Monday, March 31, 2014

Argentina 2023: Opening the Expanding Market

Photo TIAR
Critics of Tier Two and Tier Three rugby commonly point out that there are a limited number of competing teams at any Rugby World Cup who can be considered title contenders. Indeed many are quick to identify past results at Rugby World Cups to support this line of reasoning and suggest that having twenty teams is four too many. But a reduction to sixteen is not a good idea. Embracement is required and will have significant benefits for the global game allowing the sport to reach new heights and have more teams capable of seriously competing at World Cups.

The IRB adhered to this perspective to the extent that in the lead-up to Rugby World Cup 2007 the global rugby body was very close to altering Rugby World Cup 2011 to make it a sixteen team tournament. The predominant reason for this was Rugby World Cup 2003 - a tournament poorly constructed which heavily favored leading nations in terms of match schedules and venues.

In 2003 Italy and Tonga were pooled with both New Zealand and Wales with both of the former nations having just fourteen days to play four Rugby World Cup matches. Wales, in contrast had seven additional days while New Zealand had eight. The remaining country was Canada which was allotted seventeen days for its four matches.

Argentina was pooled with Australia and Ireland yet somehow finished the tournament a week before Australia faced the Irish. So controversial was the match schedule that Argentina had in fact been eliminated before England had played its third pool match. Uruguay faced England on November 2 in its final match in what was a four day turn-around after facing Georgia. England, in contrast, had two additional days between its third and fourth pool matches.

Needless to say the match schedule benefited the stronger, more traditional nations at the expense of developing nations and consequently inaccurate conclusions were made which supported reducing the number of teams to sixteen. Even with Argentina taking the tournament by storm there was still plenty of coverage about the reduction to a sixteen team format and IRB chairman Syd Millar had even confirmed that the new structure was ready for sixteen to play in New Zealand.

Argentina's performance played a significant part in the IRB admitting it was wrong and that there was too much at stake. France 2007 saw not only Argentina eliminating three Six Nations teams but Fiji also eliminated Wales, Tonga almost toppled South Africa and Georgia ran Ireland to the limit. The old guard had shifted at least it had on the field. The flaws from 2003 remained but had been reduced. Adjustments for 2007 made the tournament far more even but Tier One sides continued to have more rest days.

The changes, nonetheless, made a substantial difference and enabled improvements for 2011 but the same errors remained. In 2007 Samoa and Tonga had fewer days than Pool A rivals England and South Africa, Australia and Wales had more rest days than Canada and Japan in Pool B. Portugal and Romania had less rest days than Italy, New Zealand and Scotland in Pool C while Namibia and Georgia had the least favorable schedules in Pool D which also featured Argentina, France and Ireland.

With the Tier One sides being gifted more negotiable schedules the chances of upsets were reduced which provided support for the anti-development call of reducing the World Cup to sixteen teams. Argentina and Fiji were not able to silence everybody and the unjust match scheduling continued in 2011 with Namibia being asked to do the impossible by facing South Africa and Wales on September 22 and 26. Short turn-arounds were also asked of Canada, Georgia, Japan, Romania, Russia, Samoa and the USA.

The authorities got it wrong yet again and were allowed to do so. For 2015 the same errors have been made with some appalling scheduling supported by IRB CEO Brett Gosper who calls the schedule fair for all teams. Should Japan qualify as Asia 1 it will be required to face South Africa on September 19  and Scotland on September 23 while the USA will only have three days rest between facing South Africa and the Asian side. Tonga will have four days between playing Argentina and New Zealand, while Africa 1 will have a three day turn-around as will both the Play-Off Winner and Romania.

No Tier One side will have to endure what Asia 1 will and, as such, authorities will need to prepare themselves for further questions over having twenty teams at the World Cup. As long as the pattern continues there will be lop-sided results but a return to a sixteen team tournament will not be possible. Some upsets will be possible and, also, likely occur but equally important is the evolving face of rugby as a sport taken seriously by more countries.

The driving force in the future of rugby is likely to increasingly come from countries currently ranked 11-20 rather than those ranked 1-10. They are commercially essential to the Rugby World Cup in status, market and population terms. They give the World Cup credibility that is lacking in a number of other sports, offer significantly better economic opportunity in the long term for everybody and have far larger populations.

The All Blacks are not primarily sponsored by New Zealand companies but rather American and German. New Zealand has a population of four million and is joined by other lowly populated nations in the top ten including Ireland, Samoa, Scotland and Wales. Many of these countries are also small in geographical terms as are sides currently ranked 11-20 including Fiji, Georgia, Tonga and Uruguay but the combined population of those ranked 11-20 is significantly larger than the top ten. Those ranked 11-20 have a combined population of 713 million while the top 10´s combined population is 256 million.

IRB Rankings 1-10
2014 Population
IRB Rankings 11-20
2014 Population
1 New Zealand
4.4 million
11 Fiji
903 thousand
2 South Africa
48,37 million
12 Tonga
106 thousand
3 Australia
22,5 million
13 Japan
127,1 million
4 England
53 million
14 Italy
61,68 million
5 Ireland
6,64 million
15 Canada
34.83 million
6 Wales
3,06 million
16 Georgia
4,9 million
7 France
66,2 million
17 Romania
21,72 million
8 Samoa
196 thousand
18 United States
318,89 million
9 Argentina
43 million
19 Russia
142,47 million
10 Scotland
5,29 million
20 Uruguay
3,3 million
252,65 million
715,89 million
* Populations are July 2014 estimates taken from CIA World Fact Book
* U.K. total population is 63 million.
* Ireland population includes the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
* IRB World Rankings taken from the IRB on March 31 2014.


  1. Good post. I just wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon. by loker

  2. A compelling argument mate (made all the more so with the statistics/ examples you've included throughout)... I'd love to see the world cup expand. I'm all for anything that sees this game become more popular and more inclusive... I know for a fact there are loads of fans who want to see the game expand-- whether it's including an Argentine team in Super Rugby, Georgia/Romania getting the chance to gain promotion to the six nations, the Pacific Islands being given the respect they deserve and being included in top flight tournaments/ having tier one countries tour them on a regular basis etc.

    I think blogs like this are important, as they can put pressure on the rugby administrators/authorities and help guide them to see the bigger picture. I'm sure you do already, but please do everything possible to continue getting your voice heard by those responsible for making boardroom decisions... More pressure on them= increased chance of positive change. In terms of existing rugby administrators, I've been very encouraged by leaders such as Agustin Pichot, Greg Peters (SANZAR CEO) and Steve Tew (NZRU), who really seem serious about taking steps to expand the game (e.g. getting Argentina into the Rugby Championship & pushing now for Super Rugby, the All Blacks playing games in Japan and possibly the USA this year etc.)

    Keep up the good writing articulate the thoughts of many people who strongly believe rugby should be an INCLUSIVE GAME, not a greedy money making scam for a few selfish unions & club owners.