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FEATURE Why peaking for a World Cup could be pointless

Why peaking for a World Cup could be pointless
7 months ago

Peaking for a World Cup has taken on a mythical quality. People agree it exists, but nobody seems to agree on what it really means. In the age of Mourinho-like coaches peaking and planning have become buzzwords.

Part of the big brain myth of the modern coach where everything is planned and losses are really wins. It sustained Eddie Jones as he strung together mediocre performance after mediocre performance with England. It didn’t matter, because, rest assured, this was a man who knew what he was doing and would have England peaking for the World Cup.

But maybe the cult of the coach followers were right? England, now with Steve Borthwick at the helm, have reached a semi-final. Ireland and France, who were routinely winning right the way through the four-year cycle, are watching at home. So is that settled? Is winning in between World Cups pointless?

To win matches you need to play your best team more often than not. But doing that means you’re not developing either depth or their inevitable replacements. To some extent, Ireland were guilty of this. Johnny Sexton’s retirement leaves a void which will have to be filled by someone who has limited international experience. Ross Byrne or Jack Crowley look the men most likely to fill it. But Byrne has just 624 minutes of Irish experience and Crowley less still, 352 minutes. Maybe Ireland should have taken a loss or two with a back-up fly-half in exchange for a more certain future?

Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton is one of the most influential players of his generation but Ireland’s fly-half deputies are very inexperienced as Ireland look ahead (Photo Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

To many that is the definition of building for a World Cup. You sacrifice some matches earlier in the cycle to be at your best for the main event. In reality, Ireland did that almost perfectly. Ross Byrne first featured in an Ireland squad in 2018. By that point he had already played in a Pro14 semi-final and had 48 Leinster matches under his belt. Since then he’s appeared for Ireland in every season. Never amassing extended periods as a starter but he’s supplemented that with high-pressure matches for his club; a champions cup semi-final in 2021, a final in 2022, and started every European knockout game in 2023.

In Wales’ first match of the 2021 Six Nations, prime World Cup building time, they had a backrow of Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate, Taulupe Faletau with Josh Navidi coming off the bench. By the time the World Cup came around, two of them had retired, one was injured for the quarter final, and the other played sparingly

Jack Crowley had done the same, starting the URC final last year. Crucially, despite his experience, Sexton had only started one World Cup knockout match, 2019 against New Zealand. While Ireland’s fly-halves may have seen limited playing time behind Sexton, they saw huge playing time at their clubs.

Ireland are an unusual example as well. Few countries have someone who is so clearly dominant and the nailed on starter. Most teams inadvertently share playing time around due to injuries or a loss of form. In Wales’ first match of the 2021 Six Nations, prime World Cup building time, they had a backrow of Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate, Taulupe Faletau with Josh Navidi coming off the bench. By the time the World Cup came around, two of them had retired, one was injured for the quarter final, and the other played sparingly in the tournament.

When the quarter final came around, it was Jac Morgan, Tommy Reffell, Aaron Wainwright starting with Christ Tshiunza appearing off the bench. Bright sparks in the Welsh World Cup campaign but only Wainwright had made his debut prior to that 2021 match. The vagaries of elite sport meant that their quarter final starters weren’t even in the running to be given game time at the expense of an established front runner.

Jac Morgan
Wales started their quarter-final with Jac Morgan and Tommy Reffell who had played only a small part in Wales’ four-year cycle (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT/Getty Images)

That is a crucial point. It might seem heretical to mention, but luck plays an enormous role in winning or losing. Every single quarter final was close enough that with a little more luck we would’ve had four different semi-finalists. That is common for match-ups between the best teams in the World.

The World Cup remains the biggest prize in rugby. That will never change. But, exclusively building for it and sacrificing those moments of joy along the way is folly.

With that in mind, do you really want to spend four years sacrificing winnable matches in exchange for a coin flip match? I guarantee that the French and Irish fans had a more enjoyable World Cup cycle, even factoring in their heartbreaking quarter final losses. If anything, the fact England are doing well with their less than exuberant playing style seems to be making English fans even more furious.

