Rugby World Cup 2011

I’m surprised there hasn’t been more said about the draw for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which was held last week.

Some people might try to tell you that there is still a lot to happen between now and 2011, with qualifying tournaments to be held etc, and lots of time for the form of the contenders to come and go.

But I think we pretty much have the information we need now to guess the likely quarter- and, dear I say it, semi-finalists.

There are basically nine teams who are likely quarter finalists in 2011:

  • The tri-nations : New Zealand, Australia and South Africa;
  • The home nations: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales;
  • France; and
  • Argentina.

There are only three countries outside of that group who have ever made the quarter-finals at a World Cup:

  • Fiji in 1987 (on points difference over Argentina & Italy) and again in 2007 (thanks to an upset victory over Wales)
  • Canada in 1991 (coming through a very weak pool containing France, Fiji and Romania)
  • Samoa in 1995 (again at the expense of Wales)

Considering possible upsets this time, it would seem Pool D is the place to look.  Wales will again need to beat both Fiji and another qualifier from Oceania (I presume Samoa, given Fiji and Tonga are already qualified?)  As we’ve seen, they have been known to lose these sort of games in the past.

But assuming that doesn’t happen, we’re left with nine teams vying for eight spots, so only one of those will miss out.

It looks like Scotland is the most likely candidate, as they have ended up in Pool B, with Argentina and England.

So, the quarter final match ups are:

  1. England v Wales
  2. France v Australia
  3. NZ v Ireland
  4. South Africa v Argentina

Australia has the most difficult assignment here – they have a pretty weak pool, with just Ireland and Italy to beat, and then go straight into a tough semi-final against France.  We all know what happened to NZ under pretty similar circumstances in the last world cup.

On recent form, it’s hard to pick a winner from England and Wales.  They have three wins each from their last six matches, with all games won by the home team. See: http://www.pickandgo.info/

Either way, it’s hard to imagine either of those teams beating the winner of Australia v France in the first semi-final.

In the bottom half of the draw you’d have to back NZ and South Africa to win and face each other in the semi-finals, with the winner then odds on in my book to win the following week in the final too.

So, there you go … to make the final the All Blacks will need to beat France in the pool match and then get up over South Africa in the semi-final.

It’s not at all out of the question that the final could be a repeat of 1987, with the All Blacks coming up against France at Eden Park.

What do you think?

31-December

I notice the Sunday Start Times today picked up my story about Malcolm Gladwell’s theory (from Outliers) about the birth dates of top sports people and specifically how it relates to the All Blacks:

Early arrivals get jump start

The theory is that when age-group teams are selected those that are born just after the cut-off date have an advantage as they will be slightly older, and that advantage will then be compounded by the additional coaching and playing opportunities they have over the years, until they actually are better than others born later in the year.

And the data appears to back this up.

Here is a graph of the birth months of the 45 All Blacks from this year:

2008-all-blacks-birth-months

In this squad 55% of the players are born in the first four months of the year, where you would only expect this to be 33% if the dates were evenly distributed.

So, those of you who were born in the second half of the year now have a good explaination for why you never made it, while those of us born in the first half need to find another reason (my excuse: I was over the weight limit for my own age group when I was a kid, so I was playing against older kids anyway).

Looking at this, I was especially interested to see that there are five of the current squad born in December.

As if to prove that there is always an exception to every rule, there is even one player in the current squad born on the 31st of December.

If the theory is to be believed this is the single worst possible day for an aspiring rugby player to be born, as they will be the youngest candidate for every age-group team, constantly having to compete with kids who are older and therefor bigger and more co-ordinated etc.

So, for somebody born at the end of December to make it they must be an exceptional player.

That player: Richie McCaw.

Now that’s an outlier!

Richie

Third largest?

Yesterday it was announced that Wellington would host two of the quarter-finals in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Here is the announcement from the Minister of Sport, Clayton Cosgrove (emphasis mine):

“In terms of hosting major global sporting events, Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2011 is like New Zealand’s ‘Olympics’.  It is the third largest sporting event in the world. An event of this scale and significance offers every city and town a rare opportunity to realise a wide range of benefits across the sport and business sectors, as well as the community.”

