Given the doom and gloom that had enveloped Irish rugby after our chastening 57-15 defeat to England at Twickenham a few short weeks ago, it’s hard to fathom that Ireland are now the top-ranked side in World Rugby.
Ireland’s rise to the top of the World Rugby rankings is due more to the vagaries of the International fixtures list as opposed to being an entirely accurate portrayal of the true levels of Rugby’s top sides at this current moment in time. What the rankings do indicate however, is how wide open this year’s World Cup is when contrast with the previous four tournaments.
The top six sides are now closer together in terms of ranking points than at any point since the system was introduced over four World Cup cycles ago. To understand the significance of what any of this means we need to first look at the rankings system.
A brief history of the World Rugby ranking system.
The rankings system was introduced almost exactly 16 years ago to the day. On the 8th September 2003 by the International Rugby Board (IRB), the predecessor to the current governing body – World Rugby.
England, based on historical results, were the top-ranked side on the introduction of the rankings and justified their top slot when Clive Woodward’s side went on to lift the Webb Ellis trophy a couple of months later. New Zealand then overtook them in June 2004 and held the top spot until South Africa claimed the premier position on the strength of their 2007 World Cup win.
The All-Blacks regained the top spot during the following years Tri-Nations series. However, they lost it a couple of weeks later when the Springbok’s beat them in Dunedin. South Africa then held the number one spot until a defeat to France in November 2009 saw the New Zealanders regain the number one ranking. The All-Blacks would go on to hold top spot for almost a decade until Wales dethroned them after a 16-9 win over England in Cardiff on the 19th August this year.
While no one inside Joe Schmidt’s set-up will be getting over excited by Ireland securing top spot in the latest World Rankings published today, the ranking are an impressive indicator of our relative strength in relation to other teams in World Rugby during this four year World Cup cycle. However, If you were a cynic you could claim that Ireland just happen to be the best of a bad lot at the moment.
Three different sides have occupied the number one spot in the last four week. Before that only three sides over the last 16 years had held the premier position in World Rugby. In order to explain this current flux, we need to take a look at how the system works.
How the rankings system works in numbers
The World Rugby ranking system are calculated using a ‘Points exchange’ method. Each Country was initally given a rating between 0-100 based on their recent block of results. When two sides meet they have the opportunity to take points off their opponents. Whatever one side gains, their opponent will lose the same number of points. The number of points will be based on the match result, the margin of victory and crucially, the ranking of the two sides. – The bigger the gap between the two side in the World Rankings the more the lower-ranked side stands to gain from a win.
Under the current version of the system, there are five possible outcomes in any match.
- A win for the home side by less than 15 points.
- A win for the home side by 15 points or more.
- A draw
- An away win by less than 15 points.
- An away win by 15 points or more.
All matches are worth a net 0 points (one side will gain points, while the other will lose the equivalent amount). So it is of no benefit for a side to play any more matches than another. In the case of Ireland’s warm-up games, the timing of their fixtures and the fixtures of our opponents were key toJoe Schmidt’s side claiming the top spot in the World rankings.
So how did Ireland get to the top?
As mentioned above, the All-Black had held top spot for almost ten years. Reaching a high point of 96.57 after 19 wins in a row up to the 10th of October 2016. It was Joe Schmidt’s side that started New Zealand’s downward decline with Ireland’s first-ever win over the All-Black’s at Soldier’s Field, Chicago in November 2016. The Kiwi’s ranking took a slight dent after a 16 -16 home draw with South Africa in Wellington during July. However, it was New Zealand’s shock 47-26 defeat to Australia on the 10th August caused the All-Blacks rankings (91.54 on 5th August) to tumble. That defeat to the then 6th placed Wallabies (81.91) saw New Zealand lose 2.50 points to go below 90 for their first time ever (89.04).
Our heavy defeat to an English side who sat 5th on 86.79 points prior to the game at Twickenham was an away match for Ireland (3rd – 88.69), therefore the number of ranking points lost was less than for a home game. Despite a defeat by a whopping 42 points Ireland only slipped by 1.34 ranking points, which England then gained. The points are published on Monday after every weekend of International action. So on Monday 26th August England climbed to 3rd on 88.13 (86.79 + 1.34), While Ireland slipped to 4th on 87.35 (88.69 – 1.34). Wales had climbed to the top spot for their first time ever the previous weekend after a 13-6 win over England in Cardiff.
Primarily because of our fall to 4th place and Warren Gatland’s sides rise to 1st place, our 17-22 away win at the Principality Stadium over an understrength Welsh side gave Ireland a huge swing of 3 points in relation to Gatland’s men. Ireland went from 87.36 up 1.5 to 88.86, while Wales fell from 89.42 down 1.5 to 87.93. This allowed New Zealand who did not play on that weekend reclaim top spot as they stayed unchanged on 89.40.
Saturday’s 19-10 win over the same opposition as a week previous at the Aviva saw Ireland gain another 0.61 points to climb to 89.47. Which was enough to overtake New Zealand (89.40) who’s 92-7 win over 15th place Tonga was irrelevant to the rankings as teams are not awarded points for wins over sides more than ten places below them in the pecking order.
Interestingly, although it’s Ireland’s first time to claim top spot, it’s not Ireland’s highest ranking points tally. That came after our November 2018 16-9 win over New Zealand when Schmidt’s side rose to 91.17.
What does this mean in relation to the World Cup
Only 5.42 ranking points separate 6th placed Australia from Ireland. By way of contrast, that is a smaller gap than separated first and second place prior to the 2015 World Cup. Four years ago New Zealand (92.89) held a 6 point lead over 2nd placed Australia. The gap was 8.49 points between the All-Black’s 1st spot and 6th placed Ireland. Looking back further, on Monday 12th September 2011 New Zealand’s lead was 10.78 ranking points ahead of Wales in 6th (90.55 v 79.77), while in September 2007 New Zealand (94.59) were a massive 15 points ahead of Argentina (79.07) in 6th.
Even as recently as this time last year 9.5 points separated New Zealand (92.52) from sixth-placed Scotland (83.02). Therefore there is empirical evidence to back up the idea that the gap between the top sides in narrower now than prior to any tournament in the past two decades.
This could all change utterly over the next couple of months. Double ranking points are awarded for all Rugby World Cup games. So unless Ireland go on to lift the trophy in Japan our reign at the top will be brief. Irish Rugby fans may as well enjoy our little stint at the top of the World Rugby rankings regardless of how merited or not we feel it is. It took us 16 years to get to the top, so let’s enjoy it while we can!