Monday, March 17, 2014

Rugby World Cup 2023: Should It Be A Twenty-Four Team Event?

Spain and Uruguay could be two of
the four additional teams 
Rugby World Cups 2015 and 2019 will be twenty team tournaments and continue under the existing format used since 2003. Will 2023 be time to bring about change to have four more teams? Argentina 2023 supporter Simon Cox wrote to the site admin requesting an article that investigates the possibility of expanding the Rugby World Cup to twenty-four teams. In doing so he also kindly offered to write an article to be posted here with my permission. In the following article Cox outlines his thoughts for an expanded Rugby World Cup. 
By Simon Cox

Teams at the lower end of the rankings backing up with less rest than their more powerful opponents at Rugby World Cup finals. It's been a bone of contention ever since the Rugby World Cup was expanded to twenty teams, and mentioned numerous times on this blog by both its author, and by guests to the blog adding their views. 
At first a five pools of four format was tried in 1999 but it was found that the teams who had to engage in an extra play-off match to take their place in the quarter-finals and then had to back up for those games struggled against their fresher opponents. Argentina, who had beaten Ireland in a titanic struggle to progress to their first ever quarter-final place, battled valiantly to come back after an early deficit against France and put themselves in a position to win the game. But alas tiredness took its toll in the last quarter of the game and one could see the players had just run out of gas.
Ever since then, the World Cup has featured a format of four pools of five teams each. The problem with this format has been fitting in an extra pool game for each team in the timeframe required while also making sure that games were played on most days to keep the event momentum going and, at the same time, ensure teams had adequate rest and recovery. Unfortunately, with the way world rugby politics work, it has been the lower-ranked teams that have borne the brunt of uneven scheduling. New Zealand 2011 CEO Martin Snedden said in his post-RWC book, A Stadium of Four Million, that the scheduling was just about the hardest part of organising the 2011 Rugby World Cup and that several drafts were made before the final one.

After loud outcries in the subsequent world cups after 1999, Things have improved for some teams at least for the next World Cup, and finally Tier One countries will be required to play mid-week games. But there are still some teams left with a harsh and unfair schedule. Japan 2019 will again be a twenty team event so there is every likelihood that some teams will get the same treatment at that World Cup.   
So what to do? Before the World Cup in 2007 it was suggested that it might be better to drop the format back to sixteen teams in 2011. Thankfully, for rugby's future, with another outcry, some good performances by the lower-ranked teams and the acknowledgment of the games leaders that it would have been a deathknell for rugby's future global ambitions, that idea was quietly dropped and should remain so.
That leaves another idea, the expansion of the event to twenty-four teams in 2023. With the Tier Two teams becoming steadily more competitive in the World Cup, we are starting to see a reduction of mis-matches in the pool stages but the extra game in the pools does mean most of the lower-ranked teams with less depth are banged up and tired coming into their last game and are less competitive if up against a top team especially if they've been stuck with tight turn-arounds. In saying that,the last world cup really only had one team that was completely un-competitive on the whole and that was Namibia. Even then the Africans did not suffer any 100 point losses as had happened at past World Cups.

Now when we add the likes of Uruguay, Spain and Portugal to the twenty who qualified last time, and who are at least as good as Namibia, if not better, that almost gives us twenty-four teams anyway. And the key thing is we still have nine years to bring along another team that can be no worse than Namibia has been. Yes, it's possible that there would be a couple of thrashings that the World Cup will not have seen since the 1995-2003 period but with time (another two or three World Cups) as with the continued progress of teams like Georgia, Canada, and Japan it will be a good bet that these teams would also improve. Namibia has not but the nation has had big impediments such as a small population and poor financial resources that do not necessarily apply to other countries. Importantly for CONSUR nations it would also guarantee them an extra direct spot in the finals whilst not impinging on the importance of having an African nation in addition to South Africa also present.  
A twenty-four team event also has a number of other advantages to it as well. Going back to pools of four, apart from being more easy to schedule games, the teams with less depth would be able to put their best teams out for three games and give it their all in every game. The current format has seen a number of weaker teams selecting virtual B teams in past World Cup fixtures against the top teams in their pool due to the schedule and their lack of depth, and effectively throwing that game, will do so again in 2015 in order to target specific games against teams they perceive to have a better chance of competing against with their best lineups. This detracts from the value and esteem of the event. 

