There is a joke about economists that they have predicted four of the last three recessions.
This same scepticism can be applied to those of us, the majority of rugby supporters I would guess, who love to predict every four years who will win the Rugby World Cup.
The core truth about the difficulty of making these fearless predictions is that World Cup tournaments, like the Melbourne Cup, are not always won by the favourite, the obvious choice to win.
But, unlike the Melbourne Cup, they are never won by outsiders.
There are only four national sides that have won the World Cup: New Zealand three times, Australia and South Africa two times each and England once.
This suggests that teams in the top four of the World Rugby rankings are most likely, in practice, to win the tournament.
But which of these teams?
The tournaments invariably create a life of their own where luck, injury, refereeing, missed chances and even the bounce of the ball condemn sides to defeat and other sides to glory.
Would the Springboks have won the 2007 RWC if both the Wallabies and the All Blacks had not been defeated in their quarter-finals against the run of play?
Would England have won the 2003 RWC if the Wallabies had not defeated the All Blacks in the semi-final?
Would the All Blacks have won the 1987 RWC if the Wallabies had not been beaten dramatically by France in their Sydney semi-final?
With the proviso, therefore, that the best team in the tournament but not necessarily the best team going into a tournament wins it, here goes with some fearless predictions being made right now around the rugby world.
The most ‘scientific’ prediction I have come across is from a New Zealand economist, the Wellington-based Niven Winchester.
The following information comes from a Reuters article published on 29 August and written by Greg Stutchbury headed ‘All Blacks have a better chance of World Cup win than 2015 – economist’.
Winchester gives the 2019 All Blacks a 53.6 per cent chance of winning a third successive World Cup in Japan compared with a 47.1 per cent chance in 2015. Notice the precision of the predictions.
But notice too the lack of decisiveness in the prediction.
The model ranks England as second favourite, with a 15.5 per cent of winning a second title.
But the way the draw is framed, with the unbeaten New Zealand and England sides meeting up in the semi-final, the Winchester model predicts an All Blacks-Springboks final.
The Springboks are in the same pool as the All Blacks. They play each other in their opening match, which will ensure the tournament will begin with a mighty bang.
By playing each other in the pool round, both have a path towards a final showdown.
So Winchester’s model gives South Africa a 12.9 per cent chance of winning their third World Cup.
Wales, the current Six Nations champions, are given a 7.1 per cent chance of winning their first World Cup.
Ireland, the No. 1 ranked team in the world (for the first time), has a 5.4 per cent chance of winning the tournament.
And Australia, No. 6 ranked in the world, is given a 3.8 per cent chance, with the remaining nations all below 0.8 per cent winning total.
Winchester predicts that the pool winners will be England, New Zealand, Wales and Ireland, who will play Australia, Scotland, France and South Africa in the quarter-finals.
New Zealand and England are predicted by Winchester to play in one semi-final and Wales and South Africa in the other semi-final.
And the final prediction is that New Zealand will defeat South Africa in the final.
These are fearful rather than fearless predictions, to say the least of it. Saying a side has a 53.6 per cent chance of winning is more a fearful prediction than a fearless one.
I first came across Niven Winchester in the early days of The Roar when he contributed interesting articles predicting the outcome of coming big games that showcased the analytic method he has now developed for his website rugbyvision.com
His modelling takes into account 70 years of Test rugby results, the venues and the relative strengths of each team. This data is subjected to algorithms he has developed embraces the weather – it is forecast to be very hot in Japan – players and officials.
The system is based on the Elo-type method and named after Arpad Elo, who originally created it to rank chess players.
“In the Elo system,” Winchester explained, “ratings points are based on past performances and differences in ratings points reflect relative strength.”
Winchester, who lives in New Zealand, told Reuters that he is accused of creating a model that is biased towards the All Blacks. His answer is that his British and Australian passports and his French wife are evidence of his objectivity.
How much value should we put on these predictions?
On 16 September 2015 Winchester wrote a Roar article headed, ‘Who will win the Rugby World Cup? Statistical predictions‘ that estimated the probabilities of various outcomes in the tournament.
Winchester, for Rugby World Cup 2015, ranked in order of likely tournament winner New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Wales, France, Argentina as potential quarter-finalists.
It is a matter of historical record that England became the first host country not to make the quarter-finals.
The semi-finals saw an all-southern hemisphere line-up, with Argentina joining Winchester’s designated top three teams.
Although Australia played New Zealand in the final and lost, South Africa actually gave the tournament winners their hardest and closest game.
I would argue, despite these misses, that Winchester provides about as good a predictive guide as anyone is likely to come up with.
There is a method, based on a lot of statistics, that enhances Winchester’s prediction.
This is in contrast to most of the predictions making the rounds which are based less on ‘science’ and more on ‘gut feeling’ – instinct, if you like.
So we have Chris Robshaw, a former captain of England, backing England or perhaps South Africa ahead of New Zealand for World Cup glory.
“I think [New Zealand] will be thereabouts but I like the look of England and South Africa,” Robshaw told The Guardian. “[England] look dangerous and hungry. The pack is big and physical. The backline looks like it could scare anyone. It’s exciting.”
