TOULOUSE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 08: Jose Madeira of Portugal wins the line out during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Fiji and Portugal at Stadium de Toulouse on October 08, 2023 in Toulouse, France. (Photo by Julian Finney - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Rugby’s mismatches

Should the World Cup be smaller?


This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

After the thrashing, the post mortem. Do such mismatches damage the credibility of a World Cup? The beaten side didn’t score a point after the fifteenth minute and rarely looked competitive. Their discipline let them down and some felt they would benefit from demotion to a second-tier competition where they might have a chance. A bit rough on a country who had won the rugby World Cup twice.

Gloating is undignified — but wasn’t it lovely to see Australia walloped by Wales? With defeat to Fiji in their previous match, the Wallabies failed to reach the quarter-finals for the first time. It almost made up for England being so feeble. 

But any good side can have a bad day. What about the true minnows, there to make up the numbers? What do they gain — what does the competition gain — from being thrashed again and again? Romania lost 82-8 to Ireland, 76-0 to South Africa and 84-0 to Scotland. Namibia lost 96-0 to France and Chile 71-0 to England. Where was the fun for anyone? 

There have been calls to reduce future rugby World Cups from 20 teams to 16. Cricket has gone further: the current World Cup in India has ten sides. Yet football prefers growth, rising from 32 teams to 48 in 2026, even if it means more scores like England’s 6-2 win over Iran or Spain’s 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica last time.

Duffers have their place in individual sport. Eric “the Eel” Moussambani was a hero of the 2000 Olympics when he swam the 100 metres in 1min 52.72 sec, more than a minute slower than the gold medal-winner but still an Equatorial Guinea record. Hamadou Djibo Issaka, “the Sculling Sloth” from Niger, finished more than a minute slower than the next worst oarsman in 2012. And, of course, our own Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards flew further on skis in 1988 than any short-sighted Gloucestershire plasterer had ever flown before.

But it can be painful to see inadequacy dragged out. If we define a mismatch in rugby as defeat by 30 or more points, 17 of the 40 pool games this year were so one-sided, about the same as at the past five tournaments. In 1999, with only 30 pool matches, 17 were won by more than 30 points. New Zealand and England racked up a century against Italy and Tonga. There was no bonus point for losing by a try then but only four matches would have earned one. It was predictable and dull.

One argument in favour of making the World Cup smaller is that professionals at the top have become bigger

One argument in favour of making the World Cup smaller is that professionals at the top have become bigger. This poses a safety risk to those who seldom face such freaks. And a lack of experience can also make weaker players more dangerous. The fractured jaw that Antoine Dupont, France’s captain, sustained against Namibia was not due to thuggery by Johan Deysel, whose skull had crunched him, but because Dupont unexpectedly changed direction. “I couldn’t get my head out of the way quickly enough,” the Namibian said.

In defence of minnows, it should be remembered that established nations can be walloped too. As well as Australia losing to Wales, this year had a 96-17 defeat for Italy, eleventh in the world rankings, by New Zealand. Sides can also improve. The most points conceded in a World Cup match was 145 by Japan against New Zealand in 1995 but 20 years later they beat South Africa 34-32 and four years on beat Ireland and Scotland to reach the quarter-finals. 

Having the goal of qualifying also makes lower-tier matches meaningful: Chile made it after winning a two-leg final qualifying match with the United States 52-51. Four years ago Chile were No 29 in the world and the USA No 13 but the underdogs progressed.

A further reason for having more minnows is that matches between them can be the most entertaining. In that dire pool stage in 1999, the best match (which I was lucky to be at) came when Romania beat the USA 27-25 in Dublin. This year we had the 22-22 draw between Portugal and Georgia, the best result in Portugal’s history until the final group game, when they beat Fiji 24-23. The last side to qualify for this year’s tournament beat a team who beat Australia.

The minnows must remain because miracles can happen. Just as Western Samoa beat Wales at the 1991 World Cup — “Thank goodness we weren’t playing all of Samoa,” the Wales coach joked — so Portugal beating Fiji made up for all the drubbings. 

One solution might be to have a preliminary group stage for them immediately before the World Cup and in the same country, so they feel part of the jamboree and the best four can progress. Another option is to expand the World Cup to 24 sides but rejig it, having six groups of four rather than four of five with a new knockout round of 16, reducing the mismatches while giving more countries a go.

But the absolute key to improving the depth of the tournament is what you do between World Cups. Tier 1 nations must be given incentives to play lower-ranked sides more often, perhaps with their second XV — there is now talk of England A playing Portugal — and maybe it is time to bring in promotion and relegation for the Six Nations so that Portugal, Georgia, Romania and others have a reason to improve. 

Yes, administrators and their wives may prefer a weekend in Rome to Tbilisi but it could give Italy a needed kick up the backside too. Embrace growth: make it a world in union, as the theme song goes, not a closed shop.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover