The structure of the upcoming Rugby World Cup shares some of the flaws of the Cricket World Cup, which we discussed some months ago.
Twenty teams are entered, divided into four groups of five. The top two from each group advance to the quarterfinals.
Let's look at the five groups. In case you don't know the relative strengths of the various teams, FRB has included the bookmakers' odds to win the Cup (omitting them for teams who are 1000-1 or more):
New Zealand 3-5, France 20, Japan, Tonga, Canada
England 15, Argentina 250, Scotland 350, Georgia, Romania
Australia 4, Ireland 40, Italy, USA, Russia
South Africa 10, Wales 100, Samoa 350, Fiji 800, Namibia
There will be 40 matches in the preliminary round. Study the groups and odds, and pick out the most intriguing storylines. Here's FRB's list:
1. Will Argentina or Scotland get the second qualifying spot in Group B behind England?
2. Can Samoa, or perhaps Fiji, upend Wales for a quarterfinal spot?
Ummm. That's it.
Nearly a month of rugby will be determining almost nothing. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, and France are gold-plated locks to make the quarterfinals. Ireland and Wales are also very, very likely to do so. But gee, that Scotland-Argentina game should be great.
FRB understands that one of the goals of the World Cup is to promote rugby in places where it is not enormously popular. But having 20 teams in this event is absurd. And having knockout quarterfinals when there are only 6 or 8 really good teams is a mistake too.
FRB proposes this format:
12 teams qualify
The Six Nations teams from Europe: England, France, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy.
The Tri Nations teams from the Southern Hemisphere: Australia, New Zealand and South Africa
Argentina, which is being added to the Tri Nations competition next year.
And two qualifiers. This year, they might be Fiji and Samoa.
Divide the teams into two groups of 6, and have only the top two teams advance to semifinals.
Imagine the excitement if these were the preliminary groups:
New Zealand, England, France, Argentina, Scotland, Fiji
Australia, South Africa, Ireland, Wales, Samoa, Italy
The preliminary round would be packed with great, meaningful games, not ugly shellackings like New Zealand-Canada or matchups like Romania-Georgia that hardly seem World Cup worthy. FRB estimates that at least 15 of the 30 games in this format would be close and meaningful. In the current format that number is, generously, maybe 4 out of 40.
Maybe we'll get a streamlined format in four years. As for this year, wake FRB when the quarterfinals come.