After a pulsating weekend of World Cup rugby, now the lull. So far, at rugby’s global showpiece, Monday and Tuesday – and Wednesday, in week one – have acted as a vacuum, with no matches taking place, stalling the tournament’s momentum.
This is a new phenomenon. Previous incarnations of the Rugby World Cup featured daily matches but the sport’s governing body announced in February 2021 that the 2023 edition would be different. It would be elongated from six weeks to seven, making it unmatched in global tournament length, with all teams guaranteed a minimum of five days between matches to rest, in the interests of player welfare and safety.
Given the sport is in the process of wading through an existential concussion crisis, such a move was as vital as it was sensible. The issue is, however, that World Rugby has lengthened the tournament without having increased the number of teams or matches, which has led to this three-day vacuum in the pool stages.
It also means that, after England’s game against Chile on Sept 23, fans will have to wait two weeks, until Oct 7, to watch Steve Borthwick’s side retake the field – against Samoa in Lille. England are no anomaly. Although the tournament began on Sept 8, Portugal, Samoa and Tonga had to wait nine days beyond that to begin their campaign.
But what can be done to plug the drop in impetus? Telegraph Sport assesses the options ahead of the next tournament, in 2027 in Australia.
Increase to 24 teams
Since the 1999 tournament, the World Cup has featured 20 teams, a number and format which fit snugly into a six-week slot. With the expansion to seven weeks, however, there is room to manoeuvre.
The obvious answer is to add four more teams, and create six pools of four, with a last-16 stage to create the extra match which would be lost by a reduction of pool matches to three from the current four. With four more teams, too, the length of the tournament could be kept at seven weeks and teams would still be able to benefit from at least five days’ rest between matches.
The argument against this format – and the inclusion of four further teams from developing nations – is, of course, the threat of more frequent landslide victories. Yet, there was not a moment’s hesitation to include Romania – who did not qualify for their rugby exploits, but for Spain’s fielding of an ineligible player – in the 2023 tournament, resulting in them being on the end of an 80-point thrashing to Ireland last weekend. For Romania, the Springboks and Scotland are still to come.
The inclusion of a greater number of emerging nations should be seen as a positive for rugby. A switch to a 24-team format, with last-16, could also see the introduction of a plate competition so that the so-called ‘tier two’ countries can compete for silverware beyond the pool stages.
Follow the Netball World Cup’s lead
The Netball World Cup or, even, sevens, whereby each country is competing for its individual placing, all the way down to 20 (or 24 teams, if there is expansion).
The format is more complex – at a time when rugby is crying out for simplicity – but it could ensure that these emerging nations have meaningful matches against other teams at their own standard; in the equivalent of a “knock-out” match.
The pool stage is split into three, with teams progressing through stage one, two and three. Those finishing at the top of their pools progress to the play-offs, to play knock-out matches until the final, while teams finishing towards the bottom of the pools would fight it out for their respective placing.
It would mean, for example, that Uruguay might be able to play Japan to decide who finishes 12th at the World Cup. That might seem immaterial, but most nations outside of the Six Nations and Rugby Championship have had little to no exposure to high-stakes, knockout rugby on the biggest stage.
Shorter turnaround for traditional ‘tier one’ nations
One of the principal reasons for elongating the tournament, on player-welfare grounds, was to prevent teams’ tight turnarounds between matches. Invariably, due to where the power resides in the global game, it was the so-called ‘tier two’ nations who received the fewest rest days between matches.
But, given the propensity of the top seeds in each pool to rest players and make wholesale changes when facing the “minnows” after backing up a big game, could they not play, perhaps, after four days? Maybe a slight increase in squad size is required, but would it really have killed France, who made 12 changes, to have played Uruguay on Wednesday instead of Thursday? Is it genuinely vital that England waited seven days after playing Japan to take on Chile? Similarly with Wales’ match against Portugal, after facing Fiji?
Fewer opening-weekend matches
Clearly, the organisers of any World Cup want to start the opening weekend with a bang, to generate early momentum and make sure that the host country, with all the travelling support among it, is overcome with World Cup fever.
However, this year, did they overdo it? Was playing four matches on the opening Saturday a necessity? Certainly, Namibia’s tussle with Italy would have been perfect Monday night viewing, to better distribute the fixtures and result in fewer down days. Similarly, on Sunday, given South Africa’s victory over Scotland and Wales’ thriller against Fiji were to come, how many casual fans tuned into Japan’s win over plucky Chile? Not nearly as many as there would have been had the fixture taken place on a Tuesday.