Worst of times
Dormant Boks on top and staying put thanks to quirky ranking system
Despite not having played since last year’s Rugby World Cup final, SA are still the world’s top-ranked team
Irrespective what happens in the Tri-Nations or the Nations Cup, the Springboks look set to top World Rugby’s rankings at the end of the year again.
They were on top of the world at the corresponding period last year on the back of winning the Rugby World Cup (RWC) in Japan in November.
They have not played since the final and their tally of 94.20 points on the rankings has remained constant during their hiatus. At the end of last year they held a slender lead over New Zealand who had 92.12 points, while England, the team they vanquished in the final in Yokohama, was third on 88.83.
World Rugby explains that both men’s and women’s rankings are calculated using a “points exchange” system, in which sides take points off each other based on the match result. Whatever one side gains, the other loses.
Several years of research went into developing the system, using an extensive database of international matches going back to 1871.
The exchanges are based on the match result, the relative strength of each team, and the margin of victory, and there is an allowance for home advantage.
Points exchanges are doubled during the World Cup finals to recognise the unique importance of this event, but all other full international matches are treated the same, to be as fair as possible to countries playing a different mix of friendly and competitive matches across the world.
Any match that is not a full international between two member countries does not count at all. All member countries have a rating, typically between 0 and 100. The top side in the world will normally have a rating above 90.
When the latest rankings were released at the start of the week, SA were still at 94.20 just under six points clear of England, with the All Blacks 0.056 points further adrift in third. A rejuvenated France and Ireland now complete the top five.
In short the Springboks, without playing for more than a year, have increased their lead at the top of the standings. Critics will point to this quirk in the ranking system arguing that teams should not preserve points when they are inactive, especially when they opt out of competition.
World Rugby however budgets for teams in limbo in their rankings. “Their rating may be deemed to be ‘dormant’, in which case they will be removed from current ranking lists. However, when they are active again they will pick up their rating from where they left off.”
While the pandemic curtailed all rugby around March and April, the Springboks had the opportunity to return to the playing surface in the rescheduled Rugby Championship in Australia. Citing player welfare, the Springbok brains trust opted to eschew the opportunity of playing Down Under, much to the chagrin of Australia and New Zealand.
SA will hope to take off from 94.20 when they engage in Test matches in preparation for next year’s tour of the British and Irish Lions. It is unlikely another team will supplant them at the summit of the rankings. In the mean time however, World Rugby will do well to develop a few tweaks to safeguard the integrity of their ranking system.
“Several years of research went into developing the system, using an extensive database of international matches going back to 1871,” it explains. “All the weightings and values in the system were derived from detailed analysis of the results.
“The system’s reliability is assessed in a number of objective ways, including measuring its ‘predictive accuracy’.”
That of course is built on the premise that the best team in the world is not sitting on its hands indefinitely.