The Rugby World Cup is less than two years away and the November Internationals are almost upon us.

As such, the questions that all rugby fans should be asking is; how do you win a World Cup? What lessons can be learned from looking back at history? How is my team placed?

For quite some time here at The 1014 we have been asking these questions and taking a close look at previous winners. What on earth can you learn?

Well, the following stats-based discussion should point you in the right direction. Yes, there will be more metrics to look at and stats don’t tell the whole picture, but we feel this is a good starting point.

Professional Era Winners

All of the stats and analysis are based on the winners of the tournament in the professional era. Before that time, rugby was obviously rugby, but not as we know it. The game has moved on so much and continues to evolve even now that it didn’t seem right to look at the heroes from the amateur days. There is probably not a lot to draw, statistically speaking, from their results and what we see nowadays. Certainly if you are looking at World Cup cycles.

Just to refresh your memory, although it shouldn’t need refreshing, the winners in question are:

Professional Era Rugby World Cup winners.
Professional Era Rugby World Cup winners.

Rugby World Cup winners, number of caps

A common metric to determine if your team will be ready to win the World Cup is the number of caps metric. And by that, I am referring to the total number of caps the team has on game day, on Rugby World Cup final game day. The following image highlights the last five winners and makes for interesting reading.

Rugby World Cup winners. Total number of caps.
Rugby World Cup winners. Total number of caps.

You can see, that by and large, the number of caps is increasing, and increasing dramatically. I suspect the almost-1000 caps the 2015 All Blacks had is extreme, but somewhere between their 2011 number and 1000 is what a team should be aiming for. Is your team looking likely to be on target for that number? Let’s say 850 for argument’s sake?

Caps by units

Another way of looking at the number of caps is by breaking them down. Breaking them down into units.

In the image below, you will see that the only time the backline had the most average caps in a final was in 1999. Since then it has always been in the forwards. And more interesting than that, it has been the loose-trio three of the four times. What does this tell us? Does it tell us that the breakdown is all important? Does it tell us that the linking of backs and forwards is all important? Or is it just a random anomaly?

What we can be sure of is that unless the breakdown is sorted out, the loose-trio will have less of an impact, certainly in defence and competing for ruck ball than in any past World Cup. This was highlighted in a previous video where we looked at ruck percentages in The Rugby Championship.

Average matches played per unit for a Rugby World Cup win.
Average matches played per unit for a Rugby World Cup win.

Number of caps vs available caps

Another way of looking at the number of caps is relative to how many caps are actually available in a four-year World Cup cycle. The following image shows this.

Number of matches played in a Rugby World Cup cycle.
Number of matches played in a Rugby World Cup cycle.

You will see that the average caps for the 2015 winning All Blacks far outweighed the Tests the All Blacks played between the World Cup final of 2011 and the World Cup final of 2015. This points to the fact that not only do you need significant caps to win a World Cup, you need to have played for longer than the commonly thought four-year cycle.

And even if you say the 2015 team is an anomaly you still have to be playing at least 82.75% of all tests to set yourself up to win a World Cup, in a four-year cycle. Consider that for a moment.

If we are saying you need roughly 850 tests to win a World Cup that is an average of almost 57 tests each (for the starting XV). Not once in the past 20 years has a World Cup winner played that many tests between World Cups.

This combination of facts brings me on to something that has escaped a lot of people. The fact that a World Cup is not won in a four-year cycle. It takes much longer.

Rugby World Cup, the six-year cycle

I tend to think that a World Cup cycle is at least six years in length, certainly for the players.

Why do I say that? Numerous reasons, but two that stand out for me are:

1. There is a peculiar fact that all teams who have won the World Cup in the professional era have exited at a World Cup quarter-final in the previous World Cup. Yes, I realise the 2015 All Blacks didn’t, but you could argue they were, by and large, the same team that won the 2011 version.

Quarter-final exit at the previous World Cup is almost a pre-requisite.
Quarter-final exit at the previous World Cup is almost a pre-requisite.

Why does this matter I hear you say? I believe it is to do with pain-vs-expectation.

All of the teams that went out in the previous World Cup were probably expecting to make the World Cup final and from there, anything can happen. Yet they fell well short of their own expectation and the expectation of their fans. It is this pain that drives them.

