The Wonder (and Confusion) of the World Rugby Rankings
During every international test window we are bombarded with headlines telling us who will leapfrog who, or which team will rise to number one or tumble out of the top 10. But how important actually are the rankings? With rumours of new competitions being introduced into the world arena, will they continue to hold such stature, and do we need to re-evaluate how we view them.
The rankings work on a points exchange system. The number of points won from each match is calculated on team strength, points difference, and home game allowances. This has created an intricate system that makes it near on impossible for the average fan to follow in any great detail. So instead, we just watch idly as our teams rise and fall over the course of the four-year World Cup cycle, hoping we peak at the right time to be given a favourable draw at the World Cup.
One of the most contentious points surrounding the rankings is the role they hold in the World Cup pool draw. The draw for the upcoming 2023 World Cup was held way back in 2020, when naturally the rankings looked somewhat different (England were still within the top 5 for starters). The reason given for this early draw was to let teams know where they would be based during the World Cup, apart from all the lower tier nations who didn’t qualify until the last few months, but of course this doesn’t matter. This has caused an issue though. The World Cup draw is now incredibly lopsided with the current standings and this means the top teams in the world according to these rankings are now unlikely to face each other in the knockout rounds.
Whilst we of course look to the rankings as some form of insight into who we may see battling it out in the final, it’s important to remember that being ranked number one in the world, doesn’t always translate into success. Take 2019 for example, Ireland headed into the World Cup ranked top and full of hope, only to have 40 points shipped past them in the quarter finals. The finalists ended up being England and South Africa who were ranked 3rd and 4th respectively in the lead up, with South Africa ultimately taking the glory. On the flip side however, in 2015 – the rankings read New Zealand on top followed by Australia, then South Africa. The results ending with New Zealand as champions followed by Australia, then South Africa. Though it must be said, it doesn’t necessarily take a genius to put your money on New Zealand when it comes to the World Cup, especially given their 100% win record in World Cup groups stages. The point here though is that these rankings may offer an insight into form, but it is certainly not an all-knowing crystal ball.
From 2026 the Nations Championship will likely be introduced, and international teams will fight it out to reach the grand final every two years. This competition has plenty of controversy itself with some arguing it may devalue the prestige of the World Cup, however one thing it may do, is provide a more accurate insight as to who the best teams in the world are at that current point in time. It will also give more meaning to the summer and autumn tests, which can at time fall a bit flat when it feels there is nothing in particular to play for. But with this competition providing a definitive answer to who the best team in the world is more regularly, do we need to keep in place such a complicated points-based system? Could we use the Nations Championship to draw the World Cup instead?
In reality, I can’t see us ever doing away with the rankings system entirely, there is a undoubtably a case for simplifying things. Or at the very least, ensuring that we use them more wisely when it comes to drawing the World Cup – though as we know, it may not make any difference anyway!