The third largest?  Really?

In the spirit of Wikipedia: citation needed.

Clearly the Olympics and the Football World Cup are #1 and #2.  But, it seems to me there are a lot of other more global sports that could claim third position ahead of rugby:

  • Football: European Champs or Champions League
  • Golf: The Ryder Cup (or any of the four majors)
  • Tennis: Wimbledon (or any of the four majors)
  • Cycling: The Tour de France
  • Basketball: World Champs or NBA Playoffs
  • Athletics: World Champs

What about the Commonwealth Games?  Surely that’s bigger?

What about the Superbowl?  Isn’t that the most watched sporting event?

What about the Winter Olympics?

Can you think of any others?

I guess it all depends how you measure it.

This post from the WSJs “number guy” is worth a read:

When It Comes to TV Stats, Viewer Discretion Is Advised

Either way, I’m sure it will be a big weekend in Wellington when the worlds largest sporting event involving teams of 15 people playing with an oval ball comes to town!

:-)

Reinventing the haka

In a recent post, Kevin Roberts asks some interesting questions about the All Blacks’ haka:

“Is it time to change our view on the Haka? Have we spent too much time investing in its cultural implications and the reaction of the opposition?

Should we – a) perform it for ourselves in the changing shed as we did successfully in Cardiff against Wales, b) perform it after the game in celebration of victory as Titch and the Sevens teams do, or c) put it under wraps until we win the World Cup in 2011.”

I think that making it a private thing would be a shame – there is something quite special about the buzz created by a haka in a massive stadium setting. But, treating it as something that is done after a win only seems a great idea.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean that it loses it’s impact as a challenge. Think of it as a challenge to the opposition to lift their game for the next time the two teams meet – playing nicely into the All Black ethos of wanting to win every match.

If you think this is crazy, or that the haka is untouchable, consider that the haka has only been a feature of All Blacks home test matches since 1987 (prior to that it was only performed on international tours, and even then generally badly). And, in the last couple of years it has evolved further with the introduction of Kapo o Pango.

I think we definitely underestimate the impact of the haka as a motivations for opposition teams, and it would be great to re-claim it for ourselves.

What do you think?

Why couldn’t this happen?

Would performing the haka after a victory have the desired impact?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

PS It’s interesting to note that one of the three suggestions I made for re-invorgorating the All Blacks following the World Cup last year has already come to pass with mid-week matches scheduled for the end-of-year tour to the UK. There is also a Bledisloe Cup match to be held in Hong Kong. I expect this to be a huge success – perhaps the prelude to a full Pan Pacific Championships to be held somewhere in Asia? ;-)

Re-invigorating the All Blacks

In the sports news this week…

Some wally from the Australian Rugby Union thinks that the Super 14 and Tri-Nations need “re-invigorating”.

What’s more his solution is adding more teams to the Super 14. Specifically, a Melbourne-based team blended from players from Argentina, Australia & the Pacific Islands (dare I ask where the coach might come from?) That would also pave the way for adding Argentina to the Tri-Nations.

Of course, both competitions currently have names based on the number of teams they feature, so both will need re-branding, which is exciting news for the marketing folks I’m sure.

Enough, I say!

Here are two simple lessons that seems to have evaded rugby administrators:

  1. More is often less; and
  2. Variety is the spice of life.

For what it’s worth, here is what I think the NZRU should do in 2010 when their current broadcasting arrangement expires:

Scrap the Tri-Nations & Super 14

Adding Argentina to an annual Tri-Nations competition is not going to make it more interesting, it will just add more games and more travel.

Playing a competition over so many weeks and across so many time zones just doesn’t create the interest that is required. Playing over more weeks and more time zones doesn’t seem like a sensible solution.

Playing regularly against NZ & South African teams might have created a golden generation within Australian rugby, but it’s time we put them back into their box.

Back in 1996 this new competition was an exciting proposition. But nobody cares enough about this anymore. It’s time to move on.

