Explanation for the puzzling World Cup rugby draw

The 2023 World Cup rugby tournament has entered the quarter-final knock out stage and one thing that had puzzled me all along was the draw that placed the 20 teams that started out into four groups (called ‘pools’), in which the five teams in each pool that would play every other team, with the top two going to the quarter-final stage. You would expect that the teams would be seeded so that the top eight teams would be split equally among the four groups in such a way that, in the absence of upsets, the top four would meet in the semi-finals and the top two would meet in the finals.

But when you looked at the pools, you see that pool A had France (#2) and New Zealand (#4), while pool B had Ireland (#1), South Africa (#3), and Scotland (#5), pool C had Wales (#6) and Fiji (#8) along with Australia (#9), while pool D had just England (#6). (These rankings were those just before the current tournament started and may have changed as a result of the matches already played.) As a result, Scotland did not qualify for the last eight, even though they are ranked #5, because their pool B also had the two of the top three teams of Ireland and South Africa. Even though England is ranked lower than Scotland at #6, they easily made it to the quarter-finals. Their toughest opponent is when they meet Fiji in the quarter-finals and the first time they have to play any team that is higher ranked than them, assuming they get by Fiji, is in the semi-finals.

As a result, the top four teams will meet each other in the quarter-finals this weekend (Ireland v. New Zealand and France v. South Africa) which is surely not optimal.

So how did this puzzling lop-sided draw come about? This article explains that it was because the draw was made three years ago just after the previous World Cup, based on the rankings at that time, and things have changed considerably since then.

Why, many will ask, are the best four teams in the world facing each other in the quarterfinals rather than the semifinals?

Well, it comes back to World Rugby’s decision to hold the pool-stage draw on Dec. 14, 2020. But the rankings were very different then to how they are now. Back then, England and Wales were coming off semifinal appearances in the 2019 Rugby World Cup — England got to the final, losing to the Springboks — so were in the top four, and therefore top seeds in the draw.

England and Wales have slipped down the rankings since and been replaced by Ireland and France.

Why was the draw done so early? The reason, as it usually is in professional sports, comes down to marketing and money.

The draw was made so long ago so the French tournament organizers could get the buzz started on ticket sales before locals had a chance to buy tickets for the 2024 Paris Olympics. World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin accepted this year that the method was “outdated” and would be changed for future World Cups.

“I understand the frustrations of coaches and players,” he said in May.

Not everyone is unhappy, however.

The likes of England and Wales, who will head into the semifinals as favorites in their matches, are benefitting greatly from the lopsided nature of the draw. Both looked in desperate shape before the Rugby World Cup, yet could reach the semifinals without having to play any of the world’s top five.

There has also been some grumbling that the top tier teams play each other much more frequently, especially those in the Six Nations group, and the lower tier nations get to play the top teams only rarely. As a result, it is harder for them to improve.

The latest lackluster effort from Italy and the performances of Portugal, in particular, is sure to revive calls for a shake-up of the Six Nations to allow for emerging countries to get a chance.

Italy, which has never reached the World Cup quarterfinals and conceded a combined 156 points to New Zealand and France in the pool stage, has finished last in the Six Nations in its last eight editions — winning just once in that time.

The likes of Georgia, Romania and now Portugal rightly must wonder what it needs to do to get a shot at France, Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland in the Six Nations.

Expect any calls to fall on deaf ears.

The Six Nations Council, which oversees the privately run competition, is happy with its current set-up, seeing Italy — which joined an expanded tournament in 2000 — as a bigger cash cow than any prospective replacement.

In 2017, then-Six Nations CEO John Feehan said it would need “10 or 15 years” before a convincing argument for change is made, and that it would need agreement from all six competing nations — therefore, including Italy — to bring about reform.

It’s a cosy club and it’s likely not for changing.

We saw that happening in cricket. For a long time, the emerging countries like India and Pakistan, and then later Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, found it hard to get opportunities to play Test matches against the well-established cricket powers. But once they started playing more, they became much better and India and Pakistan especially have become top teams.


  1. Dunc says

    As a Scot, I’m just freaked out that we’re ranked #5… Still, I don’t mind losing to Ireland.

    As for Italy in the Six Nations… You’ve got to feel sorry for them. I just don’t think the expansion from five was a good idea… And I’m not sure I buy the argument that the weaker teams need to play the stronger teams more to improve, because it’s clearly not worked for them. Sure, you could make an argument that we should switch out the comedy relief team occasionally, but I don’t think any of the “beneficiaries” would appreciate it.

  2. billseymour says

    It works differently in baseball with clear rules about who plays whom.  (Sorry if this is more than you want to know.)

    There are 30 major league teams, 15 in each of the American League and the National League.  Each league is divided into three divisions with five teams in each.

    In each league, six teams “make it to the postseason”:  the winners of each division and three of the rest of the teams in the league with the best records.  The division winners are seeded 1-2-3, and the others are seeded 4-5-6, based on their win-loss records over the regular season games.  (There are also numerous, and rather baroque, “tiebreaker” rules which I won’t go into.)

    The #3 seed and the #6 seed play each other, and the #4 and #5 seeds play each other, in “wild card” rounds.  The #1 and #2 seeds get a bye.

    The #1 and #2 seeds, and the teams who win two out of three wild card games, advance to 3-out-of-5 “division series”.  The winners of the two division series advance to the league’s 4-out-of-7 “championship series”.  The winners of the championship series get the league’s “pennant” and advance to the 4-out-of-7 “world series”.

    There’s a great deal of randomness in baseball (not the least of which is trying to hit a round ball with a round bat), so it’s streaky as expected, and on any given day anything can happen.  The best teams eventually emerge after the 162-game regular season; but there can be surprises in short series like those played in the postseason.  This year, for example, the #4 and #6 seeds will face off in the National League Championship Series.

    [this year’s postseason bracket]

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