As Japan held on to victory over Scotland on Sunday (28-21), they became the final team to book their place in the Quarter Finals of the Rugby World Cup 2019. With 37 games played over an extensive pool stage, (three games of the 40 were not played due to Typhoon Hagibis and were awarded 0-0 draws) there was plenty of opportunity for all teams to either excel themselves or do the opposite, and for ranking changes to occur. Today we look at the biggest winners and losers over the Pool Stages and how this may impact the team that will lift the Rugby World Cup in three weeks.
Three favourites but only one place in the final between them.
The three favourites at the beginning of the tournament; New Zealand, England and Ireland sequentially, remain so after the Pool Stages.
Both New Zealand and England won all their games by consistently impressive score lines and built on their ranking scores throughout.
Ireland were impressive in three of their four matches but suffered an unexpected 19-12 defeat to Japan which dented their ranking score. Despite this, Ireland’s ranking score remains comfortably higher than the teams below them. This defeat didn’t just affect their ranking score, Ireland failed to win the Pool as a result, and now face New Zealand in the Quarter Finals in what looks set to be a cracking encounter.
The victor of that match will play the winner of England’s Quarter Final with Australia, which makes this side of the draw loaded with talent and it’s intriguing to see how it will play out.
The Chasing Pack
South Africa, Wales and Australia make up the chasing pack. These teams have played some exciting rugby and face real opportunities to progress in the tournament and even lift the trophy at the end. South Africa and Wales have had an epic ranking battle for 4th place throughout the tournament, it currently resides with South Africa following Wales’ below par win over Uruguay at the weekend.
If both Wales and South Africa win their Quarter Final matches against France and Japan respectively, we will see a showdown between the Wales and South Africa in the Semi Finals, which could have us licking our lips with anticipation.
Australia will face a tall order against England in the Quarter Final, the victors will face the winner of the New Zealand vs Ireland game in the Semi Final. Despite having a mixed World Cup so far, it would be silly to write them off given their impressive history in this tournament.
The two remaining teams of France and Japan make up the underdogs going into the Quarter Finals.
France has underachieved in the Pools with narrow victories over Argentina and Tonga, and if one of those matches had included an extra drop goal or penalty, France would probably not be at this stage in the competition. Nevertheless, they have had periods in their games where they were breathtaking to watch, and they will have to play the whole game to this level if they are to redeem themselves and progress past Wales in the Quarter Finals or beyond.
The Japanese story is one of contrast, following a nervy start against Russia, they have excelled themselves with every performance - not only to progress, but to win a tough Pool. Their reward is a Quarter Final against South Africa, and with the will of the host country behind them who knows how long this fairy tale of rugby could last!
The Best of the Rest
The eight progressing teams have their tournament, and ranking stories - so far, detailed with more to unfold. So, it’s interesting to consider the most intriguing stories which have emerged from the 12 teams that failed to reach the Quarter Finals.
The overall ranking landscape shows the battle for 4th position between South Africa and Wales that we have already covered, however other battles have occurred further down the table. In fact, the teams ranked between 12th and 18th in the pre-world cup table have all experienced at least one ranking change over the Pool Stages and it’s interesting to explore some of the stories driving this.
The two teams which had a net gain of a ranking place over the Pool Stages were Italy and Georgia. Italy started the World Cup in 13th and deputised a few games in, to move into 12th position. Georgia moved up from 15th place to 14th on the very last day of the Pool stages.
Italy and Georgia’s rank changes are achievements for both teams, but they both occurred under a backdrop of each team losing ranking points over the Pool stage. Both teams were underachieving, but not as badly as the teams around them. Therefore, if we are to look in more detail at the ranking scores, we can see two standout, eliminated teams who are praiseworthy, and they just happen to be the two Latin American teams of Argentina and Uruguay.
Despite elimination, Argentina performed admirably over the tournament, only narrowly losing to France in their opening game before winning comfortably over lower ranked opponents in the Pool. The only time they underperformed was when they lost heavily to England in a game where they paid for a risky approach thinking they had to win. Overall, they increased their ranking score from 3.8 to 4.1, and this shows signs of recovery as they build towards the future.
Uruguay showed they weren't just making up the numbers and went on an amazing journey of results and ranking. They started the tournament ranked in 17th place, although the day before their opening fixture other results conspired for them to drop some ranking points and a place.
Their response the next day was to produce the first big shock of the tournament, by beating 10th ranked Fiji 30 – 27. This catapulted Uruguay up the rankings by two places to 16th. Four days later they couldn’t repeat such heroics against Georgia, and they dropped ranking score and a place consequently.
On 4th October they were humbled by Australia, and their ranking score was looking familiar with how it was before the Fiji game. On the final day of Pool stage, they performed admirably limiting Wales victory to 35 – 12, this was enough to redeem some ranking score. Uruguay should be proud of how they conducted themselves over the World Cup and they are a shining inspiration for possibilities of lower ranked teams qualifying for and competing in future World Cups.
Unfortunately, there many teams competing for this title. Of the teams which were eliminated: Scotland, Fiji, Italy, USA, Samoa, Georgia, Canada and Russia all lost ranking score since the tournament began.
Of these Scotland and Samoa get special mentions for their significantly below par performances in some of their games, both teams put in at least one good performance and although they will be disappointed with their World Cups, they shall be saved their blushes for now.
The team which is the outright underachiever of the Pool Stage must be the USA. They started the tournament ranked 12th and might have fancied themselves with an outside chance of reaching the Quarter Finals from a Pool which contained the 8th and 9th ranked teams (France and Argentina respectively).
Their first major ranking casualty was after their opening game, when they were taken apart by England, and dropped two ranking positions. Despite this huge defeat, they still had the chance to qualify for the Quarter Finals, but their hopes were dashed by losing easily to France. The next game where they could have at least qualified for the Rugby World Cup 2023, with a victory over Argentina, failed miserably. Finally, they played Tonga, the one team ranked lower than them in the Pool. Not only did they fail to beat Tonga, but they lost 31 – 19 to cap off a disastrous campaign for them.
All other results considered, the USA may have gotten away with finishing their tournament losing only one ranking place, being ranked 13th in the world, but the ranking scores of the teams around them are so finely balanced that Georgia, Samoa and Tonga all breath down their necks and a single result in the future could swing the balance further to the USA’s detriment.
So, even with twelve teams exiting the tournament and four more to follow next weekend, the interdependency of results in the eight remaining fixture can drive ranking stories, not just for the teams competing, but also the teams who will now be watching from home like the rest of us.