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Rugby World Cup’s biggest problem – and how to fix it.

The ‘unfair’ playing inherent in the Rugby Union World Cup 2019.

We are still a few months away from the Rugby Union World Cup 2019 and while we cannot forecast the winner, we can already predict what the first hot-button issue of the tournament will be: the “unfair” playing schedules that the smaller, or second-tier, nations will face.

A brief recap

For those who came in late: since the tournament grew in 2003 to its current size of 20 teams, a few teams each Rugby World Cup have drawn the short straw and have had to play a game 3-4 days after their previous one.

This, of course, is a direct consequence of the pool stage consisting of four groups of five. With four teams in the group playing first — A vs B and C vs D — the fifth team in the group then waits around to play one of the four a few days later, which means the latter will have a short turnaround.

Not coincidentally, those teams tend to be the minnows, such as Georgia, Tonga, Fiji and Japan.

At the Rugby World Cup 2015 , for example, Japan famously drew one of the short straws, having to play Scotland just four days after their momentous, and no doubt taxing, upset of two-time Rugby Union World Cup champions, South Africa.

Not surprisingly, Japan lost to the Scots, who were playing their first match of the tournament and were fresh. Even Scottish captain Greg Laidlaw commented that he noticed the Japanese energy levels dropping suddenly about two-thirds through game: due to fatigue, no doubt.

This loss proved crucial in the end to Japan, who became the only team in Rugby Union World Cup history to win three games and yet not qualify for the next round; having been pipped by Scotland.

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In the Rugby World Cup 2011, Samoa, who were vying for second spot behind South Africa in Pool D, had to play closest challengers Wales after a three-day turnaround too. The Welsh, on the other hand, had enjoyed a five-day break. Wales won a close one 17-10.

That wasn’t the only short break for the Samoans, unfortunately. After beating  arch-rivals Fiji in a predictably physical battle in their third match, they had only four days of rest before meeting the Springboks in a do-or-die contest. They lost another tight one, 13-5, against a team that had enjoyed a seven-day break.

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The end result was that an aggrieved and highly disgruntled Samoa lost out to Wales for second spot.

It’s not always the minnows that have the short break though.

Australia only had a three-day rest in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. But they were only facing Uruguay, however. No offense to Uruguay but it was hardly the most taxing assignment for one of the sport’s giants.

Rationale of the Rugby Union World Cup scheduling?

The rationale, we suppose, is that the organisers want to protect the bigger nations, the top seeds, so to speak. It wouldn’t do for the main attractions and main money-makers, at the world’s third largest sporting event, to be stressed from having to play again so soon.

But kudos to the RWC 2019

Looking at the rugby union world cup 2019’s fixtures, the team that has to deal with this issue first is Russia. They will be playing the opening match against Japan on Friday, September 20, and then have to be back in the arena against Samoa the following Tuesday, having had only a three-day break.

Fiji have a  similar schedule, playing Australia on the second day of the tournament on Saturday and then Uruguay four days later – also with just a three-day break.

However, and this is a bit of a surprise, the next ones to face the short rest period are Italy and England. The Italians face Namibia followed by Canada (who qualified through the Repechage); the English play Tonga and then the United States.

This is where the organisers deserve some kudos: in the past, the big teams rarely had the three-day-only problem. It was usually the smaller teams that bore the burden. But RWC said they would fix the problem and make it fairer and, to some extent, they have this time.

Of the 20 teams competing in the Rugby Union World Cup 2019, 13 face the three-day break: the four already mentioned, plus Scotland, Argentina, USA, France, Georgia, Uruguay and Wales.

But what is truly surprising is that two of the biggest guns, South Africa and New Zealand, also have to suffer the short break.

But then again, like in the case of Australia in 2015, it also matters which team you have to play after the short break.

The All Blacks have their three-day turnaround before facing Namibia, hardly an onerous task for the defending champions. South Africa, on the other hand, will be a bit more challenged.

For more on who has drawn the short straws, follow our discussion on the Rugby World Cup 2019 fixtures.

Not just the breaks but the time-span

Sounds fair so far? Seems like it, but the other factor to consider is how much time teams have been given to complete their four matches – in other words, the time-span between their first game and their last.

This is really where some teams have an advantage over their opponents.

In Pool B, for example, New Zealand will have 20 days to complete their games, while their expected closest challengers, South Africa, will have 16 — or more than one day fewer of rest and recovery between games.

The All Blacks’ average break between games is six days (they actually have a 10-day — yes, 10-day — break after their opening game), while the Springboks’ average break is 4.7 days.

There are similar disparities elsewhere.

In Pool A, poor Samoa (again!) have 17 days to complete their fixtures, with an average of five days between games, while hosts Japan, perhaps unsurprisingly, have the best draw of all: an average of 6.7 days between games, and a 22-day time-span.

Ireland are favoured to win that pool, with Scotland expected to come second, but Japan’s cushier ride could give them an edge over both the Scots and Samoa.

At the other end of the scale, Canada and the USA have drawn the shortest straws: 4.7 days between games on average, and a time-span of just 16 days each.

So what can be done?

The reality is that, for as long as the Pool structure stays the same, and the aim is to complete fixtures in a reasonable time (three weeks for the pool stages), there is no getting around the problem of short turnarounds. Groups of five are not a good way to run a tournament, not if you want a fair schedule for all.

Ideally, there would be 16 teams (as RWC used to be until 1995) or 32 teams (as the FIFA World Cup currently is). This would mean having groups in multiples of four, with everyone having very similar rest periods and playing times, and the the end result being the right number of teams for the knockout rounds, either eight or 16.

