Saturday, December 15, 2012

24 team Rugby World Cup?

A world class player in a Tier Three team:
Jacques Burger (Namibia)
One region that gets plenty of press on the IRB website is Africa. The continent is home to the two time World Champions, South Africa but otherwise has no other Tier One or Tier Two nations. It is a continent with many rugby playing nations and there are regularly features about a variety of them in all forms of rugby - Senior Mens, Womens, Youth and Sevens. The sport is growing in terms of participation but there is a serious question mark over the overall level as African nations are unable to deliver where it matters most - at Rugby World Cup´s. 

Of all of the IRB´s designated regions Africa is the only one to have no Tier Two team and the performances of all African nations other than South Africa has been very concerning to many rugby fans. the complete record is twenty-four Rugby World Cup matches played for zero wins, zero draws and twenty-four loses. The best performance came in 1987 when Romania defeated Zimbabwe by a single point. Otherwise all of Zimbabwe, Cote d´Ivoire and Namibia have had very difficult experiences. Although Zimbabwe did well against Romania it conceeded more than fifty points in all of its other matches in both 1987 and 1991. The Cote d´Ivoire´s best performance was an eighteen point loss against Tonga  while Namibia´s fifteen point loss against Ireland in 2007 was the closest it has come to a win. The trend is clear - Africa 1 and not the World Cup Play-Off Winner (or repercharge qualifier) has been the worst team in the Rugby World Cup every tournament in the professional era. The complete record of African Nations is as follows:

Rugby World Cup 2011
Fiji 49-25 Namibia
Samoa 49-12 Namibia
South Africa 87-0 Namibia
Wales 81-7 Namibia

Rugby World Cup 2007
Ireland 32-17 Namibia
France 87-10 Namibia
Argentina 62-3 Namibia
Georgia 30-0 Namibia

Rugby World Cup 2003
Argentina 67-14 Namibia
Ireland 64-7 Namibia
Australia 142-0 Namibia
Romania 37-7 Namibia

Rugby World Cup 1999
Fiji 67-18 Namibia
France 47-13 Namibia
Canada 72-11 Namibia

Rugby World Cup 1995
Scotland 89-0 Cote d´Ivoire
France 54-18 Ivory Coast
Tonga 29-11 Ivory Coast

Rugby World Cup 1991
Ireland 55-11 Zimbabwe
Scotland 51-12 Zimbabwe
Japan 52-8 Zimbabwe

Rugby World Cup 1987
Romania 21-20 Zimbabwe 
Scotland 60-21 Zimbabwe
France 70-12 Zimbabwe

The record of African participants firmly suggests that the teams that have been Africa 1 have not been good enough throughout the history of the Rugby World Cup. Africa therefore does not merit having an automatic spot for its top qualifier but it does. South America, in contrast does not have an automatic spot yet Uruguay has competed at two Rugby World Cup´s and has won two out of its seven matches.  In other words South America is no less deserving than Africa of having an automatic qualification spot. However simply cutting Africa 1 and replacing it with South America 1 would not be in the greater interests of the sport for several reasons. It would firstly deprive nations of something to strive for and secondly deprive amateur players an opportunitiy of performing on the global stage and consequently having the chance of being signed to play professional rugby abroad. The lack of a place for the South American qualifier has proven to have damaged Uruguayan rugby as the sport has been unable to advance since 2003 and the national team is now inferior. Namibia, despite playing at World Cup´s has shown little progress during the same period. 

This raises an important question that the IRB ought to consider seriously - expanding Rugby World Cup´s from twenty teams to more, possibly twenty-four. Currently there are eight qualification slots they are as follows: Africa 1, Americas 1, Americas 2, Asia 1, Europe 1, Europe 2, Oceania 1 and the Play-Off Winner (Repercharge). If the current system were to be retained then the top three teams from every pool would qualify for the following Rugby World Cup meaning there would be twelve slots to be decided via qualification rather than eight. Such an expansion would solve the South American problem instantly. The South American problem is common to Europe also in that there are two slots which is simply not enough. Last month Namibia (and Zimbabwe) lost at home against Spain while Uruguay (and Chile) lost at home against Portugal. Neither team has a strong chance of being Europe 1 or 2 given the strength of Georgia and Romania which is comprable to what Uruguay faces in the form of Canada and the USA. 

Both Portugal and Spain will be fighting with Russia to be Europe 3 and therefore try to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015 as the Play-Off Winner. Herein lies the logical solution that ought to be considered by the IRB - expanding to twenty-four teams at Rugby World Cup´s. The difference between the team ranked 16th and 20th is real. It is that of Tier 2 v Tier Three and currently is the USA in 16th and Russia in 20th. The difference, however, between 20th and 24th is arguably lower and currently the team ranked 24th is Namibia. Ahead of Namibia is not only Georgia, Portugal, Romania, Russia and Spain but also Belgium. Europe therefore ought to unquestionably have more qualifying slots than it does at present. The exact number should be analyzed fully but it is safe to say that Europe should have at least two more places. This would create a scenario such as Georgia, Romania and Russia all returning and being joined by possibly Spain while Portugal could also qualify through repercharge. Uruguay could also qualify as South America 1 (Americas 3) while Chile could either compete against Portugal and the runners-up in Asia, Africa and Oceania with two of them qualifying via repercharge. Or it could compete in the same scenario with Europe having an additional participant in repercharge which could be Belgium. The four added slots are maked below in blue. 

Potential Qualification Format for 24 team World Cup
  Europe 1                                                 Americas 1
  Europe 2                                                 Americas 2
  Europe 3                                                 Americas 3
Europe 4                                                 Oceania 1 
       Asia 1                                                     Repercharge 1 
      Africa 1                                                   Repercharge 2

Should a twenty-four team tournament occur then it would mean a new schedule. The twenty team format involves a total of forty-eight matches with forty of them being pool matches. If four teams were to be added there would be two possibilities: Four pools of six teams or six pools of four. Four pools would increase the total number of pool matches from forty to fifty-five and would require more time than the current format. Six pools of four would decrease the number of matches per four from ten to six  to have thirty-six games in total. They could be played in fewer days than the present format and would also enable an additional knock-out round. A possibile scenario would be for the IRB to use a system in which only the pool winner advances and the runners-up contest the remaining play-off´s slots. Given that there would be six pools a possibility would be for the top four to advance and the other two pool winners join the six runners-up to contest what would be a round of sixteen with the winners advancing to the Quarter Finals. Such a possibility would mean the total number of Rugby World Cup matches would remain at forty-eight and the tournament could theredore be played without further disruptions to the club seasons worldwide. 


  1. IRB I believe says there will be 20 team World Cups for 2015 and 2019 for sure. Only in 2023 will the format be considered to change.

    There's a number of possible formats for a 24 team competition. FIFA did it in football I think once, as 6 pools of 4, two go through from each, then 4 pools of 3, winners go to semis. 8 games in total for winners, compared to 7 currently.

    By the way, Spain most certainly do have a very good chance of finishing in the top two in Europe. After all they finished second this year of course.

    1. Thats correct. No changes until 2023.

      Europe is really competitive. Spain, like you say, could well qualify directly. That being the case then the Play-Off Winner should be Romania surely.

  2. I would suggest something different on the distribution of spots, Paul. Maybe, instead of your "2 repechage" system, I would erase repechages from the map, since they give an unfair advantage to more traditional continents. So, my system would be

    *Europe 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5;
    *Americas 1, 2 and 3
    *Africa 1
    *Asia 2
    *Oceania 1

    Meaning, I would get your 2 repechage berths and give them to Asia and Europe.