The rugby-NFL revolving door

While researching my next piece for OZY, I came across two stories of rugby players in the NFL — one on the way in, one on the way out: – Hayden Smith, formerly a college basketball player, is returning to Saracens after playing for the New York Jets. Smith is from Australia but has played international rugby for the USA. – Fleet-footed (4.22 40-yard dash!) Carlin Isles has signed with Detroit’s practice squad. If you’re debating the world’s best athletes, you have to consider soccer and basketball players for the mix of strength, speed, endurance and skill their sports require. But … Continue reading The rugby-NFL revolving door

Time for a rugby reality check

Want to know the best place to read up on the quest for professional rugby in the United States? BigSoccer, of course. The venerable message board picked up the discussion after The Guardian posted a couple of pieces on RugbyLaw, a startup venture that would set up matches between the London Irish club and a hodgepodge of internationals with newly converted college football players. The hope is that a league would spring from such an effort. The Guardian‘s headlines, unfortunately, dramatically overstated the NFL’s involvement with the venture. See the comment from RugbyLaw’s George Robertson on this ESPN post. Issues with the … Continue reading Time for a rugby reality check

Pack mentality hurting rugby

I have to admit I’ve always been frustrated with the flow of rugby. Not the offshoot of “rugby league” is any better — come on, folks, just put on pads and play gridiron football if you’re going to run things that way — but traditional rugby union just stops and starts far too often. It’s not just me. The Economist sees the gamesmanship in scrums in particular as a thorny problem with no easy solution. In the infamously limp match between Scotland and Wales, only three of the 13 scrums awarded were properly contested. Whole minutes at a time ticked by with … Continue reading Pack mentality hurting rugby

Monday Myriad, Feb. 11: Ligety, Ligety

Headlines of the weekend: – The USA’s Ted Ligety won his second gold medal at the Alpine skiing world championships, adding the supercombined to the super-G. Super. – Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen won the sprint and held on to win the pursuit by a few millimeters over France’s Martin Fourcade at the biathlon World Championships. You just might see a highlight clip farther down in this post. The best U.S. finish so far: Lowell Bailey moved up from 32nd to take 13th in the men’s pursuit. – England took their second win in two matches in rugby’s Six Nations Championship. So what if it was the lowest-scoring … Continue reading Monday Myriad, Feb. 11: Ligety, Ligety

Monday Myriad: Feb. 4

Yes, this will be more of an evening thing from now on. The week’s headlines: – Jose Aldo defended his UFC featherweight title as Frankie Edgar suffered yet another close decision loss. The rest of the UFC 156 card scrambled the title chases in ways I’m still working out. Rashad Evans was supposed to fight for the middleweight title, but he lost a dreary light heavyweight fight to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. In the heavyweight division, Alistair Overeem was supposed to fight for the title, but Antonio Silva knocked him out. And now lightweight contender Anthony Pettis says he wants to … Continue reading Monday Myriad: Feb. 4

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:

Continue reading “Rugby’s hierarchy still set in stone”