Call it the Third/Fourth place play-off, call it the bronze medal match, call it what you like. Friday’s game between Wales and New Zealand is essentially a losers’ final.
A game that no one aspires to play in. Where physically battered and emotionally shattered players take the pitch in a sort of lap of dishonour; where all people talk about is ‘playing for pride’, when pride has been lost through semi-final defeat. No one cares about the result, not really. The Third/Fourth place play-off is essentially a friendly and, in my view, should discontinued at World Cups.
First, it acts as a distraction from the main event. The whole of the rugby world should have their eyes set on Saturday’s final between England and South Africa. This is rugby’s biggest game in four years, the pinnacle of six weeks of scintillating, aggressive and – most importantly – competitive rugby. Instead, there is another game to be played beforehand, disturbing the week of calm before the storm that is the World Cup Final.
Secondly, it’s unfair on the players. At the weekend, after their respective semi-final defeats, Wales and New Zealand were out of the World Cup. That’s how knockout tournaments work: you lose, and you’re out. Or that’s how they should work at least. Instead, the players have to gear themselves up for their second international fixture in the space of a week (a tough challenge for any sportsman or woman), whilst having the added weight of gearing themselves up for a game they came to the tournament hoping not to play.
Finally, and most crucially, the game is treated with no respect by players and coaches alike. If coming third in a World Cup was treated met the same esteem as winning a bronze medal in the Olympics, then it would make sense to have a game deciding who earned that title. Instead it is treated as a badge of shame rather that honour. Eddie Jones’ glib remark of “my best wishes to Warren and make sure he enjoys the third-fourth place play-off”, coupled with Steve Hansen’s decision to make seven changes to the team that started against England – essentially using it as an opportunity to give retiring All Blacks a final run-out – highlights the devalued nature of Friday’s fixture.
Rugby World Cups are obviously fantastic because of the opportunity they provide for smaller rugby playing nations to come up against more established ones. And this is why the group stages are fantastic. For the Namibia or Canadian players to even be on the same pitch as the likes of Bauden Barrett and Keiren Read is career defining and what people love about major sporting competitions.
However, once you get to the group stages, it should be knock-out and cut-throat. Every player in the tournament will tell you there are no prizes for second place, so why should there be one for third?
By Will Sewell.