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Rugby's Hunger Games avoided by better scheduling

Stuart Lancaster has been successful since getting sacked from England. (AP Photo/SNPA, Ross Setford)
Roar Guru
26th August, 2015
30
1120 Reads

World Rugby CEO and Australian Brett Gosper wants England to go through, Australian George Smith thinks Fiji will, while Welshman Lee Byrne has doubts about Wales going through at all.

But as the World Cup draws tantalisingly close, a stark reality is starting to hit home. For the poor denizens of Pool A, or the ‘Pool of Death’, the maths is a sobering thought, four into two does not go.

Two of Australia, Wales, Fiji or hosts England are going to be in for an embarrassing exit.

Some may say it is their own fault for the sins of their past, but really, the scheduling of the pool draw is at fault. Gosper himself came out recently and admitted that the pool allocation scheduling “did seem a long way out” and that the timing was under review, adding: “You want it to be a true reflection of the position at the time of the tournament.”

But this is not what we will have for this tournament and Gosper’s words will be of little comfort to the four teams in Pool A who find themselves with different states of pressure and momentum.

As the lowest ranked team, Fiji will feel the least pressure and this will also make them the most dangerous. They are currently ninth in the world and have been the cause of several early exits for higher ranked teams, notably Wales in 2007. However this was the last time Fiji beat one of the other Pool A teams and they will be expected to be one of the exiting teams.

As many people’s European favourites, Wales’ departure would be gut-wrenching. They were a team that fancied themselves as finalists in the last World Cup before a tragic red card struck them down. They have an exciting team, but have a really poor record against the other three competing teams, so they might find themselves struggling.

For England, a ferocious media dismantling will come if they don’t advance. As the host nation, they will rely on every piece of hyped-up and fervent support they can get out of their home crowd. The home advantage and the media narrative will raise them to places some of the team have never been. But if they lose, the descent will be equally as voracious. An early exit will be the dawn of the rugby apocalypse in the land of hope and glory.

For Australia, an early exit would erase any forward progress they thought they may have made under Michael Cheika and would consign rugby further down the list of sports that don’t meet the Australian public’s high standard of success.

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The implications are dramatic for all of the teams and as we get closer the fishbowl gets smaller. But how did four teams in the top nine in the World Rugby rankings get put in the same lopsided pool?

The easy answer is time. The draw for the 2015 pools was done on December 3, 2012 – almost three years ago when the rugby landscape was a completely different one.

Back in the days of 2012, Australia was second, England was fifth, Wales, despite winning the 2012 Six Nations, languished back in ninth place while Fiji were only 14th.

Australia had beaten Wales in seven of their last eight encounters, wildly successful Super coach Robbie Deans was at the helm, Israel Folau was on the way and a Lion series was imminent. It was exciting times for Wallaby fans.

England fans, too, could be bullish. They had won the 2011 Six Nations, come second in 2012 and had easily accounted for the All Blacks at Twickenham. Owen Farrell looked like a younger, tougher Johnny Wilkinson and they had a forward pack to do the job.

But oh what a difference 995 days can make.

England would come close to winning more Six Nations’ trophies, but would crumble under the pressure of the final game, while Australia would go through one of the most turbulent periods of any team in history, losing a Lions series, several Rugby Championships, their first game to Argentina and two coaches – one to a very public and messy scandal. They would drop as low as sixth on the rankings.

Wales would go on to win the Six Nations again in 2013, thrashing England 30-3 in the process, and would quickly climb the world rankings to sixth. Fiji would also find some success, going on to record two second place finishes and two first place finishes in the very competitive Pacific Nations Cup.

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Fast forward to today and Australia have regained some ground moving back to third while England remain in fifth, however Fiji and Wales have moved up a total of nine places in the rankings which is why Pool A suddenly toppled over on its head.

The whole situation adds to the drama of the tournament, but it’s not really fair on those teams because it is not a reflection of the modern rugby landscape. However, the solution is simple; just move the pool allocation closer to the time of the World Cup.

Having done some research, here is what the pools would have looked like if they were done on the same date in 2013 and 2014 as well as today in 2015. The simulations are based on the same random sequence from 2012.

If you’re not familiar with the pool allocation draw, the top 12 teams are put into bands of four based on their ranking at the time and are then randomly selected from each band. The final eight places go to teams that top their respective qualifying groups – Oceania, Asia, Americas, Europe and Africa.

Interestingly, had the draw been done in 2013 we would have seen the 46th ranked Cook Islanders in the mix for the first time as the number one Oceania challenger, while if the draw had been done in 2014 we would have seen 21st ranked South Korea as the number one Asian qualifier. Italy would have only just scraped in as the number two European qualifier.

2013 Pool allocation
Pool A: Australia, France, Scotland, Cook Islands, Romania
Pool B: South Africa, Ireland, Tonga, Japan, US
Pool C: New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, Italy, Namibia
Pool D: England, Wales, Argentina, Canada, Georgia

2014 Pool allocation
Pool A: Ireland, Australia, Argentina, Tonga, Romania
Pool B: South Africa, France, Fiji, South Korea, Canada
Pool C: New Zealand, Scotland, Japan, Italy, Namibia
Pool D: England, Wales, Samoa, US, Georgia

2015 Pool allocation
Pool A: Australia, England, Fiji, Cook Islands, Romania
Pool B: Ireland, France, Samoa, Japan, Canada
Pool C: New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga, Georgia, Namibia
Pool D: South Africa, Wales, Scotland, US, Italy

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So which year do you think has the most dramatic pool of death?