July 12 (Wellington)
History beckons for Ireland this summer as they should finally end their wait for a win on New Zealand soil – the closest they’ve come was a three-point defeat back in 2012. They head there with pretty much a fully-fit expanded squad, with Ireland also facing two matches against the Maori All Blacks, alongside their three-Test series with the All Blacks.
Ireland are without Andrew Conway and Ronan Kelleher through injury, but they have that strong Leinster contingent at their core and have the familiarity of Johnny Sexton captaining the team. There are five uncapped players in the group travelling to the southern hemisphere with Ciaran Frawley, Joe McCarthy, Jimmy O’Brien (all Leinster), Jeremy Loughman (Munster) and Cian Prendergast (Connacht) included and they’ll mix in with Cian Healy, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw who all toured with the British & Irish Lions on their series against the All Blacks in 2017.
The Leinster contingent will be wounded after losing both the Champions Cup final and the URC semifinals, but Andy Farrell has already laid out the expectations for the group. “This is the start of our Rugby World Cup campaign,” Farrell said, and Ireland will be looking to build on their promising Six Nations campaign which saw them take the Triple Crown.
World Rugby Ranking: 3
Tests: Ireland: Tests: July 2 (Auckland), July 9 (Dunedin), July 16 (Wellington)
For so long New Zealand had been one of the least affected COVID nations on the planet, only for the virus to sweep through its Super Rugby teams at the start of the season – and now hit the All Blacks on the eve of this huge series with Ireland.
Already this week David Havili, Jack Goodhue and Will Jordan have been ruled out, the backline trio now isolating as are head coach Ian Foster and his assistants John Plumtree and Scott McLeod. It is hardly the ideal preparation for a series Ireland are bullish about winning, a triumph that would be their first in New Zealand.
Richie Mo’unga’s stomach bug, meanwhile, means the selectors have likely been spared a tough call at No. 10, although Beauden Barrett had seemingly emerged as the popular pick at fly-half.
But the All Blacks have big decisions to make elsewhere, particularly at No. 12, while the composition of their back-row is still uncertain. Can Sam Cane and Ardie Savea play together? Do the All Blacks need a genuine No. 8 like Hoskins Sotutu or the uncapped Pita-Gus Sowakula? These are questions Foster must find an answer to sooner rather than later.
Of the six uncapped players named in New Zealand’s 36-man squad, you’ll want to keep an eye out for Folau Fakatava. The Tongan-born No. 9 is serving the dream apprenticeship under Aaron Smith at the Highlanders – and has superstar written all over him.
World Rugby Ranking: 7
Tests: Argentina: July 2 (San Salvador), July 9 (Salta), July 16 (Santiago Del Estero)
The squad began their tour of South America with their Scotland ‘A’ side recording a XX win over Chile in Santiago on Saturday, but the real focus is the three-Test series against Argentina. Townsend will cut some of the 40-man group ahead of the three matches against the Pumas and again ahead of the final Test. It’s a much-changed line-up that travels there to face Michael Cheika’s side with Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell both rested by Gregor Townsend.
The Scotland boss said they’re “getting a break” ahead of a big 14 months up ahead, while Jamie Ritchie misses out through injury. The two senior backs were involved in a disciplinary issue for the national team during the last Six Nations in a campaign that saw them finish a disappointing fourth.
So this is a tour Townsend will use to kickstart some momentum to lead them into the World Cup run-in. Grant Gilchrist captains the side in a group which includes six uncapped players (Ben Muncaster, Glen Young and Matt Currie from Edinburgh, London Irish’s Kyle Rowe and Glasgow Warriors duo Murphy Walker and Ollie Smith). The likes of Scott Cummings, Rory Darge and Matt Fagerson all return after injury with George Horne and Damian Hoyland also back in the mix.
World Rugby Ranking: 1
Tests: Wales: July 2 (Pretoria), July 9 (Bloemfontein), July 16 (Cape Town)
After all the off-field distractions of the past 12 months, the Springboks will be pleased to again let their rugby do the talking – and to do so in full stadiums in front of a rugby public that has been starved of Test action amid the pandemic. The British & Irish Lions series was, well, flat, without them.
Anything other than a clean sweep of Wales over the next three weeks will be deemed a failure for the world champions, despite the fact they finished third in the Rugby Championship and were then beaten by England in November. Coach Jacques Nienaber has however expressed the need for the Boks to “transform and develop” their game on “different levels”.
The big in for South Africa this July was to be Pieter-Steph du Toit, only for the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year to suffer a shoulder injury at training after he was barely sighted in the green jersey last season. Just what direction the Springboks head in the back-row alongside skipper Siya Kolisi is further complicated by the absence of the injured Duane Vermeulen. But this may prove a timely juncture given the doubts over whether Vermeulen will make next year’s World Cup; in the likes of Jasper Wiese, Kwagga Smith, Franco Mostert, Rynhardt Elstadt, and the uncapped Elrigh Louw, South Africa certainly have options.
The backline, meanwhile, again takes on a familiar look with the return of pocket dynamite Cheslin Kolbe on the wing. Nienaber and the ever-present Rassie Erasmus may want to get a look at English Premiership Player of the Year Andre Esterhuizen at some point, at least to glimpse the point-of-difference he can provide at No. 12.
World Rugby Ranking: 9
Tests: South Africa: July 2 (Pretoria), July 9 (Bloemfontein), July 16 (Cape Town)
Wales head to South Africa as underdogs. That’s what happens when your last match was a defeat at home to Italy, you’ve finished fifth in the Six Nations and you’re up against the reigning world champions on their own patch. And then there are two games at altitude and you see a Wales squad without Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty, Ken Owens and Leigh Halfpenny and, well, ‘gulp’.
However, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt about this group is never write them off. Very few expected them to win the 2021 Six Nations, and they flew under the radar to do that. “I think we work best when we are actually underdogs,” lock Adam Beard said. “Going into this tour, nobody has given us any sort of chance to go out there and get a victory against South Africa.
As a Welsh nation, we thrive under those circumstances.” And they’re also welcoming back a host of experience for the tour with Dan Lydiate and George North both back in the mix while the great Alun Wyn Jones is included, with the veteran lock only having featured once for Wales since October.
Despite Jones’ presence, it’ll be Dan Biggar captaining the team in South Africa. Also within the 34-man party is promising young hooker Dewi Lake who could emerge as a real force while uncapped duo James Ratti and Tommy Reffell are also included. There are still positions for Wayne Pivac to sort like blindside where it has been a revolving door, so Lydiate could once again be the answer there.