Four weeks of WXV finished last weekend. After a few days to reflect, how did it go?
For those who watched some or all of it, the first WXV can be counted broadly as a success.
It has invigorated test rugby, with teams playing more tests, and playing opposition from outside their regions for the first time.
It also produced a number of exciting games, with all three tournaments going down to the final match.
But it was also a tournament that was poorly explained (not least by some of World Rugby’s own match commentators), leading to endless misleading and misunderstandings. The final placings in some pools were questionable, and crowds were poor in too many games.
When judging the success of any venture it is worth looking at what the aims were, and with WXV it the key is that more national teams play more test matches than they did before.
And it is undoubtedly working. Every region now has an regular annual test championship (or at least playoff series, in the case of South America), which means that WXV is positively impacting not just the teams taking part but other teams in each region as well.
This is a non-World Cup year, moreover a year after a World Cup where the test rugby scene tends to be a bit quieter, but by the end of it there will have been more test matches played worldwide than any previous year, except last year.
And with 99 tests so far played or scheduled there is a chance that it could even exceed 2022’s total of 101.
When it came to the tournament itself, the three levels ensured that every team was playing for something in just about every game. Some teams that could only previously dream of world titles now stood a chance of winning them, while others battled to avoid relegation for their region. The result was some titanic battles full of tension and excitement, with so much going right down to the wire.
That said, one of the things that made it so exciting – relegation and promotion – was badly explained and even some national coaches were getting it wrong, so vague and misleading were some statements.
The “no relegation from WXV1” in particular was interpreted by many as “no team will be relegated from WXV1”. This was not that surprising – the fine print of the tournament was distinctly counter-intuitive at times – but it was never the case. Yet it was a widely repeated error which no-one seemed to correct.
This is partly because the cross-pool competition system is a complete nightmare to explain. We won’t try to do it again (we refer you to previous articles on the subject) but not only that, it comes up with outcomes that can appear unfair.
Essentially cross pool is pretty good at finding a pool winner, and a basement team. The problem with it is the minor places in-between. Spain ending third in WXV3 despite beating the team immediately above them and coming within a single score of beating the team above that was a clearly odd outcome.
What is a real concern is that, while this year it did not matter that much, next year it really could. In 2024 WXV3 will become in effect a World Cup qualifier with finishing in the top two or three being a requirement to attend the 2025 World Cup. The minor places will become very, very important. We have been here before. Something needs to be in place to ensure history does not repeat itself.
The other major negative from WXV was the crowds. This was partly because none of the major northern hemisphere teams appear to have applied to host any of the tournaments, meaning that WXV3 in particular was staged in Dubai and watched by practically no-one.
But even WXV1 and WXV2 in New Zealand and South Africa had poor crowds, with accusations that WXV1 in particular was very poorly sold to local rugby fans. The timing – against the men’s World Cup and with half of the games played Fridays as a result – also did not help. Perhaps the north will step up to the mark next year?
Yet in the end these negatives are minor compared to the positives.
Our (perhaps unscientific) survey on Twitter showed that over 83% of followers of the game rated WXV as a success, albeit with the need for the odd tweak. We have only had the first year, but it already seems to be having the same effect on test rugby that the Olympics had on sevens a decade ago.
It’s been a great start. Let’s see where it goes next.