Cancelling the Super 14 would allow each of the individual countries to put their energies back into developing a strong local provincial competition (somebody should remind that chap from the ARU that their track record in this respect is not exactly stellar and that they might get their own house in order before they start to giving advice to the rest of us!)

And, with SANZAR out of the way South Africa would be free to affiliate themselves with European competitions, which actually makes a lot more sense for them given their location/time zone.

Create a Pacific Championships

This could be a mini World Cup style tournament, played every four years (in between full World Cups) featuring teams from around the Asia & Pacific region.

The model I have in mind here is football’s European Championships.

One possible format for this would be a 12 team tournament, with four pools of three teams playing each other and the winners advancing to a knock-out semi-final and final. Perhaps those teams finishing second in each pool could also participate in a knock-out round of their own (like the plate format used in sevens). Either way this would mean the whole tournament could be completed in just five weeks.

Just like the full World Cup the tournament could be hosted in a different country every four years (unlike the World Cup we might actually allow the tournament to be hosted by countries outside of the major rugby playing nations – I hear they have a few big stadiums in Japan which should be sufficient for the inaugural tournament).

Here are the top 12 teams from this region based on current world rankings (in brackets):

  • New Zealand (2)
  • Argentina (3)
  • Australia (5)
  • Fiji (9)
  • Samoa (12)
  • Tonga (13)
  • Canada (14)
  • Japan (18)
  • USA (19)
  • Uruguay (20)
  • Korea (23)
  • Chile (24)

Nine of those teams played in the last World Cup, so there should be no concerns about the quality of the teams that would be involved (assuming of course that we can convince Argentina to be involved along with those of us who didn’t qualify for the semis in the last World Cup!)

One of the many great things about this idea is that the All Blacks would end up playing in a lot of places that they don’t currently ever visit, and playing teams that they currently rarely (if ever) play outside of World Cups.

Consider this…

Q: Excluding Australia and South Africa how many times have the All Blacks played in the other 9 countries listed above?

A: Only 6 times, all of them in Argentina (and only twice in the professional era). They have never played in the Islands, Asia or Americas.

Playing in other countries can only be good for the growth of the All Black brand around the world.

What’s more, it would provide an incentive for players to remain in New Zealand between World Cups.

Tours

It’s amazing that this even needs to be in a list like this. You don’t have to go back too many years when the international tour, both tours to NZ by international teams and extended overseas tours by the All Blacks, was part of the life-blood of rugby.

It’s telling that I can remember so many of the details of the 1996 tour to South Africa (the mid-week captain, for example, was a young Taine Randal; there were actually four tests, but only the last three counted towards the test series; the winning penalty in the second test was kicked by Jon Preston who was only on the field as a replacement; after holding on desperately to a slim lead for what seems to be an eternity in the closing minutes of the test at Loftus Versfeld, when the final whistle finally blew captain Sean Fitzpatrick spend a minute lying on the ground exausted). Meanwhile, the details of the many Tri-Nations games played by the same teams in South Africa since them all sort of blend into one, and seem to have far less significance.

In 2005 we got a taste and reminder of this here with the tour to NZ by the Lions. For the first time in years a touring team played against provincial competition in provincial stadiums, fans from overseas visited en mass, and the All Blacks lifted themselves to the challenge and played some spectacular rugby. It was a huge success. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody to try and replicate this on a more frequent basis.

Think of the great tours overseas that the All Blacks could take – to Great Britain, to France, to South Africa, to Argentina. They could take a full squad, play mid-week and weekends, and play a proper test series.

That would be worth getting up in the middle of the night for!

What do you think?

Dark Days

It’s been a long week.

It all started about 25 minutes into the second half last Sunday morning, when Daniel Carter went off injured and the TV pictures showed the look of absolute fear in his eyes. I sunk back into my chair. From then on in it all seemed to have an air of inevitability about it.

Four more years, boys!

Once again we’ve collectively decided to find an external scape goat. In ’95 it was Suzy the mysterious (and malicious) waitress. This time around it’s the referee Wayne Barnes.

Sure, he didn’t have a great game. But, it’s rubbish to blame him entirely for the result.

