One question that has certainly been settled in the World Cup era is that of hemispheric dominance.
Those of us of sufficient vintage will recall that this remained very much up for debate during the epoch prior to 1987, and that the accolades of the greatest teams and players were attributed as often as not to the north.
The first World Cup put paid to that, in spite of French heroics in Sydney. The All Blacks not only won the final in a canter, they had got there by crushing the Welsh in a gallop. Things were not so easy in Europe four years later, but in the end it was Australia who emerged victorious, having themselves vanquished the defending champions in the semis.
In 1995 the tournament produced an epic final between the two most successful Test teams in history, South Africa halting the New Zealand juggernaut in extra time. It was their first appearance at the event, which they hosted. Australia prevailed again in 1999 before a northern hemisphere team finally got its hands on the cup – for the first and only time – in 2003.
It took arguably the greatest northern hemisphere team ever to achieve this feat, and it did so only with a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal in extra time. But nobody could deny England were deserved winners. They lifted the trophy in the southern hemisphere, after all, having edged host nation Australia in the final.
Since then it has been all southern hemisphere with South Africa grabbing a second title and New Zealand two more. The All Blacks not only became the first three-time winners in 2015, they were also the first team to successfully defend the title.
The 2015 semi-finals were an all-southern hemisphere affair, and this occurred in Britain. In fact, if we compare match-ups between Rugby Championship teams and their Six Nations counterparts at the World Cup, the results are overwhelmingly in the former’s favour, with 54 wins to 16. Of the 24 head-to-head records, the north leads on only two counts – England and Wales against Argentina.
New Zealand have won 22 of 24 encounters with Six Nations teams, South Africa eight of nine, Australia 14 of 20 and Argentina eight of 15. Meanwhile, England have managed to win six of their 16 clashes with Rugby Championship teams, France four of 13, Wales three of 12, Ireland two of 10, Italy one of eight and Scotland none of 11.
Ireland have never reached the semi-finals, nor won a single play-off game at the tournament, having lost six quarter-finals and a repechage play-off in 1999. Italy are the lone tier-one nation never to have reached the quarter-finals, despite having played at every tournament. Fiji and Samoa have both reached that stage twice, while Canada have done so once – way back in 1991.
Canada and Japan are the only tier-two nations to have played at every World Cup. Japan had won just a single game prior to 2015 (against Zimbabwe in 1991), but became the first team to win three matches without reaching the quarter-finals when they stunned South Africa four years ago and followed up with wins over Samoa and the USA.
France, Australia and New Zealand are the only nations to have emerged from the group stages at every World Cup so far, while South Africa have done so since first qualifying in 1995. New Zealand are alone in having won all of their group stage matches, but that record will certainly come under threat when they face arch-foes South Africa in Japan.
New Zealand and France have met an incredible seven times at the World Cup (there have only been eight tournaments), while Australia has met both England and Wales six times each. There are no debutants for the second straight tournament, and in fact there have only been three since the turn of the century – Georgia, Portugal and Russia. First-time meetings will include Russia against Japan, Samoa and Scotland, Georgia against Australia, Wales and Fiji, South Africa against Italy and Argentina against the USA.
Tonga will have the most foreign-born players in their squad at this year’s World Cup with 17, followed by Japan and Samoa (16), Scotland (14) and Australia (12). Only the South Americans – Argentina and Uruguay – are 100% home-grown. New Zealand will be by far the main supplier, with a total of 43 Kiwis lining up for other national teams. Interesting birth places include Algeria, Azerbaijan, Korea, New Guinea and Germany.
Uruguay are the only tier-three team to have won a match at the tournament and have done so twice, beating Spain in 1999 and Georgia in 2003. Namibia have all the negative records with 19 straight losses, three last-place finishes, and the biggest defeat ever – 142-0 vs Australia in 2003. Their last tournament was their best, however, and produced their closest result – a one-point loss to Georgia. They will fancy their chances this year against struggling Canada, who had to qualify through the repechages.
Last but not least, Japan’s Wimpie van der Walt is perhaps an early front-runner for most unusual name of the tournament, although he faces strong competition from Samoan winger Belgium Tuatagaloa and kilted Kiwi Blade Thomson.
|Team||New Zealand (22-2)||South Africa (8-1)||Australia (14-6)||Argentina (8-7)|