Improving the Rugby World Cup Draw

With the countdown to Rugby World Cup 2023 shifting from years to months, it should be time for the draw of fixtures. Instead, we’re stuck looking at some strange groupings.

A quick refresh: the men’s Rugby World Cup features 20 teams divided into 4 pools of 5 teams. Those teams qualify via the following paths:

  • Finishing in the top 3 in their pool during the most recent RWC
  • Hosting the competition
  • Regional competition
  • Final Qualification Tournament

Teams are divided into ‘bands’ of four teams with one team from each band being drawn into each pool. The first 3 bands are filled with the direct qualifiers from the prior tournament separated by World Rugby rankings. The top regional qualifying spots (Oceania 1, Europe 1, Americas 1, and Asia/Pacific 1 for 2023) go into band 4, while band 5 is filled with the remaining positions (Africa 1, Europe 2, Americas 2, FQT).

The draw for Rugby World Cup 2023 was conducted in December of 2020. Think that sounds early? Rankings as of January 1, 2020 were used to determine bands. Essentially, that’s the ranking immediately following the prior World Cup. While isolating the craziness of 2020 makes sense, basing the draw on standings 4 years before the event is pointless at best.

Do you want to be judged now based on who you were 4 years ago?

It’s also worth noting that only the automatic qualifiers were slated for RWC 2023 at that point. The draw was conducted with 40% of the field outstanding.

Consider the bands used by World Rugby to draw pools. World Rugby rankings are in parenthesis.

Band 1Band 2Band 3Band 4Band 5
South Africa (1)Ireland (5)Scotland (9)Oceania 1Africa 1
New Zealand (2)Australia (6)Argentina (10)Europe 1Europe 2
England (3)France (7)Fiji (11)Americas 1Americas 2
Wales (4)Japan (8)Italy (12)Asia/Pacific 1FQT

That draw led to the pools we have for 2023. Regional qualification and FQT slots have been replaced with the appropriate side and World Rugby rankings in parenthesis are as of the start of 2023.

Pool APool BPool CPool D
New Zealand (3)South Africa (4)Wales (9)England (5)
France (2)Ireland (1)Australia (6)Japan (10)
Italy (12)Scotland (7)Fiji (14)Argentina (8)
Uruguay (17)Tonga (15)Georgia (13)Samoa (11)
Namibia (21)Romania (20)Portugal (18)Chile (22)

Consider the average ranking of teams in each pool.

Pool APool BPool CPool D
Average rank of teams within pool119.41211.2
Stand deviation of teams within the pool by ranking7.517.064.155.78

Translation: if World Rugby rankings are reliable, Pool A and B are terrible to watch, while Pools C and D will be significantly more competitive. New Zealand, France, South Africa, and Ireland will certainly advance from the first 2 pools. Pools C and D are much more in the air.

After the pool stage, the impact will continue. If Pools A and B do play out as widely expected, 2 of New Zealand, France, South Africa and Ireland (the top 4 teams in the world) will be out before the semi finals. Frankly there’s a real possibility that the World Cup’s semifinals will be a coronation for the two survivors instead of a pair of tight match ups.

Fixing the Rugby World Cup Draw

Assuming qualification remained the same, the World Cup draw could be significantly improved with two simple changes:

  • Conduct the draw in January of the World Cup year
  • Create bands based on start of year rankings

A later draw would be far from a challenge. Use it as a tip off to a year of celebrating rugby. FIFA holds its draw with all teams determined in the year of the event (2022 being an outlier due to some spots not filled yet after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine delayed a few matches).

Below, we’ve built bands using the system outlined with one more tweak: we’ve granted the host country the Band 1 spot in Pool A to ensure the kickoff match (typically featuring the host) faces no scheduling issues. Teams whose band position would improve are in bold, while those whose position would drop are in italics.

Band 1Band 2Band 3Band 4Band 5
France (2)England (5)Wales (9)Georgia (13)Portugal (18)
Ireland (1)Australia (6)Japan (10)Fiji (14)Romania (20)
New Zealand (3)Scotland (7)Samoa (11)Tonga (15)Namibia (21)
South Africa (4)Argentina (8)Italy (12)Uruguay (17)Chile (22)

France, Ireland, Scotland, and Argentina would all receive better positions based on results since the last RWC. England and Japan would each drop a band due to declined performance over the last three years, while Wales would drop two bands. Changes for Samoa and Fiji are due to their ranking being different than the qualification slot they occupies designated band.

Using these bands and a random number generator, we’ve simulated the results such a process could yield.

Pool APool BPool CPool D
France (2)South Africa (4)New Zealand (3)Ireland (4)
Scotland (7)Argentina (8)England (5)Australia (6)
Wales (9)Samoa (11)Japan (10)Italy (12)
Fiji (14)Georgia (13)Tonga (15)Uruguay (17)
Portugal (18)Romania (20)Namibia (21)Chile (22)

With that, we’ve run the same statistics as above.

Pool APool BPool CPool D
Average rank of teams within pool1011.210.812.2
Stand deviation of teams within the pool by ranking5.555.346.586.71

Delaying the draw and placing teams into bands based on start of yield rankings would provide a more competitive competition in both the group stage and the knockout stage. Of course, 2023 could still result in injuries or changes to form. However, an effort by World Rugby to provide better match ups throughout the competition would increase attention and revenue.

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