Lopsided QFs in Rugby World Cup highlight absurdity of early draw for pool stage
The absurdity of the decision to stage the draw for the pool stage of the Rugby World Cup three years out from the tournament will really hit home this week.
The quarterfinals are upon us — for many casual observers this is where the World Cup really begins — and that means arguably the best 48 hours the sport can offer.
Look at the weekend schedule for the last eight, though, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for the two teams out of Ireland, France, New Zealand and South Africa — comfortably the four leading rugby nations in the world — whose Rugby World Cup hopes will be over by Sunday night.
On Saturday, it’s No. 7-ranked Wales vs. No. 9-ranked Argentina followed by No. 1-ranked Ireland vs. No. 4-ranked New Zealand.
On Sunday, it’s No. 6-ranked England vs. No. 8-ranked Fiji followed by No. 2-ranked France vs. No. 3-ranked South Africa.
Why, many will ask, are the best four teams in the world facing each other in the quarterfinals rather than the semifinals?
Well, it comes back to World Rugby’s decision to hold the pool-stage draw on Dec. 14, 2020. But the rankings were very different then to how they are now. Back then, England and Wales were coming off semifinal appearances in the 2019 Rugby World Cup — England got to the final, losing to the Springboks — so were in the top four, and therefore top seeds in the draw.
England and Wales have slipped down the rankings since and been replaced by Ireland and France.
The draw was made so long ago so the French tournament organizers could get the buzz started on ticket sales before locals had a chance to buy tickets for the 2024 Paris Olympics. World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin accepted this year that the method was “outdated” and would be changed for future World Cups.
“I understand the frustrations of coaches and players,” he said in May.
Not everyone is unhappy, however.
The likes of England and Wales, who will head into the semifinals as favorites in their matches, are benefitting greatly from the lopsided nature of the draw. Both looked in desperate shape before the Rugby World Cup, yet could reach the semifinals without having to play any of the world’s top five.
“The way the draw was made three years ago, it turned out a bit unfair,” Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton said, somewhat diplomatically. “It is the hand that we were dealt.”
Injuries have already wiped out a number of big names before and during this World Cup — think France’s Romain Ntamack, South Africa’s Malcolm Marx and England’s Anthony Watson — and they continue to cause havoc.
For their match against the All Blacks, Ireland has concerns over the fitness of wingers Mack Hansen (calf) and James Lowe (eye) and lock James Ryan (wrist). Wales will be without irreplaceable No. 8 Taulupe Faletau (broken arm) for its quarterfinal against Argentina, for whom star flanker Pablo Matera could be missing with a hamstring injury.
Then there’s France star Antoine Dupont, who appears to be touch and go to return for the match against the Springboks after his facial fracture.
Unsurprisingly, Portugal, Chile and Japan are heading home after the pool stage. They’ll be missed.
Portugal, in particular, has illuminated the tournament with its attacking rugby and finally got its first ever win in the tournament by beating Fiji in a thriller on Sunday.
Chile’s fans had a party in their first Rugby World Cup. Japan’s spirit never died.
It’s just a shame these nations will barely be seen again by many until the next World Cup, given their lack of exposure to the tier one rugby nations.
The Irish are looking to tie the record — held jointly by New Zealand and England — for the longest run of victories by a tier one nation. They are on 17 in a row ahead of their meeting with New Zealand, which lost a home series to Ireland last year for the first time.
Also, countries from the northern hemisphere — France, Ireland, Wales and England — won each of the four pools. That’s never happened before.
SIX NATIONS REVAMP
The latest lackluster effort from Italy and the performances of Portugal, in particular, is sure to revive calls for a shake-up of the Six Nations to allow for emerging countries to get a chance.
Italy, which has never reached the World Cup quarterfinals and conceded a combined 156 points to New Zealand and France in the pool stage, has finished last in the Six Nations in its last eight editions — winning just once in that time.
The likes of Georgia, Romania and now Portugal rightly must wonder what it needs to do to get a shot at France, Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland in the Six Nations.
Expect any calls to fall on deaf ears.
The Six Nations Council, which oversees the privately run competition, is happy with its current set-up, seeing Italy — which joined an expanded tournament in 2000 — as a bigger cash cow than any prospective replacement.
In 2017, then-Six Nations CEO John Feehan said it would need “10 or 15 years” before a convincing argument for change is made, and that it would need agreement from all six competing nations — therefore, including Italy — to bring about reform.
It’s a cosy club and it’s likely not for changing.