World Cup format is flawed

MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, says the World Cup needs to be revamped so that the most consistent team is rewarded.

It says something for the consistency of the All Blacks that we only seem to remember the games they lose. Unfortunately it says as much for the Springboks in their great rivalry with the New Zealanders that we can remember all the games the South Africans win.

The Rugby World Cup, introduced in 1987, has changed the way results are viewed and it has also encouraged mediocrity in between World Cups. Success is defined by who wins a competition played once every four years and the commercial highlight of professional rugby is a seven-week competition, in which the three play-off rounds produce the only strength versus strength match-ups.

Statistically, no sports team in the world (regardless of the code) has consistently excelled like the All Blacks, and no team can boast winning three from four games in over 100 years against all comers. The All Blacks, since professionalism of the sport in 1996, play the Springboks and Australia on average three times a year home and away, yet they still win 60% of the match-ups.

The consistency in New Zealand’s rugby is reflected in 10 Tri-Nations trophy wins in the past 15 years, three Grand Slam triumphs in three attempts over five years and 13 wins in 22 visits to South Africa. The Boks, in the same period, have won three Tri-Nations championships, no Grand Slams and three in 21 Tests in New Zealand.

The All Blacks in the past eight years have also won 42 from 44 matches against northern hemisphere opposition, but lost to France in a one-off at the 1999 and 2007 World Cups and because of this France are said to have New Zealand’s number, despite historically only winning 12 matches in 49 against the All Blacks.

Knockout competitions are cruel and they don’t always reward form or substance, but is it right that one tournament, played every four years, can render everything else in Test rugby meaningless?

In soccer I can understand the prestige of the World Cup because of the number of teams capable of winning the tournament and the quality of the match-ups from the pool stages.

I remain unconvinced that the measure of a team in rugby is who wins the World Cup every four years because the Six Nations and Tri-Nations, as respective tournaments, are more difficult to win.

Rugby only has five teams capable of winning the World Cup, and all have the ability to beat the other in a one-off situation, which is why winning the Rugby World Cup is more a lottery than it is the successful implementation of a meticulous four-year plan.

New Zealand are consistently the best team in the world, even in unsuccessful World Cup tournament years, and they have the record to back up this view. All Blacks captain Richie McCaw has played 94 Tests in the past decade and lost 10. No other captain in the history of the game has achieved this success over a 10-year period, but two of those defeats have come in World Cup play-off matches, in Sydney in 2003 and Cardiff in 2007.

Does that mean the 84 wins and countless trophies count for nothing? Of course it doesn’t and that is why for the Rugby World Cup to be a true measure of who is a world champion and who is a World Cup holder based on a one-off win, the tournament needs to be revamped to a strength versus strength format, which would reward the most consistent team.

The current World Cup format means one of the top five’s tournament can be over because of 40 poor minutes in the only meaningful match they play.

This kind of format will seldom reward the best, and rugby can learn from the North American approach to sport finals in all their major sporting codes. Firstly, it takes winning consistently for a team to get to the final and secondly, once there it takes the same amount of consistency to actually be crowned champions through a best of three, five or seven series, depending on the code.

The luck of a good day and the curse of a bad one is removed from the equation because over a three-match series, for example, the winner will have needed more than good luck to be the champion.

Rugby nations, pre one-off Tests and professionalism, traditionally played a three or four Test series to determine the winner, so why can’t the game revert to strength versus strength at the World Cup?

The opening month of every Rugby World Cup has been a farce with one-sided pool contests. For the event to have greater credibility it needs greater substance.

Strength versus strength would also give meaning to every Test played in between World Cups because teams would be playing to make the top eight of a premier World Cup tournament.

In a revamped model, which makes the use of a squad of 30 essential rather than an option, the top eight teams play each other over a month period. Each team plays seven matches, two a week, and the top two in this World Cup Premier League qualify for a best of three final to be played over a 14-day period. If a team goes two up, there is no consolation third match. Whoever hosts the World Cup Premier League every four years also simultaneously hosts the World Cup Championship League for teams ranked nine to 16.

This way the game is still grown and the incentives are still there without the embarrassment of mismatches that are
a feature of rugby’s World Cup.

It would also remove the lottery element from who wins the World Cup and again force coaches and their respective administrations to honour the true meaning of Test rugby.

It may also end New Zealand’s search for World Cup glory and start South Africa’s search for year-to-year consistency.

– This first appeared in the December issue of Business Day Sport Monthly.