By Josh Crane
One thing that is proven to have substantial influence in a Rugby World Cup is international experience. When looking at winning match-day squads from 1999 onwards (before this, fewer matches generally and players mixing work with rugby in the amateur era do not provide a fair comparison), they all have caps in abundance with, on average, over 850 caps; the pinnacle being New Zealand in 2015 who amassed 1225 caps amongst the match-day 23. None of the remaining match-day 23s* from this year reach these heights, but New Zealand do top the pile again amassing 1093 caps between them, followed by Ireland with 1026 caps and then Australia with 966.
However, 4 teams don’t make the grade – Japan (481), Fiji (503), France (721) and Scotland (760), which cuts our 10 down to 6.
*Match-day 23s based on players selected to Rugby World Cup squads and are predicted to make up the first-choice team.
It is shown in most sports that players perform best when they are in their prime years and this is no different for rugby. A player’s prime years in rugby are seen to be between 27 and 29, where the player is still seen to be in peak physical condition as well as having gained substantial experience. Rugby World Cup winning sides of the past highlight this with (a) 5 of the 8 having the majority of their squad in this category and (b) all 8 having a combined average of 30% of their final Match day squads in this category.
Unfortunately for Ireland this crosses them off the list, having only 4 players in this age range (only 17% of their match-day 23). If this same question had been asked a year ago, they had double this amount which may be one reason behind their drop-off in performances from 2018 to 2019.
Defence is key for any team to not lose a game, but you can only win games by attack and getting points on the board. This is likely to be the case in Japan with the hot weather conditions and dry pitches providing a platform for attacking rugby. Previous winners show the importance of having a good attack by not only scoring lots of points vs Tier 2 nations but also having a good enough attack to terrorise even a Tier 1 defence, which is crucial in the latter stages of the competition. Previous winners of the competition have averaged just under 30 points per game against Tier 1 nations in their winning campaigns with New Zealand averaging over 40 points per game in 1987. This doesn’t bode well for Wales who have only scored more than 20 points once against Tier 1 nations in their last 5 games (average of 17 points) and having not scored more than 30 points against one since June 2018.
Australia scrape through this round averaging 25 points per game in their last 5 games against Tier 1s, but if you remove the exceptional New Zealand side from 1987, this fits in with the average which slips to just a point above.
Even though rugby is a team sport, in important games it often does take one player to lead their team home – often done by one of the world’s best. This is highlighted by the winning team of every historical RWC having had at least 1 player nominated for the ‘Player of the Year’ award in the year leading up to it. Furthermore, all bar one team had the Player of the Year for the Rugby World Cup year also (when New Zealand won in 2011, Thierry Dusautoir (France) won Player of the Year).
This cuts our short list in half with only New Zealand and South Africa, out of the remaining teams, having players nominated last year (2 each, De Klerk and Marx for South Africa; Barrett and Ioane for New Zealand).
Now we have narrowed it down to 2 teams it really does take something quite trivial to separate them. The fact is that no team has won the Rugby Championship (Tri Nations previously) and Rugby World Cup in the same year since they both first coincided in 1999… it is almost as if New Zealand planned it winning it in the last 3 years. Further to this, only Australia (in 2015) reached a World Cup final after winning the Rugby Championship, which no team had done before.