The pool stage of the Rugby World Cup concludes this Sunday. This part of the competition saw four pools with five teams playing each other once.
In Ireland there’s a strong appetite to get up early and tune in to our matches but I doubt whether the same demand exists to view broadcasts of other pool matches.
The early stages are afflicted with balance problems making it difficult for a die hard, let alone partisan fan, to view many of the fixtures.
Looking at the bookmaker odds on the matches is telling. Of the 40 pool stage fixtures, I would consider only 4 to be well balanced – France vs Argentina, Australia vs. Wales, Namibia vs. Canada and Japan vs. Scotland. Four others are partially balanced – New Zealand vs. South Africa, Ireland vs. Scotland, Fiji vs. Georgia and USA vs. Tonga. The remaining 80% of matches typically feature a team with a ~90% or greater chance of success.
I know people will point to the two major shocks, Japan defeating Ireland and Uruguay’s success over Fiji, but for the most part the pool stage matches are dead rubbers. For many the outcome is so certain bookmakers may not even lay a team.
For example, the bookmakers deemed New Zealand chances of defeating Canada and Namibia to be over 99%. The same is true for their upcoming match against Italy. Is there any point playing it? The All Blacks duly beat Canada 63-0 and Namibia 62-0 (the two biggest points margins in the competition so far). There are other examples of this extreme level of imbalance – Ireland vs. Russia, Australia vs. Uruguay, South Africa vs. Namibia, South Africa vs. Canada.
Interest will likely increase from the quarter finals when “the competition gets going”. From here on we will likely see more balanced, better quality matches.
At present however, the design of the pool stages isn’t doing the competition any favours from a sporting perspective. Reducing the number of teams would likely make a more competitive group stage. There are obvious economic trade off’s here and the fact that scaling things down would also “kill the dream” for many small rugby nations.