Luke McAlister didn’t deserve to be sent off. But great teams deal with situations like that and get on with it. Remember when England were reduced to 13 men by a whistle-happy ref in Wellington in 2003? They dug deep and held on. The All Blacks did that too on Sunday morning … for 8 1/2 minutes. It wasn’t enough. (I also wonder if ithe whole thing wasn’t still playing on Luke’s mind when he lined up the conversion to Rodney So’oialo’s try?)

The pass to Michalak was clearly forward too. But, when I played at school we were always taught to play the ball rather than wait for the whistle. Was the pass so forward that it helped Jauzion to avoid the tacklers who should have been all over him? And, players aside, if anybody is taking heat for this it should be the touch judge Jonathan Kaplan (from South Africa … now there’s a conspiracy theory waiting to be uncovered!)

Whatever though … if it makes you feel better, believe that Wayne Barnes was the only thing between us and a deserved victory.

Graham Henry’s planning has also been given the retrospective thumbs-down. I suppose that is inevitable. By definition a successful strategy is one that works. The criticism would be more credible if it had been made before the outcome was known.

Of course, everybody now believes that they always thought it was a bad idea to rest players during the Super 14. But I remember being pretty bloody glad about it when Chris Jack was injured and James Ryan and Jason Eaton were ruled out entirely. I could hardly watch the warm-up test matches earlier in the year or the pool matches earlier in the tournament for fear that Richie McCaw or Jerry Collins et al would break a leg or something.

And, in the name of developing better combinations we all always believed that the 1st XV should play every test, didn’t we? God only knows how Nick Evans or Luke McAlister would have gone at first-five when Dan Carter went off had that happened, or how Andrew Hore, the third choice hooker, would have measured up to the French tight-five given that Kevin Mealamu was unavailable.

So, if not the ref or the coach, who is to blame?

Obviously the players in the first instance. But, I think that in a strange way we bring it on ourselves too … all of us who care.

We all got a little ahead of ourselves.

In the lead-up to the Cup the players talked of needing to win three games in a row. The assumption clearly was that we’d play in all three.

I don’t think anybody, including those on the field, really expected to be playing France in Cardiff. It was supposed to be Ireland or Argentina (two teams we’ve never lost to). It wasn’t supposed to be that tough.

Where was Kapo o Pango? We were saving that for the semi or final were we?

We all got a bit arrogant, and forgot that we have to earn results. That we’re the best team in the world going by past results and rankings counts for no points at all on the scoreboard. It just makes the oppositions victory all the more glorious when it’s achieved.

The reality is that there are five teams who are likely to win a Rugby World Cup: the four that have previously won one and France. If Argentina can knock over South Africa this weekend then they will deserve to be added to this list as a sixth, but that’s a big ask.

Prior to last weekend we were the only one of those five countries who hadn’t previously been knocked out in a quarter-final. Our win against South Africa in 2003 was the only other time we’ve come up against one of the top five in a quarter-final. (Interestingly the last three winners of the World Cup were knocked out in the quarter-finals in the World Cup prior to the one they won, and South Africa, who must now be favourite to win this one, was knocked out in the quarter-finals in 2003 by us, so there is a pattern threatening to develop there. Perhaps NZ v Australia in 2011 eh?)

Here are our results against these top five teams in previous World Cup matches:

  • 1987: v France in the final – won 29-9
  • 1991: v England in pool play – won 18-12
  • 1991: v Australia in the semi-finals – lost 16-6
  • 1995: v England in the semi-finals – won 45-29
  • 1995: v South Africa in the finals – lost 15-12 in extra-time
  • 1999: v England in pool play – won 30-16
  • 1999: v France in the semi-finals – lost 43-31
  • 2003: v South Africa in the quarter-finals – won 29-9
  • 2003: v Australia in the semi-finals – lost 22-10

So, 5 wins & 4 losses (3 wins & 4 losses in knock-out situations).

Including last Sunday’s result makes it 5 wins & 5 losses. Hardly the basis for the overwhelming confidence we all felt leading into the tournament.

What’s the definition of arrogance?

