Rugby’s hierarchy still set in stone

Over the last seven men’s soccer World Cups, 28 teams have reached the quarterfinals (27 if you count Croatia and Yugoslavia as one). Only one country, Germany, has reached that stage all seven times. Then it’s Brazil with six, Argentina five, three with four, two with three, and the rest with one appearance each.

Over all seven men’s rugby World Cups, including the current one, only 12 teams have reached the quarterfinals. Since South Africa was welcomed back into competition in 1995 to pave the way for a future Matt Damon role, it’s just 11. Australia, New Zealand, England, France, South Africa have never missed the quarterfinals, aside from South Africa missing the first two Cups during the apartheid days.

This group is self-reinforcing. The top 12 teams in each World Cup (quarterfinalists plus third-place group finishers) automatically qualify for the next World Cup. The rest of the world plays through a promotion/relegation/playoff scheme so complex it makes the Davis Cup look like the NCAA Tournament. And the International Rugby Board divides teams into tiers, with the top 10 playing either in the Six Nations Championship (Europe) or Four Nations (Southern Hemisphere). The second IRB tier has the seven teams that usually play in the World Cup.

Everyone else is in Tier III, including the other eight teams that have ever played in a World Cup. That’s only 25 teams. Yes, fewer teams have qualified for a 20-team tournament (formerly 16) in seven iterations than have qualified for the quarterfinals of soccer’s World Cup in the same period.

So changes in the rugby hierarchy are marked in glacial terms. But these tiers could still use a little updating.

Tier I: The big five teams are competitive within the group — no team has won it more than twice, and no team has always made the semifinals. But below that, no team has ever made the final.

Tier II: The next tier of four teams includes the three other teams to reach a rugby semifinal — Wales (1987), Scotland (1991) and Argentina (2007). Ireland is in its fifth quarterfinal but has never gone farther. This tier of four has once again accounted for the other three quarterfinal spots this year, with Scotland the odd team out for the first time.

Tier III has the other teams who have reached a quarterfinal, but they’re well back. Before South Africa joined the fun, Fiji reached the 1987 quarterfinals, and Samoa and Canada advanced that far in 1991. Samoa made it back in 1995, Fiji returned in 2007, and Canada hasn’t won more than one game in a Cup since then.

Curiously, the International Rugby Board released new rankings today in the middle of the World Cup. The changes are basically based on one game — Tonga’s upset of France. France fell three spots to No. 8; Tonga leaped four to No. 9. Everyone in between them, therefore, moved one spot in either directions. And yet nothing has really changed — eight of the nine usual suspects are in the quarterfinals.

Here’s how they stand going into those quarterfinals:

TIER I – Past World Cup finalists, always in quarterfinals

New Zealand (ranked 1st: 1 championship, 2 finals, 5 semis, 7th quarter) – Swept group; closest game was 20-point margin vs. France. Pressure to win it all at home. Path to final: Argentina, Australia-South Africa winner

Australia (ranked 2nd: 2 championships, 3 finals, 4 semis, 7th quarter) Lost to Ireland 15-6 in group stage but dominated everyone else, beating Italy 32-6. Path to final: South Africa, New Zealand-Argentina winner

South Africa (ranked 3rd: 2 championships, 3 semis, 5th quarter) – Swept group with close wins over Tier II Wales (17-16) and Tier III Samoa (17-10). Path to final: Australia, New Zealand-Argentina winner

England (ranked 4th: 1 championship, 3 finals, 4 semis, 7th quarter) – Swept group with close wins over Tier II Argentina (13-9) and Tier III Scotland (16-12). Path to final: France, Ireland-Wales winner

France (ranked 8th: 0 championships, 2 finals, 5 semis, 7th quarter) – That loss to Tonga dropped France was costly in the rankings. Between that results and the lack of championships, France’s position here could be precarious. Path to final: England, Ireland-Wales winner

TIER II – usual World Cup quarterfinalists

Ireland (ranked 5th: 5th quarter) – Has always won at least two games. Beat Australia 15-6 in group stage and might be poised to break into final four at long last. Next closest game was against USA (22-10). Path to final: Wales, England-France winner

Wales (ranked 6th: 1 semi, 4th quarter) – Still hanging in there with three quarterfinals in last four Cups. One-point loss to South Africa, 17-10 win over Samoa. Path to final: Ireland, England-France winner

Argentina (ranked 7th: 1 semi, 3rd quarter) – Has at least two wins in each of the last four Cups to move up from Tier III and will start competing with South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in 2012 to force Tri Nations to rename itself Four Nations. Big win in group was 13-12 decision over Scotland; clinched quarterfinal berth with 25-7 win over Georgia. Path to final: New Zealand, Australia-South Africa winner

Scotland (ranked 10th: 1 semi, 6 quarters) – One-point loss to Argentina cost them their seventh straight quarterfinal berth. Unlucky to be in group with two others from Tiers I/II.

TIER III – moderate Cup success

Tonga (ranked 9th: 6 wins/6 Cups) – The newest team in this tier, winning two games in each of the last two Cups, and potentially upwardly mobile. But the 19-14 win over France is tempered by a 25-20 loss to Canada. Beat Japan 31-18.

