The fallow weeks of the Six Nations can often be an exercise in killing time until the next instalment of the northern hemisphere’s premier rugby tournament comes around.
However, take a look around the wider international spectrum and there are some intriguing fixtures that have potentially groundbreaking ramifications.
Rugby World Cup qualification heats up
Over two legs of very exciting rugby, Uruguay have become the latest team to qualify for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Los Teros put in an exceptional performance in front of 16,132 supporters at BC Place, Vancouver to come away with a 29-38 victory. They then backed this up with a 32-31 victory in Montevideo the week after, to take the tie 70-60. Canada have one final shot to qualify for 2019; the 4 team repechage tournament taking place in France this November.
Spain excel in European qualification
Moving across the Atlantic to the 2018 Rugby Europe Championship, there have been arguably, even more, groundbreaking results for the Los Leones of Spain. They firstly ousted Russia away in Krasnodar, by a score of 13-20. They went one step further this weekend, putting in a monumental performance to defeat perennial World Cup qualifier Romania in front of a boisterous crowd of over 15,000 in Madrid. This puts them in pole position to qualify as Europe 1, where they would slot into Pool A alongside Ireland, Scotland and hosts Japan. Whilst Spain’s qualification is by no means said and done, if they do qualify as Europe 1, this would lead to some hefty implications.
So what does all this mean?
If Spain qualifies as Europe 1, then one of Romania, Samoa or Canada will definitely not be competing in the 2019 World Cup. While this may be a minor disaster for the people involved from these countries, hopefully, it will act as a wake-up call to World Rugby. Back in 1995, both the USA and Fiji didn’t qualify for the then 16 nation World Cup. World Rugby reacted by expanding the 1999 tournament to 20 teams.
Is it now time to expand again?
None of the 3 countries potentially missing out seems to have become any worse since their competitive showing in RWC 2015; other teams around the world have simply gotten better.
Back in 2015, World Rugby’s CEO Brett Gosper floated the idea of expanding the Rugby World Cup in 2023. The following investigation looks into whether or not this is possible and how such a competition may work.
The Current State
There are very few people that would argue with the fact that the current Rugby World Cup works. And it works well. There are exciting pools to expose the developing nations and high drama knockout stages that appeal to many a fan. There are a lot of folks who would say, “Why fix something that isn’t broke?”. And the answer is that if rugby is to truly become a global game, more countries need to participate in the premier international competition.
If expansion is the answer, there are many different iterations as to how that expansion may take place. A balance has to be made: between a simple format and including a suitable number of teams so that the competition remains credible.
A simple format that has worked for the FIFA Football World Cup over the past few tournaments is: 32 teams, 8 groups of 4, top 2 go through to the knockout round of 16. However, there is no way that there are 32 international rugby teams capable of competing with each other.
A litmus test that can be used in each case is: how would the worst team fare against the All Blacks? The current team ranked number 32 in the world is Switzerland. At the risk of aggravating the most die-hard of Switzerland rugby supporters; New Zealand would quite simply annihilate them. A score of 150 points plus for the men in black is not beyond the realms of possibility. This would be embarrassing for all of the players involved and the game of rugby as a whole. It must not be allowed to happen at rugby’s world showcase event.
Who is good enough to compete at the top table?
So maybe a more important question is, which international teams could put up a decent showing against the best in the world? The weakest team (rankings and recent results wise) competing at the Rugby World Cup would be Namibia. If we go back to our litmus test, Namibia performed admirably versus New Zealand at the 2015 world cup, going down bravely to a score of 58 – 14.
So, are there any teams as good or better than the Namibians that currently fall outside of the World Cup qualification places? The answer is a definite yes. Both Russia and Spain defeated Namibia at the 2017 World Rugby Nations Cup. Other nations’ credentials for being competitive enough to participate in the World Cup aren’t as clear-cut. Let’s have a look at the ‘next best’ teams from each continental qualifying region.
Rugby has been kicking off in a big way in Brazil. Participation rates have swelled in the past few years, especially on the back of the national team’s participation in the Olympics Sevens tournament. Brazil men’s XVs have had some impressive results of late, having beaten the US and Canada within the past 2 years.