In fact all five teams are surprisingly even when compared this way:

  • Australia: 7 wins & 4 losses
  • England: 5 wins & 6 losses
  • South Africa: 4 wins & 3 losses
  • France: 2 wins & 5 losses

Australia is the best of the bunch, with their two World Cup victories. France is the worst, their only two wins are at our expense, and they are the only one of the five yet to win the Cup (I honestly hope will win this one … if for nothing else, to prevent South Africa or England winning another!).

At least one of those teams is going to lose again in the next 24 hours.

We all expect the All Blacks to win every game. If Graham Henry had taken a second-rate All Blacks team to France and gotten thumped prior to the World Cup then we wouldn’t have let any of them back in the country. No such problems for Bernard Laporte it seems – they made him Minister of Sport!

The problem is our expectations are just not based on reality.

And, in the heat of battle they surely weigh a bloke down, no?

I can’t help but think the complete lack of composure and loss of structure the All Blacks suffered in the final 20 minutes wasn’t in some way all of our fault.

Reconditioned?

I just wrote this …

I was living in the UK during the Rugby World Cup in 2003 when England became the first Northern Hempishpere team to win.

(As an aside, I was also living in Australia in 1999 when the All Blacks got beaten by France in the semis and Australia went on to win. All Blacks fans will be pleased to hear I’m planning on staying in NZ for the next six weeks!)

One of the things that kept me sane in the land of Jonny Wilkinson during those dark days was Inky.

I’ve talked before here about his weekly missives.

Steve, a reader from the US, has pointed out to me that Inky’s updates have dried up since the end of the Tri-Nations.

I find it hard to believe that at the start of the World Cup Inky doesn’t have an opinion to share.

Can anybody help?

If you’re reading Inky, we miss you!

And then, this in my inbox …

He’s back, and he’s reconditioned.

Yay!

Steven Kempton: NZRU should buy a UK club team

In a comment to my post about My Football Club, Steven Kempton (a.k.a. The Asia Pacific Headhunter) makes an excellent suggestion:

“I’d prefer NZ did something to try and buy a rugby club in the UK. I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen for years that it’s in the NZRU’s best interests to try and purchase a UK club to extend the AB’s brand and also to give the players an option to play overseas but return, same with coaches. You’re in Wellington Rowan, walk down the road and give Jock Hobbs a word for me…”

Interesting idea! The NZRU model is to contract all players to the national union. This makes for clear priorities: All Blacks, Super 14, then NPC (there is a bit of confusion where the Sevens team fits into this, but I’ll overlook that for now). The European model is quite different. They seem to prefer a football-style setup, where the best players from all over the world are contracted to the European club sides (at massive salaries) and only “released” to play for their national teams at the clubs leisure. As a consequence they are more than happy to pay top dollar/pound to contract the best players from NZ, and really don’t care that the NZRU policy means that these players are then not available for international selection. And it means that international sides that tour NZ in their off-season are often missing many of the top players. One thing is for sure: we don’t have much influence sitting down here and trying to tell them what we think they should do. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! There is lots to like about Steven suggestion:

  • It would diversify the NZRU revenues, and give them direct exposure to the lucrative European market
  • It would provide a logical option to players and coaches who want to live and play in Europe
  • It would give the NZRU a seat at the table in the arm wrestle between clubs and national unions in Europe
  • It would give the thousands of kiwis living in the UK a team to support and a reason to care about the club competitions (I struggled to get excited about this when I was living there)
  • It would provide a hedge against the possibility that the clubs do take control of the game in Europe and severely diminish the appeal of international games outside of the World Cup
  • It would go down like a cup of warm vomit with the RFU and IRB (this reason alone is justification in my opinion)

So, you tell me: why couldn’t this happen? Mr. Hobbs?

Kick-off at 3am

Why do we get up in the middle of the night to watch live sport?

A few weeks back Michael Barnett, the Chief Executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce was advising bosses to take it easy on staff who had been up all night watching the Americas Cup.

I guess we should plan for a massive national productivity dip in September in time for the Rugby World Cup.

Mark Cuban has a “hypothesis” which explains it:

“The greater the number of people that watch content simultaneously, the greater the emotional attachment of the viewer.”