The World Cup remains the biggest prize in rugby. That will never change. But, exclusively building for it and sacrificing those moments of joy along the way is folly. Especially when there’s no evidence your team will be better for it once they reach their target.



ant 240 days ago

Excellent non sensical article. RWC /That’s the highest stage in the world of rugby. Its like the Oscars in Rugby. You tell me any rugby player will rate being no 1more than being world champions ? Makes no sense to me. Perhaps all NH teams the writers favor may benefit believing nonsense like this because of their poor history and inability to win RWC trophies. NH teams have a chronic inability to win RWC. So rather write a false narrative of their status in the game except they have extraordinary resources yet underperform consistently when it matters most.

CO 242 days ago

Excellent article, why Allblacks fans got so upset in 2022 with poor outcomes.

Since then a significant change of coaching staff and personnel which makes them now a team that's going to be a real handful for England in the final.

Hax 242 days ago

England made it to the semifinals because they were in ‘The group of life’ , they had the cruisiest run of all.

pof 242 days ago

The World Cup is the big prize but it's not the only prize. This is obvious. 19 out of 20 teams will ultimately lose.

Poorfour 242 days ago

And yet both New Zealand and South Africa have been through periods in the past 18 months where they looked unsure of their team and tactics, especially in the backline.

The All Blacks struggled with the choice between Mo’unga or Beauden at 10 until they found the masterstroke of moving Jordie to 12 so that his brother could play 15. The Boks have occasionally been reduced to a game plan of “give the ball to Am and hope he can do something”.

I don’t follow either team closely enough to know how much of this was a deliberate strategy of rebuilding and how much was enforced by injury or other teams working out their tactics, but they both went through a period with an unusual number of losses and had slipped to uncharacteristic lows in the world rankings going into the tournament.

The best teams have a knack of finding their form and raising their game for the RWC. But very often that is accompanied by some soul-searching in the 18 months beforehand.

I am pretty sure Eddie Jones does it deliberately. His teams often have a crisis 18 months out, after the Law changes for the RWC have been introduced, from which he has usually been able to change tactics and personnel and put in a good showing at the RWC (while never quite getting his hands on the trophy as head coach). I think he allows a crisis to happen to see which players come through and what he needs to change… and this time allowed it to go too far and lost his job. But in the past it’s been a good approach.

Jon 242 days ago

“No evidence” LOL

Sexton hadn’t played in a WC before? That explains a lot. Though with the quality of article I wouldn’t be surprised if the author made a mistake there. Farrell may regret not having (or regret using) Carbery at this WC.

If you don’t peak you end up like Eddie’s Wallabies. You do not want to be that country.

Luke 243 days ago

I mean I get your point, there’s a lot of rugby to be had in between a four year cycle. But I think if you could sit Sexton and Du Pont down and ask them if they were willing to trade games won(maybe even a six nations season) for a World Cup win I think they’d go for it…

However, with international rugby being so focused on data I do think talking about probability as apposed to “peaking” can be a very interesting conversation. For instance what is the probability that any given team can win x amount of games in a row. Cause that’s what the World Cup is essentially. You have to win 7 games in a row with one minor exemption ( that you can loose one of the first 4). You look at Ireland from a probability point view and there’s an argument to be made that coming into the World Cup with a win streak means they didn’t “peak” early they just didn’t get on the good side of probability theory as every streak must eventually come to an end. You could work this out. There’s maths to work the probability out.

Look at England as the inverse. How many games could they lose in a row? At some point the odds stack in their favour and now they’ve won five in a row…

Raymond 243 days ago

But a final between the biggies was played. It was France and SA, and NZ and Ireland. For France and Ireland it was a final. So what if it happened in the quarter finals. So the real final, if SA beats England, will be NZ and SA. so what. This could also have happened also if NZ, France, Ireland and SA were in the semifinals. What is the big deal if France and Ireland made it to the semifinals but lost? If you lose in the quarterfinals or in the semifinals you are out. Same thing, except you just go home a little earlier. But you still cry either way.

Poe 243 days ago

Well. You have to bold with selection and back new players in games. Sometimes even in the big games. It's a team game and the team is the squad.

Bob Marler 243 days ago

Why peaking for a World Cup could be pointless?

Gee whizz. Can’t say I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed the springboks 2018 - 2023. It’s been a great 5 years for me as a fan. Seeing this team develop (and win a World Cup within those 5 years).

What’s the point of International Rugby if you play so well, achieve no.1 rankings, and don’t win a World Cup? What’s the point of that?

Ireland and France have won everything available for them to win. Some amazing achievements over the past 5/6. But, until they win a world cup - and can call themselves world Champions - being good and entertaining can’t be it.

South Africans love winning the RWC.

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