Today kicks off the 7th Rugby World Cup (RWC), and as with many major sporting events, there is much speculation of who will make it to the end to be crowned best in the world. This year 20 teams will battle it out to be the victor of the Webb Ellis Cup, with one team in particular hoping to regain the title that has eluded them since the inaugural tournament in 1987, the host – New Zealand. In this week’s blog, we will explore what it takes to reach the final and speculate if the perceived best teams will win, or, if there is some reality captured in the data which identifies who will really win.

Table A: Summary of all finalists over the previous 6 tournaments: *Final Win Ratio = Tournament Wins / Finals Reached **Tournament Win Ratio = Tournament Wins / Tournaments Played

Over the course of the six tournaments that have been held, only 5 teams have made it to the final match. An interesting fact is that the five teams to make it to the finals are also the five countries who have been primary host to the tournament since its inception. A factor here could be that these are the most rugby focused countries, with the best rugby facilities. Therefore, with a greater interest in the sport, there is a larger pool of talent to choose from than countries that have relatively less interest and playing opportunities in the game.

It should be noted that South Africa did not compete in the first two tournaments but have since reached the final twice and won on both occasions (Table A). New Zealand have also reached the final twice, but as mentioned before won only once; although reaching the final twice, France have yet to get their hands on the Webb Ellis Cup. Australia and England have had the greatest success in reaching the final, however England have only succeeded in winning once.

It is widely claimed and acknowledged that New Zealand are the best team in the world despite their inability to win the RWC since 1987. Many England fans and commentators will claim their team are the best and have barefaced optimism that their team will be victors. Looking at the Tournament ratio wins, both these teams are on par with each other at having a 17% success rate. With this data, it is actually Australia and South Africa who appear more likely to win the RWC.

So, with New Zealand and England both expected to do well, is there anything in past results that indicate that these teams have the potential to make it to the end? If we go down to the next level of detail and look at the outcome of the individual matches of the tournament, we can see who has the best record of wins.

Table B: Summary of matches played in the RWC *Final Win Ratio = Tournament Wins / Finals Reached **Tournament Win Ratio = Tournament Wins / Tournaments Played

France and New Zealand have played the most games, this is indicative of reaching the later stages of the tournament, playing in either the final or the 3rd place play offs a greater number of times than the other teams. However, New Zealand won a greater number of these giving them a better win ratio (83%). New Zealand also have a slightly better win ratio than Australia (82%) who have won the competition twice. England on the other hand have the worst win ration of these top five teams at 71%. South Africa, who have played the least games have also lost the least proportionally and have achieved the best win ratio at an impressive 88%. Given these win ratios, it should actually be New Zealand over England who have the best chance of making it to the final; South Africa however are still displaying the best stats so far.

Of course, in order to win a game, a team must score more points than their opponents. It is not just how many points that are scored by a team that is of importance, it is the score difference. A win provides a positive score difference. Table C displays the points scored by each of the teams during all the tournaments. To make it fairer, we will judge the teams by their average score difference for a match. This is positive for all teams which should be expected due to their high winning ratios. This is the first piece of data where South Africa does not fare the best. The top team for this category is New Zealand which is perhaps why they are regarded as the best team in the world, with an average point difference of +33 per match; more than double that of England and France, both at just +15 per match. Of the four teams who have competed in all 6 tournaments, New Zealand have scored by far the most points, and again England are bottom, having scored 35% fewer points.

Table C: Summary points table over all tournaments *Av score diff per match = Total Score Difference / Number matches played

In summary of performance at the RWC, New Zealand do actually perform very well in comparison to their biggest threats with overall points difference and win ratio so their perception as being a great team is justified. England on the other hand does not display the top statistics in any of the above fields so their perception is not reasonable by reality.

In business, like rugby, perception and reality can be two very different things. Unless time is taken to look at the reality of the situation using actual data and not just personal view points, inaccurate interpretations can be allowed to inform decisions which ultimately will not have the desired effect. Interpreting data and building up the bigger picture of reality so that informed decisions can be made is what OR is all about. Applying a sensible approach to information can ensure the best options are available on which decisions can be made.

Back to the RWC; it has been established here that scoring and winning games is not New Zealand’s issue, perhaps it is something more. Table D shows New Zealand have failed to make it to the final since the tri-nations championship was established. No other team displays such an obvious pattern when comparing their respective multi nation tournament.

Table D: Finishing position of Tri Nations / 5/6 Nation tournament *Position finished in tri nation tournament (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa) or five/six nations (England and France) Green shading highlights RWC winner and purple shading highlights runner up

Maybe it is not the pressure in the later stages of the RWC that is too much for them as commentators allude to; perhaps they are simply peaking too early in the year. Looking at their performance during their tri nations championships that have taken place in the RWC years, they have won the tri nations each year and yet failed to reach the RWC final. This is the first RWC year New Zealand has not won the tri-nations, perhaps it is a sign of a change in outcome for the host country.

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