One-sided World Cup qualifiers highlight World Rugby's hypocrisy
While the powers-that-be continue to conspire together to ensure that games between the world’s top nations and those that are on the cusp of breaking through are kept to a minimum, the obsession remains with forcing lower-ranked sides to face off in World Cup qualifiers when the outcomes are almost guaranteed.
This weekend’s latest match saw a hugely under-manned Tonga side comfortably account for the Cook Islands, winning 54-10 to book themselves a spot in the Asia/Pacific play-off.
Their opponents, at this stage, are still unknown.
Tonga are likely to face off against a winner of the Asia Rugby Championship but that competition – which was first set to take place in March 2020 – has been delayed three times already due to the ongoing impact of the global pandemic.
Supposedly, the competition will now take place next January with Hong Kong, South Korea and Malaysia vying for the chance to play against Tonga to decide who will qualify as the next Asia/Pacific representative for the 2023 World Cup.
Given Hong Kong have been comfortably the second-best team in Asia for the better part of five years, however, it’s hard to see anything but an inevitable match-up between the Dragons and the Ikale Tahi – and the result of that game will also be pencilled in before a whistle’s even blown.
Hong Kong and Tonga have never squared off before but Fiji have comfortably accounted for the Dragons in their three matches to date, while they’ve also been the whipping boys of Japan in their recent fixtures and were knocked out of the qualifiers for the 2019 competition after suffering losses to both Germany and Canada.
As such, it would take a brave man to bet against Tonga progressing through to the World Cup and taking their place alongside South Africa, Ireland and Scotland in Pool B.
In fact, much of the qualification competitions that are taking place around the world are likely to have similar outcomes – with one dominant team booking their place through their local tournament and then a small group of handy sides limping their way into the competition through the final repechage competition.
The two Americas spots will be filled by the USA and Uruguay (likely in that order) while Canada, a mere whisp of their former selves, will likely still prove too good for the second-best South American team – probably Chile.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 24, 2021
Namibia, despite suffering a scare against the Ivory Coast – primarily due to having to run out a team without the majority of their top players, are all but guaranteed to take the Africa 1 spot.
The only proper battle for spots comes in Europe. Georgia will unsurprisingly take the Europe 1 spot but Romania and Portugal are battling it out for Europe 2, with the outcome set to be decided next year.
Eventually, the qualifying competition runner-ups will battle it out for one final World Cup berth, with the ultimate reward being a spot alongside Australia, Wales, Fiji and (probably) Georgia in Pool C.
After a ho-hum draw – which saw the usual suspects like New Zealand and Frace, Australia, Wales and Fiji, Ireland and Scotland, and England and Argentina drawn alongside one another for the umpteenth time – the qualifiers are also hardly setting the world alight.
Yet, for some reason, World Rugby insists on playing these matches, despite the outcome being all but guaranteed.
That’s not necessarily a problem in of itself because the games do grant developing nations the chance to play a number of teams they wouldn’t normally come up against in the typical calendar – but it’s somewhat hypocritical of WR to push so many teams through as automatic qualifiers, seemingly because games between the top sides and the lower-ranked teams wouldn’t be worth pushing ahead with.
Imagine, however, if every nation had to duke it out in regional competitions to decide the World Cup pools.
In the three years leading up to a World Cup, how good would it be to see Georgia get a guaranteed match against every Six Nations side? Similarly, the likes of Tonga and Samoa could play off against the likes of New Zealand and Australia to decide seedings for the World Cup.
Some of these fixtures would undoubtedly end up blow-outs but that’s happening already at the regional qualifiers. Burkina Faso lost by 90+ points in successive games in the past two weeks, the Netherlands has been belted by Portugal and the Cook Islands were only saved from suffering a beating thanks to Tonga’s inability to bring many of their foreign-based players into New Zealand.
If blow-outs or predictable outcomes are bad for the game, then the qualifiers are already a waste of time.
If they’re important at bringing the tier-three teams up to standard, however, then the same argument could be made for why we should see more games between the top two tiers of nations.
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