But rugby probably doesn’t have enough strong teams yet to justify a 32-team tournament, and going back to 16 would be a backward step in terms of growing the game worldwide.

So 20 it has to be, though there has been talk of expanding the World Cup to 24 teams – which is not an ideal number of teams either and doesn’t solve the fixture problem.

Let the strongest bear the load

But if 20 teams it has to be, and we are stuck with the uneven playing schedules, then why not let the top seeds have the short turnarounds?

With the depth of player squads that these teams have, they of all teams surely can handle playing on Saturday and then fielding another team on Wednesday, even with wholesale changes. They could think of it like an old-fashioned tour, when games were played on Saturday and then Tuesday/Wednesday.

The All Blacks, for example, could play South Africa on Saturday and then use essentially a second string team on Wednesday against their next opponent, without batting an eyelid.

This has happened in the past, in fact. At the last World Cup, Australia played Fiji in their opener, winning 28-13, and then played Uruguay four days later and won 65-3. No fuss, no muss.

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And look at the teams they fielded. Aside from Scott Sio, the only player who started both games, Australia made 14 changes, with, to name just a few, Kurtley Beale replacing Israel Folau at fullback, Matt Toomua in for Matt Giteau at 12, Nick Phipps at scrumhalf instead of Will Genia, Wycliff Palu replacing David Pocock at No 8, and Dean Mumm covering for Kane Douglas at lock.

The top guns could all pull off a similar exercise without skipping a beat and would probably appreciate the chance to give the reserves a decent run-out and ensuring proper rest for the first-teamers.

And think of TV too, if more big guns played in the midweek fixtures: New Zealand vs Georgia on a Wednesday would surely get more viewers than, say, and with all due respect, Tonga vs Canada.

A win-win result for all, I would say.

UPDATE: latest on Ruby Union World Cup 2019

For more discussion:


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6 Comments

  1. Hi

    What an interesting article!

    As a maths teacher/tutor I will be storing this away in my head for suitable examples of where maths plays a part in real life and my children/young people will no doubt be as fascinated by this example as I am.

    I also know a few ardent rugby fans and this will be a topic of conversation that I shall enjoy having with them – starting with a planned curry on Friday where they will be surprised if I am the first to raise the subject.

    All the best!

    • Yes, this would be an interesting Maths puzzle.  Perhaps you can ask them to work this out:

      If there are five teams in a group and they have to play against one another in a round-robin system, and each team must have at least 5 days’ rest between games, what is the shortest amount of time that all 10 games in that group can be completed?

      I really would be interested to know what your Maths think tank comes up with.  Some computations meant more weeks added to the tournament and that makes the World Cup too long and expensive and thus not feasible.

      Enjoy the curry night and let us know if the dinner discussion solved the dilemma!

  2. Me again, lol. Just want to say I love this website, you really know your stuff!.

    You have come up with some great points here, some I agree with, and some I don’t.You are perfectly correct when you say about the late teams that came into the cup but that isn’t to say they will only lose because of that short turnaround. 

    I totally agree with you when you say all teams should have the same break in between games as it will give them all a fair try (excuse the pun) but there is a big talent difference between The All Blacks and Japan but they are quite a young team and they are going to be a side to be reckoned with in a few years I personally think.

    So, do you think if they completely changed the pool game system there would be a completely different outcome in results?

    • Hi mate, glad you’re enjoying the site and love it that you have a differing viewpoint – makes for a ripping discussion!

      To address your point, yes, the talent gap between say New Zealand and Japan is large and having equal rest days will not bridge the gap between them. 

      But the issue with the unequal breaks between games is that, when say, teams B and C are vying for second spot behind New Zealand, but team B has a 5-6-day rest period while team C has only a 3-day break, then that is unfair for team C.

      This happened to Samoa in the Rugby World Cup 2011, when Wales had much better rest periods and pipped Samoa for second spot in their group; and to Japan in Rugby World Cup 2015, who lost out to Scotland for the same reason.

      The only way to change the pool system to make it fair is if they have groups of four; as they do in soccer.  And it may not change the outcome for the bigger teams; but it will for those vying for the second spots.

  3. This is really an issue that I think is not been taken into consideration or probably is been ignored. I just don’t know why. It’s really unfair that some of these teams have to face such an issue. 

    How can a team be fatigued and still expected to take on a team that is much better than them. What are the chances that the fatigued team would come out victors. 

    Are complains not been laid out in informing those incharge about these issues.

    I personally don’t agree with the suggestion of let the strongest team bear the load of having the shortest resting span between games. I think that might be unfair because we are all humans. Just because I am better does not mean I have to be treated unfairly.

    But it was not a bad suggestion and probably should be considered. But the fact is that all teams should be treated equally.

    • Hi Jay,

      Thanks for your feedback.

      Many teams have made complaints in the past, to little avail, but this time the organising body, RWC Limited, have listened to some extent and have spread the load a little, with some big teams given short turnarounds and shorter time spans, and some small teams given longer rest times and better schedules.

      But as long as they persist with having groups of five teams, this unbalanced playing schedule will continue. Teams will just have to take turns to draw the short straw.

      While you say that the strong teams are also human, my suggestion that they be given the shorter breaks is because they have much more strength in depth and have enough good players to play completely different lineups if they have to to face their next opponent. The weaker teams don’t have that capacity and are therefore unable to be competitive if their next game is only 4 days later.

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