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Second-tier rugby by the World Cup margins

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Roar Guru
24th October, 2019

The international rugby community’s attention will be fixed on the World Cup semi-finals this weekend, with many wondering if the Brits can defy the odds and set up an unprecedented all-northern hemisphere final.

It certainly wouldn’t be the biggest shock in tournament history given recent form. For my own part, however, I am as always more interested in analysing the gap between the first and second tiers than the one between the hemispheres.

Regardless who wins, England, Wales, New Zealand and South Africa in the semi-finals is not exactly the most encouraging sign for the ‘progressives’ among us. Exchange South Africa for Transvaal and this could just about be the Victorian era again!

But we did have the host nation’s success in reaching the quarter-finals to celebrate. Not only that, Japan won all four of their group fixtures, claiming two first-tier scalps along the way. They are the fourth second-tier nation to reach the last eight, after Fiji, Samoa and Canada.

Japan Rugby Union

(William West/AFP/Getty Images)

In contrast, however, the North American pair both failed to win a game for the second straight tournament. The USA were particularly disappointing after the promise shown in their historic win over Scotland last year. Forget staging a World Cup there in the next decade. The 2030s would seem optimistic at this stage.

Most Americans probably don’t even know this one is on, let alone the fact their nation participated in it. At least that was the impression I gained in discussion with a couple of American sport fans this week. They were also much surprised to learn that France were good at rugby, but shrewdly perceived the All Blacks would have been hot favourites to win – which is what your average American seems to know about rugby.

Meanwhile, two second-tier nations completed the group stages with positive points differentials this year – Japan and Fiji – which is one fewer than in 1999 and the same number as 1991. In 1995, 2003 and 2011 only one second-tier team finished with a positive differential, while none did at the 1987, 2007 and 2015 tournaments.


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Japan had easily their best tournament this year, finishing in the positive for the first time with +53. Their best showing previously had been a -2 differential in 2015, while their worst effort was -197 in 1995.

Fiji had their second-best tournament after 1999, finishing on +2. In 1999 they were +56, but at every other tournament they’ve finished in the negative, with a low point of -108 in 2011. They did not qualify in 1995.

Samoa had their second-worst tournament after 2007, finishing on -70. In 2007 they were +74. Samoa were -55 four years ago, but they’ve finished in the positive on every other occasion, with a high point of +42 in 2011.

Tonga had their third-best tournament despite finishing on -38. They have never finished in the positive. Their best effort was -7 in 2007, while their worst was -132 in 2003. They did not qualify in 1991.


USA had their second-worst showing with -104, merely the slightest improvement on 2015, when they finished on -106. They have yet to finish in the positive, with a best showing of -39 in 2003. They did not qualify in 1995.

Canada had their worst tournament to date with a -163 differential. They have finished in the positive on two occasions, with a best effort of +32 in 1999. Their previous worst was -86 in 2011.

Georgia achieved their second-best points differential of -57. They have never finished in the positive since first qualifying in 2003, reaching a high point of -42 in 2007 and a low of -154 on debut.

Romania did not qualify this year. They also have never finished with a positive differential, peaking at -31 in 1991 and reaching a low point of -127 in 2003.

Teams by World Cup tournament, 1987-2019 (group stages only)

Nation 1987 1991 1995 1999 2003 2007 2011 2015 2019
Fiji -45 -36 DNQ +56 -16 -22 -108 -17 +2
Samoa DNQ +20 +8 +25 +21 -74 +42 -55 -70
Tonga -69 DNQ -46 -124 -132 -7 -18 -60 -38
Japan -75 -10 -197 -104 -84 -146 -115 -2 +53
USA -60 -89 DNQ -83 -39 -81 -84 -106 -104
Canada -37 +12 -27 +32 -81 -69 -86 -73 -163
Georgia DNQ DNQ DNQ DNQ -154 -61 -42 -70 -57
Romania -41 -33 -83 -76 -127 -121 -125 -69 DNQ