The scheduling of games at the Rugby World Cup has been a hotly debated topic with some teams having as little as four days between games. Whilst World Rugby have claimed they have made the scheduling much fairer this time around, the data suggests otherwise.
On the face of it there isn’t a huge difference between tier 1 and tier 2 nations schedules at the World Cup (note Namibia have been classified as a Tier 2 nation for the purposes of this analysis). On average, Tier 1 nations have 6.67 days between each of their games whilst Tier 2 nations have an average of 6.36 days between games.
When you dig a little deeper though you begin to realise it is the lowest rank teams who receive the short straw in terms of the draw. Japan, Namibia, USA, Uruguay and Romania all have at least one four day turnaround. Compare that to England Italy and Ireland who all have at least seven days between each of their games during the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup.
In fairness the likes of New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, France and Scotland all have a four day turnaround, however there is a much bigger issue at play here. All the Tier 1 teams playing after a four day turnaround are playing their game against the fifth ranked side in their group whilst the Tier 2 nations are playing teams ranked above them after a short turnaround.
At this stage it’s important to remember that the Tier 1 nations have had squads together for months now and have been training in the most advanced facilities around the world with the support of top professionals. In contrast, some of the Tier 2 nations have had a much more limited training schedule owing to the fact that many of their players are only semi-professional, they are therefore impacted much more by the shorter turnarounds.
Throw into the mix the fact that some of the top ranked Tier 2 nations like Fiji and Tonga have two five day turnarounds each whilst no Tier 1 nation has more than one short turnaround and you begin to realise the obstacles smaller nations must overcome to ensure success against the top ranked sides.
You only have to look at Japan’s differing performances in their opening two games. During their first game they beat the Springboks in probably the greatest upset in World Cup history. Contrast that with their game against Scotland just four days later and you can see how the team noticeably tails off in the final quarter of the game (they conceded all of Scotland’s tries in the second half of the game).
I understand there are certain commercial pressures to have the major teams playing at the most lucrative times, but surely the current approach is incredibly short-sighted. If by some miracle Japan can overcome the scheduling bias and make the knockout rounds, the new audience it could generate in an incredibly lucrative market (that’s set to host the World Cup in 2019) could far surpass the short term revenue generated right now.
If World Rugby are genuinely looking to expand the game and encourage the growth of rugby in Tier 2 nations then they need to ensure that all teams are on an equal footing. What would be the harm for example in starting the World Cup a week earlier to give a bit more time to teams currently on short turnarounds.
Whatever the case, something needs to be done to allow Tier 2 nations the chance to develop and genuinely start to challenge for major honours.
If you’d like to see the analysis in full, you can do so here.