In October WXV will be using a “cross pool” tournament system – a format that most followers will be unfamiliar with. How it works (and why it is little used) is best illustrated, perhaps, by a classic example of when it didn’t.
A cross-pool tournament format is a useful way for tournament organisers faced with an odd number of teams, ensuring that no team sits on the sidelines in any round, maximising play and also potentially shortening the amount of play needed.
It was used at the 2006 World Cup. After 2002 the number of entrants was reduced from 16 to 12, and in 2006 these 12 teams were divided into four pools of three, with teams in Pool A playing those in Pool D, and so on.
This actually worked fairly well, so it will not trouble us too much here, other than noting that it was dropped for 2010 and subsequent World Cups probably because it was so hard for players, spectators and journalists to follow – that being just one factor that contributed to disappointing tournament.
On the other hand, the 2013 World Cup qualifier is a much more interesting example. Not only did it produce a single six-team ranking (as WXV will be doing at each of three tournaments), but it also illustrates how the format can go wrong if the pools are unbalanced, or the format is not properly understood, resulting (in this case) in Italy missing out on qualification for the 2014 World Cup despite beating two of the three teams who finished above them in the final rankings.
For the 2014 World Cup Samoa were the only Oceania team that entered and did not have an automatic spot. Rather than give them a bye to the finals to be held in Paris, the IRB decided to add them to the European qualifier planned for Spain in April 2013.
This was already to feature the bottom two teams from the Six Nations (Scotland and Italy), the European Champions (Spain) and the finalists from the previous years’ European “B” Championship (Netherlands and Sweden) and was to produce two teams who would go to Paris.
With now six team taking part a cross-pool system was devised that is identical to those to be used at WXV. However, with no recognised World Rankings, rugby politics played almost as much a part as perceived team strength, made worse by the fact that Samoa had played practically no rugby in recent years.
However, many of Samoa’s players played a high level of club rugby, often in New Zealand, something that was not taken into account when the seedings were decided. The two Six Nations teams – Italy and Scotland – were seeded 1 and 2, Spain 3, Sweden 4, Netherlands 5, and “unknown” late-comers Samoa 6.
Using the same “snake” system used for WXV2 and WXV3, this resulted in two pools:
Pool A: Italy, Sweden and Netherlands
Pool B: Scotland, Spain and Samoa
Again, as with WXV, the teams from one pool would play those in the other, but not teams in the same pool, and the tournament points from these three games would decide the two World Cup places.
A glance at these pools today would suggest that the teams in Pool A were going to have much tougher games that those in Pool B, but at the time little comment was made mainly because the Europeans rather looked down on the Samoans, who were forced to make the point that they were “not coming just to make up the numbers”.
When it came to the competition, Sweden and Netherlands proved no match for any of their opponents, gifting all of three of the teams in Pool B two big wins, with try bonuses.
The problem this gave to Italy is that they had to find two big wins as well, against far stronger opponents than the Swedes or the Dutch.
Against Samoa in their first game things went well, and Italy stormed into a 60-0 lead after an hour. But with two more games to come in a week, the Italians pulled off many of their key players, allowing Samoa to come back and score four late tries… and a try bonus.
Italy beat Scotland in their second game, but while Italy won comfortably 27-3 they failed to score a fourth try, which meant that – despite having two wins – they would have to beat Spain in the final game at a time when Spain were easily the fourth or third best team in Europe… and they lost.
The outcome was that Italy ended fourth in the competition – behind both Samoa and Scotland, teams that Italy had beaten - and Samoa went ta Paris. Indeed the bottom three teams in the final ranking were all teams from Pool A.
As an outcome it was counter-intuitive, unjust, and unfair. But its cause was incorrect seedings, leading to woefully unbalanced pools.
In most formats this all works its way out – you still get the best pool winners, and play-offs iron out any inconsistencies.
But in a cross-pool system with no play-offs there is no-where to hide. One team in the wrong pool (Samoa should clearly have been ranked 4 and placed in Pool A) and the tournament can be severely compromised.
That is perhaps why we have not seen cross-pool used in a major tournament… until now.
World Rugby’s statisticians will be hoping that they have got it right this time.