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The best of the Rugby World Cup: Part 2

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Roar Guru
24th May, 2020

Following Part 1 of my series, today is Part 2 of my analysis of the best Rugby World Cup teams to have played the game.

But first to answer the final question of my previous article. Frozen chip vodka is a bust. It has potential military applications as a paralytic, although the delivery mechanism would have to be quick enough to escape sensory detection prior to ingestion. Long term effects are unknown. I’ll know better when fingernails return.

And now back to the rugby.

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The early professional years: 1999 to 2007


Like the movie Bloodsport, this was an era of different teams with contrasting styles battling it out in some of the greatest amphitheatres in world sport. The relentless waves of golden-clad pressure merchants against the rampant juggernaut of white orcs with the human metronome against the abrasive green megalodon with its set piece strangulation. Connoisseur years filled with some of the greatest legends to ever play the game.

Australia: 1999
England: 2003
South Africa: 2007

Country Total score Appearances Aggregate Avg place
France 10 3 3.3 Semis
Australia 11 3 3.7 Semis
England 11 3 3.7 Semis
South Africa 12 3 4.0 Qtrs
New Zealand 15 3 5.0 Qtrs
Scotland 24 3 8.0 Qtrs
Argentina 27 3 9.0 Pool
Wales 32 3 10.7 Pool
Fiji 40 3 13.3 Pool
Ireland 40 3 13.3 Pool
Romania 48 3 16.0 Pool
Samoa 48 3 16.0 Pool
Uruguay 32 2 16.0 Pool
Canada 52 3 17.3 Pool
Italy 52 3 17.3 Pool
Tonga 52 3 17.3 Pool
Georgia 36 2 18.0 Pool
Japan 56 3 18.7 Pool
United States 56 3 18.7 Pool
Namibia 60 3 20.0 Last
Portugal 20 1 20.0 Last
Spain 20 1 20.0 Last

Sacre bleu! France the best performer? Bet you didn’t see that coming! With a final and two semi-final appearances, the mercurial hot-stepping, All Black-slaying comeback kings are the most consistent performers of the period.

Winners Australia, England and South Africa round out a very tight and competitive quartet. The only time in this analysis a northern team sits on top and there’s an even distribution of hemispheres in the top four.

A period where no nation truly dominated the World Cup landscape and the team most feared outside it, New Zealand, were being beaten by themselves or the French. Not to downplay Australia’s win in 2003, but the All Blacks selection for that semi-final was shocking.

Risers and fallers

Country Amateur to semi-pro
Argentina 11.00
Romania 1.33
England 1.00
Wales 1.00
France 1.00
Tonga 0.67
Australia 0.67
Fiji 0.67
Japan 0.00
Namibia 0.00
Uruguay 0.00
United States -0.67
Italy -1.33
Scotland -1.33
New Zealand -3.00
South Africa -3.00
Canada -4.00
Ireland -5.33
Samoa -8.00

The big winner between these two eras is Argentina by a mile, having gone from being stone last to just outside the quarter-finals on average. This huge swing was driven by their best result yet: the third place in Paris in 2007.

Outside the short but lofty fall of New Zealand from an average third placing to quarter-finals, the real big fallers were Canada, Ireland and Samoa. The Canadians were finding it hard to cope with nations with professional players. The fall of the Irish from quarter-finals contender to pool is perhaps harder to explain other than it directly clashed with the rise of Argentina in 1999 and 2003. Early tournament darlings Samoa started to find it a lot harder going, and being pooled with heavyweights England and South Africa on consecutive occasions didn’t help their cause either!

North versus south
It’s Six Nations vs Tri Nations with a whole cast of cameos from both hemispheres.

At the overall table the gap has widened a bit, but that has a lot to do with the lower-tier quality from the northern hemisphere – Spain and Portugal – tilting the balance.

All Total score Appearances Aggregate Avg place
North 401 31.0 12.9 Pool
South 297 26 11.4 Pool

At Tier 1 the gap between hemispheres starts to grow, and inconsistency in the north and the continued failure of Ireland added to their woes. The Tri Nations reaped the benefit of consistent competition.

Tier 1 Total score Appearances Aggregate Avg place
North 169 18 9.4 Pool
South 65 12.0 5.4 Quarter-finals

Regression among the Tier 2 teams demonstrates the impact of professionalism setting in at the top of the table and the struggles of the US, Canada and weaker promotions of Spain and Portugal compared to the likes of the Pacific maestros Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

Tier 2 Total score Appearances Aggregate Avg place
North 232 13.0 17.8 Pool
South 232 14.0 16.6 Pool

That wraps up the semi-professional era

Best performing nation
The paradox wrapped in an enigma that is the consistently mercurial French. Second only to England for bridesmaid awards and winners of the greatest comeback in Rugby World Cup history – the 1999 semi-finals again the All Blacks. Just sensational. YouTube it now.

Most improved
Argentina. Off the back of the Europe club scene, they developed a great player spine.


Hemisphere of champions
The southern hemisphere continued the winning trundle across all tiers.

In the next instalment we’ll take a look at the New Zealand professional era while also solving one of life’s great mysteries: can you ferment brandy from tinned peaches?