Twenty four teams will also give more nations a realistic chance of qualifying. Right now there are very few teams that are in that position outside the top twenty. the IRB has rightly put its development efforts into closing the gap between Tier 1 and 2 but in a way it has almost ring-fenced World Cup qualifying. But it is important that the IRB gets more nations to the level of being able to qualify for the finals. It is worth asking if nations should really put in a lot of effort into progress if there is no realistic chance of a reward on the horizon. Qualifying should not be a gimme, but it should not be an impossible dream either that will forever be somewhere over the other side of the rainbow. 
With six pools of four and a second round of sixteen teams, there would be only four more games overall. So cost-wise twenty-four teams should be similar or possibly even less as eight teams would be gone after three weeks leaving only sixteen for four weeks as opposed to twenty at the moment. With only four more games overall there is no reason why extra venues would be required either.

One less week of pool play would be used to have a second round of eight knockout games meaning a much higher percentage of games would be "do-or-die" which are the ones many fans look forward to. It would give the Tier Two teams a realistic chance at knock-out rugby so they would have a good target to fight for in pool play. And who knows what could happen in a one-off game, with those teams getting stronger and having a week or so to prepare. Under such a format the length of the tournament, a key concern, would also stay the same. 
Whether or not the above idea happens for 2023, it is my opinion that the scenario is a discussion that the IRB needs to have and should be had with all unions that are planning to bid for hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup. If the UAR was to submit an alternative bid for twenty-four teams under the above format, Argentina could be the union that brings the discussion out in the open and plays a key part in both the event's and rugby's continued development and finally ends the discrimination that has taken place under the current format.  

Simon Cox is a New Zealander who sepnt a number of years living in Japan. He is a supporter of the global game and participates in forum debates surrounding Tier Two and Three rugby. Cox supports Argentina hosting Rugby World Cup 2023.


  1. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to publish this peice Paul. BTW the 6x4 pool and 16-team knock-out second round 24 team event format has been used before. It was used by FIFA at their 24 team world cups in Mexico 1986, Italy 1990 and the USA in 1994 before they went to a 32 team tournament from France 1998 on. The only other format they tried for 24 team events was a 12team second round with 4x3 team pools with second pool winners going straight to the semi-finals (ie no quarter-finals). In my opinion because of the contact nature of rugby union this format could not be done within the required time if done with the adequate rest periods for the players. The sixteen team second round is also far simpler and clear cut which is probably why FIFA changed to it for 1986 onwards. The World Basketball Champs are also a 24 team event and again have a 16 team knockout second round though the pools are 4x6 teams due to the lesser contact nature of the sport allowing more games over a certain period than rugby (eg three or four games in 7days compared to two for rugby).

    One other thing, at the moment the RWC has 8 games out of 48 for knockout games (including 3rd-4th place playoff) so 16.7% of all games whereas a twenty-four team event with six pools of four and a sixteen team knockout second round would have 16 games out of 52 as do or die, or 30.7%. That's almost double the current format.

  2. Thanks Simon. That was a great peice of writing and of course I'm in full agreement with you.

    I thought that you better know that FIFA adopted 24 team format from Spain 1982, not Mexico 1986.

  3. Sorry, yes you'll see above I said they tried a format with a different type of second round. I meant to write that was for Spain 1982 but forgot to add the 'Spain 1982" detail. In any case I remember the 1982 world cup very well because it was the first time NZ qualified for the world cup finals. I was at middle school and everyone in NZ had world cup fever!