Recent highlights include a victory over Romania at the 2017 European Rugby Championship. However, they are currently embroiled in a standoff between their union and key financial backer Hans-Peter Wild. This has led to player strikes, resulting in heavy defeats in the 2018 Euro Championship. There is talk of a Pro 14 franchise potentially coming to their rugby capital Heidelberg in the next few years. But before any future progression takes place, they must solve issues off the field.
They have only partially replicated their 7s success in XVs. Lost narrowly to Germany last summer and lost to Russia, Hong Kong and Chile at the 2017 Cup of Nations. Would currently probably be the weakest of this group of ‘next best’ teams but a lot can change by 2023.
Asia’s next best team after Japan have a rich rugby tradition. They still remain way off the level of Japan but have had good results this year against countries of a similar standard. They triumphed against both Kenya and Chile in the 2017 November internationals.
So, who’s in?
Spain and Russia seem to be good enough, but 22 teams does not make for an easy format. On the other hand, 24 teams paves the way for 6 groups of 4. This is the same as the FIFA World Cup from 1982 to 1994.
Who gets those extra qualifying slots?
Judging purely on ability to compete, it seems to make sense to allocate the 4 extra places as follow:
- 1 to South America – This place would effectively ensure that Uruguay and Canada both qualify
- 2 to Europe – Spain and Russia have proved themselves to be just as good if not better than the lowest ranked team currently competing in the RWC
- 1 more team going through the repechage. The best of the rest from each qualifying region (e.g. the teams mentioned earlier; Brazil, Germany, Kenya, Hong Kong) could compete in a round robin tournament with the top 2 qualifying for the RWC
Is this fair? On merit, yes. Geographically, no. There is more than a whiff of a European bias here. But there is no point in throwing in extra teams that are going to be lambs to the slaughter. Any expanded World Cup must try to avoid 100 point thrashings. These allocated extra slots would give the most competitive teams available. Maybe over time – if there are geographical shifts in competitiveness – these allocations can be altered.
The Final Product
6 groups of 4, top 2 of each group plus the 4 best 3rd places go into a round of 16 knockout comp. If that’s difficult to visualise, take a look at how that might hypothetically pan out:
(Groups roughly* ordered according to world rankings)
(*The world rankings are not truly reflective of a team’s world standing, i.e. Italy are currently ranked 14th in the world but they are down there because they lose a larger proportion of their games due to playing better opposition than the teams around them in the world rankings.)
And then the potential 1st knockout stage:
An extra knockout round gives the opportunity for those countries who haven’t historically made it out of their group to be involved in exciting knockout rugby at the biggest stage of all. This also means that the eventual finalists will play 7 games, exactly the same as the current World Cup.
Imagine how much rugby could take off in a huge country like Brazil if they qualified for the World Cup. Imagine how rugby might capture the national imagination if the USA qualified for the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Expansion is key to building the global game. Whether this tournament is the right format or not is up for debate. But what is certain is that expansion would have a tremendous effect on exporting rugby to a previously uncharted territory. Does this tournament pass the litmus test? At the moment no; the All Blacks could very possibly put 100 points past the weakest team. But in 5 years at the 2023 World Cup? Given the current trajectory of rugby’s international growth, you would hope the weakest teams would put up a very decent showing.
Whether it will happen or not is entirely another question. Agustín Pichot recently stated in an interview that he is against expanding the Rugby World Cup. It remains to be seen whether the powers that be back him up. But something must be done to take rugby beyond its traditional boundaries to make it a truly global sport.
Author: George Wood
I am, and have always been, obsessed by sports. I have a particular interest in the development of rugby globally and spend hours watching, researching and reading about obscure rugby news and games from around the world.
I previously had a 6 year stint in China, where I set up an expat football team in Wuhan. I now reside in London, working as a statistical analyst, spending large amounts of my free time watching sports with my wife.
More of my rugby thoughts on Twitter @GeorgeWood9187