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Optimal Size of the Rugby World Cup

The 2011 Rugby World Cup has now progressed past the Pool Stage, with the Quarter-Finals to be played this coming weekend. Hosts New Zealand look to be in ominous form ahead of their clash with Argentina, with a tournament-ending injury to star fly-half Dan Carter and the ghosts of World Cups past seemingly their only remaining obstacles. Meanwhile, the other superpowers, South Africa and Australia, have looked somewhat lackluster. The latter's unexpected loss to Ireland was hugely disappointing for Tournament organizers (who had hoped for a dream Trans-Tasman Final), with both forced into the same Quarter-final and the winner to play (presumably) New Zealand in one Semi-final, while the weaker Northern Hemisphere teams battle it out for the other place in the Final.

All of this means that the knockout stages will be (by Rugby World Cup standards) wide open. Disappointingly, however, the same cannot be said of the Pool Stage. Since rugby's international-level pecking-order is more hierarchical than football (soccer) and even basketball, the International Rugby Board (IRB) was arguably premature in expanding the World Cup from 16 to 20 teams from the 1999 installment.

Expansion can be a good thing for a sport like rugby that is looking to break into new markets like Japan, Russia and USA (obviously for economic reasons), however, many commentators suggest this should not come at the expense of having too many hopelessly imbalanced (perhaps even physically dangerous) matches. The decline in balance has been evident by the number of woefully one-sided contests since then. The mean winning margin in all 110 Pool-stage games in the 1999, 2003 and 2007 World Cups was 33.1 points, compared with 24.8 for the earlier three World Cups. As a benchmark, the average winning margin in all 51 Knockout-stage matches (when it becomes interesting) back to the inaugural tournament in 1987  is 11.9 points.

The good news is that the average winning Pool-stage match margin in the current World Cup was noticeably lower (28.1 points) and no team managed to rack up a 'century', though Tonga’s victory over France (the result of which was academic) was the only genuine upset. This figure suggests that perhaps the IRB can now feel finally vindicated to have expanded the sport’s most important global tournament. Nevertheless, one hopes that further expansion does not occur in the near future – the depth is simply not there yet!

One other (amazing) economic development has occurred during the tournament with New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) Chief Executive Steve Tew hinting at a threat to boycott New Zealand from the next World Cup (2015 in England). This stems from massive quadrennial losses in revenues incurred from the lucrative Tri-Nations (Four Nations from 2012) tournament having to be shortened to accommodate the World Cup schedule. IRB Chief Executive Mike Miller ‘called his bluff’ by suggesting that even New Zealand were ‘replaceable’. One imagines, however, that eventually wiser heads will prevail and that a new schedule and/or financial model can be agreed upon. After all, while New Zealand may not have infinite economic power over this issue, in pure sporting terms, a Rugby World Cup without New Zealand would be like a FIFA World Cup without...well, Brazil.