How the 2011 Rugby World Cup should be organised
Introduction: this will seem long-winded to most people, but bear in mind that the actual regulations take dozens of pages.
I propose a qualifying tournament that any country could get through, at least in theory, so that if a team improves outside the top 10, it has a chance of making it to the finals.
The qualification path I propose is a lot simpler and fairer than the existing one. It also reinforces the trend towards rolling regional championships around the world, which will raise playing standards globally.
The finals should only have 16 teams and be spread over 25 days to reduce player exhaustion and avoid a situation where huge squads have to be assembled. The order of matches is designed to ensure that knowledge of which teams will qualify for the quarter-finals is left to the latest moment.
Having three automatic qualifiers, plus the host nation, ensures that even the third-place play-off matches are significant.
There are two scenarios: 1) host did not come in top 3 at previous World Cup; or 2) host did finish in top 3.
Scenario 1: Qualifying
Automatic qualifiers: current champions [seeded 1], host [seeded 2], most recent runner-up [seeded 3], most recent third place winner [seeded 4].
That leaves 12 qualifying slots to fill in a 16 team contest (which is far enough, as the physical demands of rugby suggest that a long gap between games is advisable than for soccer).
Regional qualifying tournaments in each of the following regions
Africa, Asia, Europe, North and Central America, Oceania, South America.
The regional authority can decide the format provided that:
i) if a championship is used, it must have annual promotion and relegation for at least as many years as there are divisions (e.g. if there are four divisions, the competition must be at least four years old by the time of the qualification year);
ii) this means that every country must have a mathematical possibility of qualifying for the next World Cup, at least for the playing season after the previous finals;
iii) there must be either a round-robin or a semi-final/third place play-off/final;
iv) matches for the top three places at least must be home and away;
v) all matches where home or away is applied must be drawn by lots.
So here’s how to ensure that the teams that qualify actually have some merit.
A) 1st place in each regional competition qualifies automatically (6 teams). This could generate something like the following list: Ireland, South Africa, Japan, Samoa, USA, Argentina.
B) 2rd places play randomly selected 2nd place opponents from another region. There is a home and an away tie with the winners qualifying automatically (3 teams). This could involve these countries: Italy, Namibia, Korea, Fiji, Canada, Uruguay.
i) 3rd placed teams play as with 2nd placed teams above, but losers are out and winners must play another round.
ii) The three 2nd placed teams who lost in (B) (3 teams) play winners of the 3rd place matches (3 teams), randomly selected. The winners qualify (3teams). Losers are out. The 3rd place teams could be something like this: Wales, Morocco, Hong Kong, Tonga, Trinidad & Tobago, Chile.
So if Scotland want to be at the 2011 World Cup, there will have to be an improvement on current performances. Boo Hoo!
Scenario 1: Finals
A) Group stage: 4 groups of 4. Top 2 in each group get to the quarter finals.
Each group gets:
i) one of the four seeded automatic qualifiers,(seeded as Winner , host , runner-up , 3rd place run-off );
ii) a regional winner drawn randomly (the two spare regional winners go to groups 3 and 4);
The draw is made after all countries have qualified.
Group A: 1st seed, a regional champion, a regional runner-up (that won against another regional runner-up), and a repechage team.
Group B: same as Group B, except the seeded team is the 2nd seed.
Group C: 3rd seed, two regional champions, and a repechage team.
Group D: 4th seed, two regional champions, and the remaining regional runner-up (that won against another regional runner-up).
For illustrative purposes, this is what the groups could look like if the 2007 Rugby World Cup had used this system.
Group A: England, Japan, Fiji or Italy, repechage.
Group B: France, Ireland, Canada or Namibia, repechage.
Group C: Australia, Samoa, Argentina, repechage.
Group D: New Zealand, USA, South Africa, Korea or Uruguay.
Order of group matches (illustration):
Game 1 (Gx1): teams 1 versus 3, Game 2: teams 2 versus 4, Game 3: teams 1 versus 2; Game 4: teams 3 versus 4; Game 5: teams 1 versus 4; and Game 6: teams 2 versus 3.
My reasoning is that: 1) the crucial game is likely to be between the second and third ranked game, so let’s keep that for last; and 2) it would be nice if the first game in the group did not result in a total mismatch.
Suggested Group schedule:
Day 1: 1) Host versus a Region 2nd (GB1); 2) Champions versus a Region 2nd (GA1)
Day 2: GB2, GA2
Day 3: GC1, GC2
Day 4: GD1, GD2
Day 5: Rest Day
Day 6: GA4, GA3
Day 7: GB4, GB3
Day 8: GC4, GC3
Day 9: GD4, GD3
Day 10: Rest Day
Day 11: [GB5, GB6 simultaneously]
Day 12: [GA5, GA6 simultaneously]
Day 13: [GC5, GC6 simultaneously]
Day 14: [GD5, GD6 simultaneously]
Day 15: Rest Day
Day 16: Rest Day
Day 17: 1) 2nd Group A v 1st Group C; 2) 1st Group A v 2d Group C
Day 18: 3) 1st Group B v 2nd Group D; 4) 2nd Group B v 1st Group D
Day 19: Rest Day
Day 20: Rest Day
Day 21: 1) Winner QF2 v Winner QF4; 2) Winner QF1 v Winner QF3
Day 22: Rest Day
Day 23: Rest Day
Third place play-off:
Day 24: Loser SF1 v Loser SF2
Day 25: Winner SF1 v Winner SF2
For spectator purposes and broadcasting schedules, it is worth checking how the number of games per day pans out: Day 1: 2 games; Day 2: 2games; D3: 2; D4: 2 D5: 0; D6: 2; D7: 2; D8: 2; D9: 2; D10: 0; D11: 2 D12: 2; D13: 2; D14: 2; D15: 0; D16: 0; D: 17: 2; D18: 2 D19: 0; D20: 0; D21: 2; D22: 0; D23: 0; D24: 1; D25: final.
I would imagine this sort of schedule is sustainable for players (compared with the 20 team format they have this time), but keeps the tournament to just about three and a half weeks. Start on a Thursday and the group stage is over in two weeks, then two rest days, then the rest of the tournament is over in eight days.
Host is seed 2, unless also defending champion (in which case seeded 1). Two other top 3 from previous world cup complete the 1,2,3 seeding. Qualifier with best record in qualifying is seeded 4: (worked out by percentage of matches won and by highest average score). Tie-breaker is 1) number games played, 2) world ranking at the time of draw for groups. Draw made AFTER all countries qualified.
The extra team can be made up by having the repechage loser that came closest to winning take the final place. That team is place in Group A with the first seed.