The Northland Age
Divide and grow: World Cup filled with too many mismatches
This Rugby League World Cup could yet evolve into a great spectacle but the format needs some surgery to reach its long-term potential.
The quarter-finals this weekend should be enthralling, with genuine intrigue around three of the four games.
Tonga versus Samoa will be a beauty, adding another chapter to that rivalry while Fiji and Papua New Guinea will provide tough tests for New Zealand and England respectively.
But the group stage, which concluded on Tuesday, was often disappointing.
The organisers took the brave step of having 16 teams — split into four pools — but the gulf was far too big. It’s normal to have one-sided contests at major tournaments, especially in sports with a lot of developing nations and there were plenty at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
But the margins have got a bit crazy at this World Cup, culminating in Tonga’s 92-10 dismissal of the Cook
Islands on Monday, after England had put 94 points on Greece. And it’s hard to see what Scotland’s 84-0 hammering at the hands of Australia has done for the sport north of the border.
It hasn’t helped with the new rules — and the push to make the game constantly faster and more frenetic — which has made dominant teams even more dominant.
Minor nations don’t get the chance play much outside of World Cups, as most of their players are based in Australia or England, so their development will be slow and steady.
Until they can catch up, the tournament needs to adopt a two-tiered approach, to ensure more close contests — which ultimately create the best memories — regardless of the levels of the particular teams.
The top eight teams coming into a tournament could be placed into two groups of four.
For this event, it might have seen Australia, Tonga, Samoa and France in one pool, with New Zealand, England, Papua New Guinea and Fiji in the other. The other two groups would be a gathering of the developing nations, from Ireland, Lebanon and the Cook Islands to Greece, Jamaica and Italy.
The top three nations from each of the primary groups would qualify for the quarter-finals, along with the winners of the secondary groups.
That would ensure three weeks of absorbing group games, at either end of the spectrum, and draw bigger crowds and television audiences, while still providing some balanced quarter-final match ups.
There could be teething problems and middle-ranked teams might want to deliberately avoid being part of the top groups and take their chances among the second tier. So there might need to be two repechage matches added, which could be tricky to schedule.
The format could also be seen as artificial and create the perception that there are two tournaments running in parallel. But it is surely a better alternative than having a number of lopsided matches.
League has a limited international base and has made the most of it with its creative eligibility rules, which has ensured a spread of talent across nations, rather than rugby’s regrettable situation where players (mostly Pacific Islanders) too easily get locked out for a whole World Cup cycle, and often for longer.
Now it’s time to get creative with the format.