It has been said that the ‘real’ World Cup begins with the quarter-finals. That is because the tournament is invariably confined by this stage to the first tier teams, with perhaps one exception.
The first tier teams have the advantage not only of superior numbers and operating budgets, but of playing in elite competitions from which the rest are firmly excluded. Thus the World Cup becomes a level playing field at the quarter-finals stage.
Notwithstanding the occasional upset, the groups have more the appearance of an exhibition than a genuine contest to find the best teams. We know who’s going to win most of the time. It’s only a question of by how much. And they are, by and large, the same teams winning and losing as we have seen at every previous World Cup.
The play-offs also feature the usual suspects at every tournament, with no great variation in the results. Only five teams have made the final, eight the semis and 12 the quarter-finals after eight tournaments.
FIFA’s first eight World Cups featured 11 different finalists, 16 semifinalists and 20 finalists. Moreover, 41 different nations took part in its first nine tournaments, including 25 debutants since after first. Only 25 have appeared in rugby’s, with just nine newcomers since 1987.
Half of the second tier teams probably shouldn’t be at the current World Cup on form, if we’re honest about, and questions would also have to be asked about Italy. But qualification is more or less a formality for a 20-team tournament.
Does that mean the World Cup should contract and return to 16 teams, for example? Certainly there is a case to be made in that regard. But this would amount to an admission of the game’s lack of progress, and I don’t believe that is justified.
Rather, qualifying itself ought to become a more intensive process, with first, second and third tier rubbing shoulders in independent regional competitions the way they did two decades ago. These could become major events in their own right, as they are in football.
Rugby has grown a great deal in the professional age, with World Cup proceeds being used to fund development programmes at grassroots level, as well as international tournaments for second and third tier nations. The governing body deserves full credit for this.
Where there hasn’t been any discernible progress, however, is in closing the gap between the first and second tier teams, with the former outclassing the latter by an average of around 30 points, just as they did at the inaugural World Cup 32 years ago.
Japan has been the lone bright spot at the last two World Cups, and hopefully we will see the host nation through to the quarter-finals this year. Asia is the only continent not to have been represented at that stage of the tournament.
One other encouraging sign is the absence of complete blowouts, with centuries appearing to be a thing of the past, and even half-centuries proving rare. One reason for this may be that the big guns are taking a more strategical approach to five-team groups and not going all out to win every game the way they did in the more cut-throat environment of four-team pools.
Nonetheless, the rank outsiders of this tournament have acquitted themselves surprisingly well. Uruguay caused a major upset by defeating Fiji – its third win in four appearances – and Russia restricted the highly-rated Irish to 35 points. Namibia, meanwhile, had its best result against neighbours South Africa to date, despite the 54-point margin.
Hopefully this augurs well for the prospect of more regular encounters between first and second tier nations in the future, because that is the only way the gap is going to close. If not, four years from now we are going to be watching more or less the same “exhibition” all over again.