So, if you follow this logic, the reason we like to watch is because everybody else is watching at the same time. And, of course, you can’t influence the outcome of the match unless you’re watching it live!

Although, not everybody agrees with Mr Cuban.

P.S. Wasn’t it great to see a smile on Richie McCaw’s face at the end of the game tonight. Long may it be so. :-)

All the cliches in the world

Here is a fun game to play next time you’re watching a rugby game on Sky…

Count how many times the commentators say: “All the [blah] in the world”.

There are lots of variants:

  • All the time in the world
  • All the space in the world
  • All the pace in the world
  • All the skills in the world

You get the idea.

Grant Nisbett is especially fond of this phrase.

Score a bonus point each time Jerry Collins is prefixed “All Black Hardman”.

Or, if you just can’t take it anymore, you can switch to The Alternative Rugby Commentary, broadcast direct to your living room via Skype.

I was put onto this by Kristin Savage, whose new blog is another I’m following.

Kristin is the guy behind Availabuild, a new competitor in the very popular “RateMyPlumber.com” category. They have a slightly different approach, focusing on solving the problem of availability: you don’t want to have to call a hundred tradesman just to find one who is available when you need them, and they really don’t want to be constantly interrupted by your call. It’s an interesting idea. I’m sure they’d be keen to hear what you think of their implementation.

Are the All Blacks winning more than ever?

I have a few hours to kill before the start of tonights All Blacks test vs. France. So, a rugby post seems appropriate.

If you’re a rugby fan you’ll already know about Inky.

Or, at least, you do now.

Here are two quotes from one of his recent newsletters that jumped out at me:

“Now that we have man-mountain forwards ourselves, with our all-round skills still in abundance we are compiling a higher win ratio than ever.”

“We will play rugby better than anyone else because we live and breathe its core principle of fourteen men working to put a fifteenth into space.”

A higher win ratio than ever? Really?

Here are what the numbers show:

When Played Won %
1900s 14 11 79%
1910s 10 8 80%
1920s 14 7 50%
1930s 22 14 64%
1940s 10 4 40%
1950s 30 22 73%
1960s 42 35 83%
1970s 45 27 60%
1980s 57 45 79%
1990s 92 68 74%
2000s 1 82 68 83%

So, yes, they are winning now more than ever. And playing more than ever too!

In the 20 years since the first World Cup in 1987 the ABs have played 193 tests and won 154 of them (hopefully 155 by the time many of you read this). That’s an 80% win record while playing more games than were played in the previous 80 years.

Here is how they stack up against quality opposition 2 in the World Cup era:

Opposition Played Won %
Australia 44 27 61%
England 14 10 71%
France 21 15 71%
South Africa 33 23 70%
TOTAL 112 75 67%

So even against the very best they still win twice as often as they lose.

Of course, the only problem with sustained exceptional performance like this is that it comes to be taken for granted.

Stats courtesy of www.pickandgo.info

(1) includes 2000-2007, up to and including last weekends test vs. France.

(2) that is, countries that have played in one or more World Cup final.

Rotation

Kiwi cricket coach John Bracewell is taking a bit of stick for his new rotation policy.

This is Richard Boock from the Herald last week (well before the embrassing result in Auckland over the weekend):

“No one in their right mind will take seriously a man who employs a rotation policy despite not having 11 full-strength players, and at a time when New Zealand cricket has roughly the same depth as a toddler’s swimming pool.”

Nice analogy!

Throughout the last All Black season Graham Henry was similarly criticised for his selections. The results all went his way though and he now has the luxury of selecting the team for the upcoming World Cup from a large pool of proven experienced players. So, with hindsight it’s hard to argue the critics were justified.

Time will tell if history treats Braces as kindly.

I imagine that the players themselves have mixed feelings about being rotated, although they don’t express it in public. For the stars of the team, who will be automatic selections when the crunch time comes, it’s probably nice to get a chance to relax. But for the players battling for a place in the team it must suck to sit and watch while somebody else gets a chance to impress in their position.

And, these are all competitive people who don’t like to lose, individually or as a team.

Must be frustrating …