Rugby rankings may be maligned but they reflect expectation of tightest World Cup yet | Daily News


Rugby rankings may be maligned but they reflect expectation of tightest World Cup yet

New Zealand are back on top of the World Rugby rankings after briefly being deposed by Wales.
New Zealand are back on top of the World Rugby rankings after briefly being deposed by Wales.

Two-time Rugby World Cup-victor John Eales once said that the winner of the World Cup is not necessarily the best team in the world, rather it is the best team at the tournament. His observation has never been more pertinent following the indignation with which Wales’ albeit brief rise to the summit of the World Rugby rankings was received.

The outrage was unsurprisingly at its greatest in New Zealand – where All Blacks’ coach Steve Hansen openly questioned the methodology employed – but the scepticism spread far beyond the dethroned former top rankers. Even Warren Gatland got drawn in, with the Wales coach understandably playing down his side’s achievement and joking that they would “hand the ranking back”.

Gatland’s response was understandable. The last thing he would want to do was to antagonise the New Zealand media and public, given he is returning to his homeland next year to coach in Super Rugby, and still undoubtedly has one eye on his long-held ambition of coaching the All Blacks.

Even so, and even though Wales did hand the ranking back by losing to Ireland while fielding an under-strength XV last weekend, Gatland is still entitled to a quiet sense of satisfaction, having led Wales on a 14-match winning streak that propelled the country from eighth to first on the global standings.

The critics contest that Wales didn’t beat New Zealand during that run – but the two countries didn’t cross paths, and you can’t beat who you don’t play. Wales did beat each of Ireland, South Africa and Australia. Significantly, each of those countries beat New Zealand during that same period. And that’s the essence of the rankings. Consistency of performance is recognised, with the points allocation weighted by games played home and away, and against teams rated higher or below on the ratings, at the time the outcome was achieved.

While Hansen was dismissive, in the afterglow of his team’s 36-0 wipeout of Australia the previous evening, he failed to acknowledge that the Wallabies are only the sixth-ranked side in the world. It was largely because the sixth-ranked team had beaten the All Blacks by 21 points the previous weekend that New Zealand had slipped, so as to allow Wales to edge above them. If anything, Hansen more than most, should have appreciated the level of the current Wales side’s achievement, on the back of their record winning streak.

A former coach of Wales himself, Hansen once lost 10 straight. Not only was it the most consecutive defeats suffered by any Wales coach, it also left the country ranked eighth when he departed in 2004, the exact position Wales occupied prior to their recent winning run.

Since they were introduced in 2003, the rankings have generally been a more accurate guide as to how teams are performing at any given time, than has the four-yearly World Cup sample.

England won the tournament in 2003, when ranked No 1 in the world, but that status was hardly relevant by 2007, having lost 25 matches by an average of 17 points per-defeat in the intervening period. And even though England did make the final again in 2007, the post-tournament performances of losing finalists through the next four years is further evidence as to why the rankings provide a much more accurate indication.

The last four beaten World Cup finalists have all performed terribly through the following four years, making a lie of their perceived “status” as the second-best team in the world. While the 42% win ratio of the Wallabies since 2015 is one of the worst, France plumbed even lower depths, winning just 40% of their games in the four years after making the 2011 final. England won just one more game than they lost between 2007 and 2011, while even the Australian side that made the 2003 final plummeted, winning just one more game than they lost in the 2005-07 period. Perhaps ominously for the Wallabies looking ahead to Japan, the last three beaten finalists have all been eliminated in the quarter-finals the next time around.

Of all the recent criticism, perhaps the most ironic came from World Rugby vice chairman Agustin Pichot, who dismissed the ranking formula as a marketing tool, insisting he would make changes in the advent of his rise to the global rugby chairmanship.

Pichot was the architect of the Nations League proposal which, while defeated, had been championed as a means of providing more relevance to non-World Cup Test matches by attaching qualifying points, thereby generating additional interest.

Since the All Blacks were briefly knocked off the summit, there has been unparalleled interest in the rankings. The fact that Wales could be first one week, and fourth the next, highlights the narrow margins between the top teams, which accurately reflects the widespread expectation of this being the closest World Cup ever. So, whether you agree with the methodology behind them or not, there can be no denying the rankings are generally accurate, and they have generated interest. And that is what they are ultimately for. – theguardian

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