More interesting, I think, are the predictions of six rugby writers on The Telegraph, as per the NZ Herald article headed: ‘Rugby World Cup: Telegraph experts predict All Blacks to meet Ireland in final’.
The panel was unanimous that New Zealand and Ireland would meet in the final and four of them predicted that the All Blacks would win their third straight title.
Two of them predict an Ireland truimph.
The ‘problem’ for Ireland is that they have been notoriously unimpressive at past World Cup tournaments. The team has never progressed beyond the quarter-finals.
But they do have have a master coach and a terrific No. 10, two of the essential ingredients for a World Cup-winning side. Moreover, by the magic or alchemy of the World Rugby rankings system, Ireland will go into the tournament as the No. 1 side in the world.
The fearless predictions of the Telegraph experts are:
Now we come to another type of prediction that comes into the category of ‘how about that!’.
Here is Mark Reason, an Englishman living in New Zealand, who reckons that Super Rugby results, with a twist, ‘predict’ another All Blacks World Cup victory:
“New Zealand will win the 2019 Rugby World Cup,” he wrote for stuff.co.nz. “So says the Super Rugby table and it rarely lies. Whenever the World Cup is held in the northern hemisphere, it is won by the country of the team that topped the Super Rugby table.
“That means another All Blacks victory parade. That means the dominant Crusaders helping New Zealand to a third title in a row…
“In 2007 South Africa dominated, with the Sharks and Bulls topping the table, contesting the final, and they duly won the World Cup…
“In 1999 the Reds topped the table and Australia took out the World Cup.”
The most definitive ‘scientific’ prediction opposing an ‘All Blacks will win the World Cup’ prediction comes from Esportif, a leading player representation company.
The prediction is based on a data score for each team based on the number of Tests, players in prime age group, number of players at the same franchise and the total number of franchises involved in the World Cup squad.
Esportif also factor in head coach experience, the recent form of each team and the percentage of wins in the various World Cup tournaments. They also include a ‘squad value’ in their calculation.
At this point I should note that Esportif is in the business of managing international rugby players and coaches. The company reportedly has 90 international rugby stars on its books and has recently set up business in Australia.
Anyway, Esportif gives England a score of 90 out of 100, the highest total. New Zealand has a score of 89, and therefore England should be considered favourites to win the World Cup over the All Blacks.
I think there is a lot of business self-interest in this fearless prediction.
But Robert Kitson, the excellent rugby writer for The Guardian, summarises his prediction this way: “This, though, is the anything-can-happen World Cup. Messrs Hansen, Gatland, Schmidt and Cheika could all have a surprise hidden up their track-suited sleeves but it would not surprise me if England and South Africa, as in 2007, turn out to be the last two sumo warriors left standing in Yokohama on 2 November. While the Boks currently look strong, Jones could yet enjoy the last laugh.”
One of the advantages England could have, something that none of the big-gun pundits have noticed, is that coach Eddie Jones is part Japanese.
You would guess from this that England would become the second team, after the national side, that Japanese supporters will barrack for in the later stages of the tournament.
Mick Tyson once declared that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Change the word ‘plan’ to ‘prediction’ and you will get a sense of what I will try to detail next.
My problem with all these predictions and the various systems used to try to make them authentic is that they give the Wallabies not a chance in hell of getting to the paradise of another World Cup triumph.
I haven’t seen anyone build into their predictions the fact that the Wallabies have tended to over-achieve in World Cup tournaments. As former coach John Connolly once said, somewhat anticipating the Mike Tyson quote, “the Wallabies have punched above their weight at World Cup tournaments”.
Perhaps the overseas pundits know something that the Australian rugby writers don’t want to know.
A common theme by overseas experts is that the loss of Israel Folau has damaged the Wallabies chances. Australian rugby writers have gone out of their way, on the other hand, to insist that the team is actually stronger without Folau, the second-highest try-scorer for the Wallabies.
I am inclined to agree with the overseas experts.
Moreover, every team that has won the World Cup has won every game in that tournament. It is hard to see the Wallabies winning all seven of their games in this World Cup. Since the last World Cup tournament, the Wallabies have won only 20 of their last 47 Tests.
As a consequence of this pathetic record, particularly with last year’s terrible year, the Wallabies are ranked sixth on the World Rugby table.
No team with this sort of ranking has won a World Cup. It is unlikely that the current Wallabies, who do not have a world-class coach or a world-class No. 10, will break this pattern.
Paul Cully, an intrepid Wallabies booster, in an interesting article in The Sydney Morning Herald, suggests that the Wallabies can go deep, but the All Blacks will go deepest.
Before going into a detailed analysis on how he thought the pool rounds, finals and the grand final would pan out, Cully correctly acknowledged that “Rugby World Cup predictions are for fools”.
So here goes for my fearless prediction, which will become a foolish prediction if the Springboks defeat the All Blacks in their first-up match of the tournament.
The All Blacks will win the 2019 Rugby World Cup.