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:

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