The Rugby World Cup features twenty teams in a quadrennial battle for global supremacy, the ninth installment 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.
Twenty teams is undoubtedly too many.
This not only allows third tier minnows to qualify, it makes it virtually impossible for the elite teams to miss out, and exceedingly difficult for second tier teams to do so. If they fail to qualify directly, they receive further chances through inter-continental playoffs and repechages.
The top 12 teams don’t event 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 balked at the indignation, and it’s been all downhill since then.
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, but this was one of just a handful of upsets at the event - and certainly the only major one.
The elite teams will dominate the post-group 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.
There is little contact between the elite teams and the minnows in between World Cups. The top 10 teams play in two major international 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, ninth ahead of France, 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 roll around.
Five-team groups. These do not allow for equal scheduling and have drawn complaints from non-elite teams who feel they are being disadvantaged by shorter breaks between fixtures. 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.
Repeating host nations. France has been somewhat controversially named host of the tenth Rugby World Cup in 2023, ahead of South Africa who had received the international governing body’s own endorsement.
France were hosts as recently as 2007, and had been involved as co-host twice before that. Wales has already been involved in staging four tournaments (half of them so far), and England and Scotland three times 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 sport’s 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.
Meanwhile the event returns to France and/or Britain on every second occasion, as it has done since its inception.
And one last thing, Spain need only beat Belgium in their final ENC match next week to qualify directly for Rugby World Cup IX.
Romania look destined to face ENC 2nd division leader Portugal for the right to meet Samoa in the inter-continental playoff.
The winner of the playoff, to be held home and away in June, will go to the World Cup. The loser will play in the repechage tournament, needing to beat Canada and two other teams yet to be determined.