I know as a Kiwi we felt it hard in 2007. Really hard. I also know that the English felt it hard in 2015. Really, really hard. This worries me. It worries me what they will be like in 2019.

2. The average number of years playing test rugby has always been more than four years. And it is tending to increase. How long have your team been playing test rugby? Will they be beyond five-and-a-half years by the time the 2019 Rugby World Cup final takes place?

Average number of years playing test rugby.
Average number of years playing Test rugby.

Interesting side notes

All but the 2011 All Blacks had at least one player who had played test rugby for more than 10 years.

Players with over 10 years Test experience.
Players with over 10 years Test experience.

All but the 1999 Wallabies had at least one player who had recently started playing test rugby. Recently being defined as less than 2 years.

Players with less than 2-years Test experience.
Players with less than 2-years Test experience.

This just goes to show that even at this relatively late stage, in all likelihood, there is going to be someone who stars on the winning side that has not even played a test yet. This youthful exuberance, coupled with the hard-edge of 10 or more years at the coal face seems to work.

If anyone out there has theories on why this works it would be great to hear them.

Dad’s Army

Lastly, you often hear the media pick up on the average age of a team.

People love nothing more than analysis that is popular with the masses, yet largely incorrect. What is the definition of Dad’s Army? Surely it is well north of 30? The England team that won the Rugby World Cup were labelled Dad’s Army, which seems absurd and disrespectful from where I am sitting.

The average age of a team is not as old as you might think.
The average age of a team is not as old as you might think.

Taking a look at the average age of a team is an interesting one and complements the fact that teams generally have at least one player with over 10 years experience. And at least one with under two years experience.

Conclusion

I appreciate that statistics only tell part of the story. There will be instances where they are totally wrong; however, there is enough of a pattern emerging to suggest that if your team isn’t hitting a few of these metrics then perhaps 2023 is a more realistic dream.

For a more detailed discussion check out our video from The Shed.

Author: Steven Prescott

I am a total sports fanatic; it is as simple as that. I love all sports, and when I’m not sitting at my computer living my dream with The 1014, I am planning adventures. The last time I did this I ended up convincing my wife to cycle 26,125km across three continents, and 22 countries with me as part of the Pedalling Prescotts.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Another excellent article Steven, brilliant stats & analysis. This has definitely made me look at things differently!

    • Thanks for the comment April-Tui. It is interesting when you start looking outside the statistical box and realise there are so many moving parts to the World Cups. Glad you enjoyed it. Cheers

  2. Hi Steven Another Great Article.
    I took your ideas and figures and applied them to a South African team that possibly could appear in 2019. I made an assumption that they would all get another 15 more caps before RWC 2019 (I am sure it could be a lot more).

    Possible Team:
    Tendai Mtawarira, Malcolm Marx, Coenrad Oosthuizen, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Siya Kolisi, Jaco Kriel, Warren Whiteley, Ross Cronje, Elton Jantjies, Courtnall Skosan, Jan Serfontein, Jesse Kriel, Dillyn Leyds, Andries Coetzee

    Average Number Caps:
    Tight Five: 62.2
    Loose Trio: 37.66
    Back line: 40.57

    Average Number Years Playing Test Rugby:
    5 Years 3 Months 5 Days

    Players Over 10 Years Experience
    Tendai Mtawarira 11 Years 4 Months 19 Days

    Average Age of Team
    28 Years 10 Months 4 Days

    So it looks like there is a lot more experience up front, and as we go back it gets a bit thin. But some areas look good others dont. Now that I have created my own spreadsheet I can update it whenever I want and get quick figures.

  3. I also have a hunch that test experience is an important factor, but I don’t think we can be sure or come up with benchmarks without comparing the numbers of the winners to those who didn’t make it. I always feel that any team’s world cup goal should be to reach the final, not to win it. For the simple reason that if you are good enough to reach the final you are good enough to win it. Quite often there is nothing between the two finalists (think 2003 and 2011 finals). Where did you get the stats? I might have a peek myself.

    • That is an excellent point Willem re: the losers of the final. And also making the final should be the goal. The stats are from a number of resources, but ESPN stats guru is a good place to start. Cheers

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