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!