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Caps: What history tells us

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What history tells us about caps at a Rugby World Cup

In a previous article, the idea of the competition between form and experience leading into the Rugby World Cup was discussed, and how caps may be misleading.

Out of the top six sides in the world rankings, arguably the form side in the world, South Africa, have the fewest caps, with 34 on average. England and Wales, who are arguably the other two form teams, also only average 35 caps.

Meanwhile, the weakest of the six over the past four years, Australia, have the most caps, with 45 on average.

This throws into question the notion that caps will generate success.

However, a graph on the website dementedmole.com provides some insight into the caps of each RWC winning side this century and how that provides some indication as to what may transpire over the coming months.

What is clear is that the All Blacks in 2015 had significantly more caps on average than any other winning team, averaging 48 per player (rounded to the nearest whole number).

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The tournament in England four years ago was nothing more than a crowning procession for them, with only the Springboks truly troubling them in the semi-final.

Likewise, in 2003 and 2011, England had 35 caps on average and the All Blacks had 37 caps on average.

These numbers are still high by comparision to the contenders for this World Cup, although England’s number may be misleading as there are more tests these days, meaning more caps. This is illustrated by the fact that Jason Leonard was the most capped player ever in 2003 with 118 test caps for England and the British and Irish Lions and only the third centurion in the game. Since then, there have been 52 players to earn 100 caps, with Richie McCaw earning as many as 148.

What is most interesting is that the Springboks only averaged 26 caps in 2007, far fewer than any team in the top six currently. Jake White’s team that year were not the favourites going into the World Cup, neither were runners-up England. In that sense, 2007 was surely the most open RWC this century, and perhaps provides a sign as to what may happen this year.

This year’s showcase in Japan has been tipped by many as the hardest World Cup to call, and therefore the most similar to 2007.

Caps seem to be less important when there is more competition, and Rassie Erasmus, Warren Gatland and Eddie Jones can use South Africa’s 2007 campaign as inspiration this year.

However, the other World Cups may not have been as competitive simply because the winners had more experience, as there seems to be a correlation between how competitive a World Cup is, and how experienced the winners were.

England probably entered the 2003 and New Zealand the 2011 World Cups as favourites, which goes to suggest that caps are integral to success. These cap hauls seem to be comparable to the All Blacks’ average of 39 and Ireland’s of 37 this year, which bodes well for both nations.

But despite being the favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup this time last year, the All Blacks and Ireland have hit a bit of a slump since then. The reigning world champions have only won two of their last five matches, while Ireland suffered humbling defeats to both England and Wales in the Six Nations this year.

Steve Hansen and Joe Schmidt can still take solace in the fact that they have built experienced teams, which could potentially pay off come November 2nd in Yokohama.

The Wallabies are the exception here, as, although they have an extremely experienced squad, Michael Cheika has perhaps squandered some form players who don’t have many caps, for those who are experienced but may not be in their prime.

While Australia can never be written off when it comes to the RWC, the other five teams in the top six all are genuine candidates to win, and have all been tipped at various points to come away victorious. In a tournament that looks to be so competitive, each team can draw inspiration from different winners over the years.

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What history tells us about caps at a Rugby World Cup