World Cup Group Stage Review – The most competitive ever?

As we prepare for the commencement of the business end of RWC 2011, it is worth looking back at an exciting pool stage which can lay claim to being the most even ever.

This may seem a strange claim to make in light of the 8 separate 50 point thrashings handed out[1], and given the fact that we have a quarter final line up which is largely as expected.

However in the context of the rugby World Cup, which for such a large and successful sporting event has generally lacked an element of uncertainty and competitiveness, this year’s tournament can be considered a step forward, and vindication of the belief that the global standard is improving and the gap between the contenders and minnows is at least somewhat closing. 

How can we measure competitiveness?

Firstly, let’s look at the frequency of upsets.  To compare this to past tournaments, I’ll define an upset by dividing the competing nations into three broad categories:

–          The “Contenders”, all of which have made the final in the past and who generally have designs on winning the tournament (Australia, England, France, New Zealand, South Africa).

–          The “Competitors”, comprised of the remaining members of the Six Nations, the Pacific Island teams and Argentina.  These nations generally enter World Cups aiming at qualification for the knockout stages (Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Argentina).

–          The “Minnows”, made up of all the remaining nations, who enter  each World Cup aiming for competitiveness and a victory to head home with

An upset is then defined as a victory for a team over a nation residing in a superior category.  This is a narrower version of an upset than is often used, but appropriate for the purposes of having a comparable definition over the 24 year history of the tournament.

Using this definition, this pool stage has thrown up 3 upset results out of 31 matches (not counting the 9 matches between teams in the same category, where an upset was impossible), namely Ireland over Australia, Tonga over France and Canada over Tonga.  As the table below illustrates, this compares to a total of 5 upsets in the previous 6 tournaments.

It is difficult to draw a trend out of such scarce results.  However the two upsets of “Contender” nations in this pool stage, coupled with the fact that the previous such upset occurred in the 2007 tournament, points towards an increase in unpredictability in the tournament in recent editions.

The other way we can measure competitiveness is in the margin of victory.  On this measure, the 2011 pool stage has also improved.


The 28 point margin of victory is 2 points less than at the France 2007 pool stages, and is the lowest pool stage average margin since the tournament was expanded to 20 teams in 1999.

Looking at the Margin by match type, considering only the matches between teams from different categories (which make up 75% of all World Cup pool matches to date) we can see that the reduction in total average margin since France 2007 is driven by the increasing competitiveness of the “Minnows” and “Competitors” when playing the “Contenders”.

An interesting result is the steady reduction in margin since 1999 in matches between the “Contenders” (Tri nations plus England and France) and the “Competitors” (remaining Six Nations, Pacific Islands and Argentina).  As shown in red above, the margin of victory has steadily fallen from 47 points in 1999 to 15 points in 2011.  This is partially due to the increasing competiveness of Italy and Tonga, which each had 100 points put on them in a single match during the 1999 group stage.   

The advent of professionalism in Rugby, coupled with the expansion of the tournament to 20 teams in 1999, saw a larger gap open up between the top echelon of World Rugby nations and the rest.  This margin has now reduced as both the “Competitor” nations and “Minnows” are now also experiencing the benefits of professionalism.  The aim of the IRB has to be for the Rugby World Cup to become as competitive a tournament as the FIFA version.  While this dream may be still some way from realisation, recent experience indicates that the tournament is heading in the right direction. 

[1] New Zealand 83 Japan 7, South Africa 87 Namibia 0, England 67 Romania 3, Australia 67 USA 5, Ireland 62 Russia 12, Wales 81 Namibia 7, New Zealand 79 Canada 15, Wales 66 Fiji 0



Posted on October 7, 2011, in union. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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