The Roar
The Roar


A dive into the numbers behind the World Cup contenders

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Freddo new author
Roar Rookie
9th October, 2019

You talk about the tight five and the back three. You casually refer to five-eighths and breakaways. You know a few things and have a modest opinion to back what you know.

However, to round out your conversations during the Rugby World Cup, try mixing and matching some of these basic numbers.

Let’s start with the more reliable numbers: the country populations. Tonga is the minnow at 108,000, then Samoa at 200,000. Our beloved Fiji has 920,000. They punch above their weight!

At the other end are the whales: USA has 330 million people, Russia has 145 million and Japan has 126 million.

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Excluding the whales, the median population of the 17 Rugby World Cup countries is exactly 5 million. Interesting. That’s the population of each of New Zealand and Ireland and Scotland. Wales is close, with 4 million.

The average population of the 17 countries is 22 million. We in Australia have 25 million people, England has 56 million, South Africa has 58 million and France has 65 million. Argentina has 44 million.

The male-to-female population ratio varies from 49 to 51 per cent, so we can smooth it to 50:50.

The registered number of total rugby players is not as reliable a census. World Rugby (WR) and its affiliate associations seem to contradict themselves if you look at their latest (2018) numbers compared to 2015 and 2011. There must be some motivation for fundraising, and some numbers seem pumped up.

Ireland's Garry Ringrose in action

(Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images)

For example, Tonga is quoted by WR as having 23,000 registered players in 2018 but had 689,000 in 2011. Wow. Samoa has 13,000 in 2018, according to WR statistics, but had 23,000 in 2011. Have they shrunk?

Fiji has 123,000 in 2018, growing from 36,000 in 2011. Fiji had 83,000 registered players in 2015, say WR, so their 2011 number perhaps was wrong. They would have course say it is up to Oceania Rugby. Sure.

The steadier numbers are New Zealand (150,000 of total registered rugby players in 2015 and 156,000 in 2018), Australia (230,000 in 2015, 271,000 in 2018), and Argentina (105,000 in 2015, 121,000 in 2018).


The shrinkers are France (272,000 in 2015, 258,000 in 2018) and Ireland (101,000 in 2015, 94,000 in 2018).

England also shrank from 382,000 total registered players in 2015 to 355,000 in 2018, while South Africa (SA) grew from 405,000 total registered rugby players in 2015 to 635,000 in 2018, which is No. 1 in 2018.


(Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

England have the highest number of unregistered players, but that calculation seems less consistent across countries. Rugby in Italy is very niche: they have 77,000 registered players in a population of 60,000.

The ratio of total registered rugby players in 2018 to country population peaks with Fiji (13.5 per cent). Tonga and Samoa are exceptional at 5 to 10 per cent, depending on the year. New Zealand is next at 3.1 per cent, Wales is at 2.7 per cent, Ireland is at 1.9 per cent and Australia and South Africaf are 1.1 per cent each. France is also notable at 0.4 per cent of a large population.


The moral of the story seems to be either everyone plays rugby (the Pacific) or you have a critical mass of over 100,000 registered players (Fiji, Wales, Argies, Ireland with 94,000, Japan and USA) or you are a rugby heavyweight with 150,000 or more registered players (NZ, Australia, England, SA and France).

The ratio of male registered players to female (of all ages) averages at around 80 per cent and is dropping every year, while the median ratio of senior male to total players is 30 per cent and in some Rugby World Cup countries is above 40 per cent.

The number of clubs and provincial competition formats have a bearing on Rugby World Cup performance, but I’m sure other Roar enthusiasts have written about those and other factors more knowledgeably than me.