The Rugby World Cup features twenty teams in a quadrennial battle for global supremacy, the ninth instalment scheduled for Japan next year, but don’t expect too many surprises from an event which almost invariably goes according to the script.
Firstly, more or less the same teams are showing up again and again. The only change to the 2015 lineup was Uruguay for Russia, in 2011 it was Russia for Portugal, and in 2007 Portugal for Uruguay. That’s it. One new team per tournament, and not a solitary debutante in 2015.
The top 12 teams don’t even have to qualify. This has been a steadily decreasing process since the turn of the century, in fact. It reached its apogee in the late nineties when all but the previous tournament’s top three teams were required to play qualifying matches. But after finishing fourth in 1999, perennial giants New Zealand baulked at the indignation, and it’s been all downhill from there.
The World Cup proper is mind-numbingly predictable
At least nine times out of ten you know who is going to win. In 2003 there was only one upset in 48 games, for instance (Australia beating New Zealand in the semi-finals). It’s true that the last World Cup witnessed perhaps the biggest surprise in international rugby history when Japan stunned South Africa. However, this was one of just a handful of surprises at the event – and certainly the only major one.
The elite teams will dominate the knock-out stages as usual. New Zealand has not only won the World Cup three times (including the last two), it has reached seven semi-finals from eight tournaments. South Africa and Australia, both two-time champions, generally feature at the business end of the competition as well.
These do not allow for equal scheduling and have drawn complaints from non-elite teams. These teams feel they are being disadvantaged by shorter breaks between fixtures, which is true. They also make for protracted group stages, and perhaps one too many games for the weaker teams, who tend to be well out of it by the fourth.
An expanded, 24-team format, based on the 1986 – 1994 FIFA World Cups, would go some way toward remedying these problems. Aside from creating four more qualifying berths, the four-team pools would allow for equal scheduling and shift the emphasis squarely onto the more competitive and enthralling knock-out rounds. These, in turn, would become a more random affair with double the number of scenarios possible.
A 24-team tournament would also involve four more fixtures than the current 48-game model, but with its condensed group stages and increased fixtures per round, it could be completed in a slightly short time-frame.
Development of rugby
Of course, any such expansion should come with a commitment to developing more of the fringe third tier nations, who have practically no contact with the elite teams in between World Cups. The World’s top 10 nations play in two major annual championships – Europe’s Six Nations and the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship. These are both closed-shop. There is no promotion-relegation. The only contact they have with the remaining teams between World Cups is the occasional friendly.
Not one of them has ever visited Georgia, for instance; an up-and-coming rugby nation currently ranked 12th in the world. Fiji is ranked even higher than that, 10th, but rarely hosts internationals against the elite teams. This, of course, places so-called second and third tier teams at a major disadvantage when the World Cup does come around.
Six Nations teams touring the Southern Hemisphere could perhaps make a regular habit of playing stop-off Tests. These Tests could be against the likes of Uruguay, Brazil and Chile en route to Argentina. Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya en route to South Africa. And the Pacific Islands either en route to New Zealand and Australia or in those countries themselves. Similarly, SANZAAR teams could play stop-off Tests against ENC first division teams during the Autumn tours.
Repeating host nations
France has been somewhat controversially named the host of the tenth Rugby World Cup in 2023. This, ahead of South Africa who had received the international governing body’s endorsement. France were hosts as recently as 2007 and had been involved as co-host twice before that. Wales have played a part in staging four tournaments (half of them so far). England and Scotland three each.
South Africa hosted a magnificent World Cup back in 1995, Nelson Mandela handing over the trophy in what has gone down as one of sports iconic moments (and the basis for a Clint Eastwood movie). But four times in succession the African nation has bid to stage it again to no avail.
At the very least there ought to be a 20-year stand-down for any nation which has hosted the tournament. Be that alone or as a joint venture.
The World Cup is the game’s showpiece event, but its potential for promoting the sport internationally is restricted. Certainly, as long as one small corner of the globe continues to stage every second edition – as Britain and France have since its inception.
Author: Quentin Poulsen
I am a former New Zealand sports writer and founder of the Wellington American football competition, which ran from the 1990s until the 2010s. I traveled to Spain to teach at the turn of the century, and have been in Turkey since 2005. During the past several years I have taken a keen interest in third tier rugby, watching countless games via live streaming.