The problem of predictability at the Rugby World Cup

Japan v Springboks, 2015 (Getty)
Japan v Springboks, 2015 (Getty)

Cape Town - The excitement is reaching fever pitch as the 9th edition of the Rugby World Cup nears, and it is made even more special by the fact that the 2019 showpiece will be held in the land of the Brave Blossoms for the first time. 

What Japan achieved in 2015 when they knocked over the Springboks in Brighton will forever remain one of rugby's finest moments. 

It was the ultimate underdog success story and one that nobody could have predicted. 

As those final minutes ticked over, the unbelievable became believable and the impossible turned very real as a minnow nation celebrated knocking over one of the game's giants. 

It was not enough to see Japan get out of the group and into the knockouts, though, as the Boks dusted themselves off and breezed past Scotland, Samoa and the USA to punch their ticket into the quarter-finals. 

Japan lost to Scotland in what ultimately proved to be their eliminator, and they were on their way home despite having lost just once. 

The gulf in quality between the top-tier nations and the rest has, historically, made for a largely predictable World Cup pool stage.

2019 looks like it will be no different. 

2015 proved that there is still room for an upset, but the nature of the game and the difference in quality between the four Rugby Championship and five Six Nations countries (Italy excluded) and the rest means that they do not happen often. 

Samoa beating Wales in the 1991 pool stages and then Fiji doing the same in 2007 are two other upsets that stand out, but by and large the minnows get duly swept aside at a Rugby World Cup. 

Every pool in 2019 will have at least one blockbuster clash that should ultimately determine who finishes top of the group and who finishes second, with Pool C the exception where England, France and Argentina are all grouped together. 

Even there, one would expect England to cruise comfortably to the top of the pool with the only real 'decider' the France v Argentina match. 

In total, there will be 40 pool matches played at the tournament between September 20 and October 14 and a quick look through the fixture list suggests the absence of matches that will have a direct impact on the tournament's progression. 

In Pool B, the All Blacks and South Africa will both be too strong for Italy, Namibia and Canada. 

In Pool D, Australia and Wales should overpower Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay. 

Pool A sees Ireland and Scotland as the favourites to go through, while hosts Japan will be looking to cause an upset over the latter. That Japan v Scotland match could, potentially, be one to watch out for. 

Then, in Pool D, we have the 'Group of Death' where all of England, France and Argentina will almost certainly beat USA and Tonga. 

It means that, in total, around 10 of the 40 pool matches (25%) are likely to have a direct impact on who qualifies for the knockouts and/or who finishes first or second in their pool. 

The hard truth is that most of the pool matches will either have no great significance in terms of the tournament as a whole, or they will be predictable. 

The Boks and All Blacks, for example, will meet on the opening weekend and will then have three relatively easy games before their quarter-finals.

It is a long time to wait. 

There is, of course, little that can be done to change the situation. 

If the tournament followed cricket's path, the top 10 countries in the world would play each other once and then the top four would qualify for the semi-finals. 

That would ensure that every single pool match had something riding on it. 

The problem with that structure is that every side would play nine pool matches, so the tournament would need to be longer. 

The other issue is that it does nothing to grow the global game.

Cricket was able to return to this 10-team format at the 2019 World Cup because it can use its T20 World Cup product as a way of including the smaller nations. 

Rugby has no such luxury. 

All we can hope to see in 2019 is the smaller unions stepping up. 

The Pacific island nations of Samoa, Fiji and Tonga come rich in rugby history and tradition and are probably our best bet while Georgia is also considered a side on the up. 

Hopefully, we get our 'Brighton moment' in 2019. The tournament needs one. 

Follow @LloydBurnard on Twitter ... 

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