Rugby’s “group of hell”

England are out of the rugby world cup. That’s a shame for England fans but one of the world’s top sides was going to go out at this stage. Had it been Wales or Australia it would have been just as bad (for the tournament) and just as unjust. And the fault for losing one of the world’s best five teams in the pool stage is fairly and squarely at the door of the organisers. World Rugby have truly failed with their group seeding. There were three easy fixes. Schoolboy errors, a commentator might say. 

You’d have thought the England team had done something terrible. They lost to the teams ranked two and five in the world. Unfortunate but not terrible. “England fail to deliver – again“, the Mail on Sunday called the defeat “catastrophic” and listed (a lot of) reasons why everything is wrong, and the New Zealanders kindly listed the media reaction! Arsene Wenger gets off lightly when Arsenal lose (often) to top teams.

Wales coach Warren Gatland is reported on the BBC as “rounding on the organisers’ decision to draw the pools that pitted England, Wales and Australia against each other” in the “group of hell”. He went on to say: “Everyone is making a thing about the first home country to hold a World Cup to miss out on the quarter-finals, but the stupid thing, as we all know, is why was the World Cup draw done three years ago? That’s just ridiculous as far as I am concerned. If they had followed the football model, then we wouldn’t be in this position.”

By way of background, here’s how the draw worked, thanks to wikipedia (as the World Rugby site seems not to say!):

Seeding for each group for the 2015 World Cup were based on their respective IRB Rankings. The draw was conducted on 3 December 2012 and used the World Rankings as of that day (they are updated daily, pretty much in real time). The 12 automatic qualifiers from 2011, were allocated to their respective bands based on their rankings;

  • Band 1, made up of the top 4 automatic qualifiers, (1–4)
  • Band 2, made up of the next 4 automatic qualifiers, (5–8)
  • Band 3, made up of the next 4 automatic qualifiers (9–12)

The remaining 8 qualifying places were allocated to Bands 4 and 5, based on previous World Cup playing strength. Australia (rank 2), England (5) and Wales (9), one from each of the above bands, were thus thrust together (along with Fiji and Uruguay). With only two to qualify for the quarter finals, one team was going to suffer. On the basis of the seedings in December 2012, that should have been Wales. But it was always going to be close – they have each won five of the last ten meetings. Disappointing for England but hardly shocking.

So World Rugby (which used to be called the IRB), failed to do one of three things to avoid this problem. Gatland pointed out one – they did the draw at the end of 2012 and much changes in that time. Indeed, as the image below shows, the rankings (use the “choose date” function on this page) were very different on the eve of the tournament. By then, the seven teams that have persistently been on top of the game for the last decade occupied the top seven spaces. Why did the organisers have a system that put three of the top five teams in the same pool?

Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 22.22.46

The second adjustment that could have avoided the host nation going out early – if that is important – is to help the home team in the draw. Other sports do this. For example, you might put the host in the top band to make sure they have easier games. England pretty much justified that position but even if the host nation had been much weaker (Italy and Japan also bid for the 2015 competition) it helps them get though to the quarter finals at least.

The third adjustment that should have been made is to take the rankings not on one day but over a period of time. The period of time could be quite long: since world rankings started in 2003, there have been only seven teams that have made rank one or two (NZ, Australia, SA, England, Wales, Ireland and France). The same seven are the only teams never to have been out of the top ten. Should they make up the band one and two teams? Or perhaps a shorter period would be better? The average rank seen in the last three Septembers would be one option. That would have given Australia an average rank at 3, England between 3 and 4, and Wales between 5 and 6. Again no sense at all in pitching them in one pool.

The image below, from “A history of rugby rankings“, represents the stability of the tier 1 rankings over many years. As another website,, says: “The ranking of the world’s rugby nations has long been a lively topic of conversation.” Indeed, but the issue here is the failure to use the rankings sensibly.

World Rugby‘s slogan is “Building character since 1886”. Shame they haven’t bothered with common sense.

Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 23.41.50


One thought on “Rugby’s “group of hell”

  1. It was obviously a bizarre draw. But all this cry baby stuff from England may give a hint as to why they were knocked out. Wales had as much reason to complain as England, but we just got on with it and showed character. That, rather than skill is what England lacked in the game against Wales. And I don’t think rigging the draw to help the home team can make up for that. And I speak as one sorry to see England go out because it is always nice to have a team you can beat in the quarter finals.


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