Samoa (ranked 11th: 2 quarters; since then, 7 wins/4 Cups) – Qualified for six straight but hasn’t reached quarters since 1995. Still won at least two each year except 2007. Lost to Wales 17-10 and South Africa 13-5. Key win: 27-7 over Fiji.

Italy (ranked 12th: 9 wins/7 Cups) – Two wins in each of the last three Cups. No surprises in group; lost by 26 and 30 to higher-ranked teams, won by 17 over USA and blew out Russia.

Canada (ranked 13th: 1 quarter; otherwise, 5 wins/6 Cups) – Aside from quarterfinal run in 1991, team has never won more than once in Cup, though it won one (Tonga) and drew one (Japan) this year.

Fiji (ranked 16th: 2 quarters; otherwise, 5 wins/4 Cups) – Had solid Cup runs in 1999, 2003 and 2007, but not at all competitive this year aside from win over Namibia.

TIER IV – at least one Cup win

Georgia (ranked 14th: 2 wins/3 Cups) – The next team in Tier III? Win over Romania may confirm ranking. Also gave Scotland a good game, losing 15-6.

Japan (ranked 15th: 1 win/7 Cups) – The team hasn’t lived up to its ranking in World Cup play, winning only one game in 1991 and drawing one in each of the past two Cups, which is why we can’t justify putting it in Tier III. Lost 31-18 to Tonga and drew 23-23 with Canada.

USA (ranked 17th: 3 wins/6 Cups) – Wins in 1987, 2003 and this year over World Cup debutant Russia (13-6).

Romania (ranked 18th: 6 wins/7 Cups) – Might have been considered Tier III before 2011, especially after two-win performance in 2007, but loss to Georgia left team 0-4 this year. Started off well with 34-24 loss to Scotland but collapsed after that.

Uruguay (ranked 22nd: 2 wins/2 Cups) – Possibly falling out of this tier due to inability to qualify for the last two Cups. The USA beat Uruguay in the American qualifying final, forcing the team into a four-team playoff for one spot. Uruguay beat Kazakhstan but lost to Romania.

TIER V – at least one Cup appearance

Namibia (ranked 19th: 4 Cups) – Qualified for four straight out of Africa but not yet a winner. Gave up 80 points in two of four games this year and came closest with 49-25 loss to Fiji.

Portugal (ranked 20th: 1 Cup) – Qualified in 2007. Fourth in six-team European Division 1 qualifying; top two (Georgia, Russia) made Cup while Romania went to further qualifying.

Russia (ranked 21st: 1 Cup) – Made Cup debut this year and was nowhere near any team but the USA.

Spain (ranked 24th: 1 Cup) – Qualified in 1999. Fifth in six-team European Division 1.

Zimbabwe (ranked 35th: 2 Cups) – Qualified for first two Cups in 1987 and 1991.

Ivory Coast (ranked 44th: 1 Cup) – Qualified in 1995; listed here only for historical purposes. Lost to Namibia in African qualifying semifinal.


– Tunisia (36th; African finalist; lost to Romania in 20th-place semifinal)
– Kazakhstan (31st; Asian pool runner-up despite losing 101-7 to Japan and 19-15 loss to Hong Kong; lost to Uruguay in 20th-place semifinal)
– Ukraine (33rd; lost to Romania in European playoff to reach 20th-place playoffs)
– Chile (23rd; second to Uruguay in South American pool)
– Uganda (43rd; African semifinalist; lost to Tunisia)
– Brazil (29th; won South American “B” pool; lost to Uruguay and Chile in “A”)
– Trinidad and Tobago (48th; won Caribbean qualifying; lost to Brazil for right to go to South American … no, it doesn’t make sense to me, either)


Every pool except Pool A had the following records: 4-0, 3-1, 2-2, 1-3, 0-4.

Pool A:
New Zealand (Tier I): 4-0, Four routs
France (Tier I, barely): 2-2, Upset loss to Tonga
Tonga (Tier III, climbing): 2-2, Beat France, lost to Canada
Canada (Tier III): 1-2-1, Beat Tonga, drew Japan
Japan (Tier IV): 0-3-1, Drew Canada

Pool B:
England (Tier I): Two routs, two close wins
Argentina (Tier II): Close loss to England, close win over Scotland
Scotland (Tier II): Close losses to England and Argentina
Georgia (Tier IV, climbing): Beat Romania
Romania (Tier IV): Four losses

Pool C:
Ireland (Tier II):  Close wins over Australia, USA
Australia (Tier I): Loss to Ireland, otherwise comfortable
Italy (Tier III): Predictable
USA (Tier IV): Predictable
Russia (Tier V): Rough debut

Pool D:
South Africa (Tier I): One-point over Wales, close vs. Samoa
Wales (Tier II): All predictable from here on
Samoa (Tier III):
Fiji (Tier III):
Namibia (Tier V):

Published by

Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

2 thoughts on “Rugby’s hierarchy still set in stone”

  1. This is a nice overeview – I think I’ll assign it in my sports and international realtions class when we review issues about rugby.

  2. You’re dead right. The rugby world would benefit from an increasingly competitive international landscape. There’s a lot of initiatives in place to support that goal. Let’s hope the Sevens at the Olympics can kick start an era where a rugby fan can watch a myriad of different teams qualifying for the World Cup. Austria vs. Chile in 2027?

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