How the bizarre Rugby World Cup draw has thrown one half of the tournament wide open
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The draw for this year’s men’s Rugby World Cup was based on rankings that are nearly four years old.

The upshot – by the luck of the draw – is a lopsided tournament where only two of the world’s five best teams, based on the updated rankings, can make the semifinals. 

The latest top four (1st to 4th) of Ireland, South Africa, France and the All Blacks are all likely to clash in two quarterfinals, with two going home. Scotland (5th) are also in the same pool as Ireland and South Africa.

Yet the looming demise of two heavyweights is only half of the story of this baffling World Cup draw, with the stage set for lower-ranked sides to go far in the tournament.

There is also the possibility of a first semifinal appearance for one of the Pacific Island nations.

While the All Blacks are likely to face South Africa or Ireland in one quarterfinal, it’s not out of the question for Fiji and Argentina to meet in the last eight, or for Eddie Jones to lead the woeful Wallabies against the struggling England side he was coaching only last year.

Pools A and B contain the game’s strongest teams, but two semifinalists will be from pools C and D on the weaker side of the tournament. The two halves of the draw don’t cross over until the semifinals.

In the quarterfinals, the winners of Pool A face Pool B’s runners-up, the Pool B winners play Pool A’s runners-up, the winners of Pool C face Pool D’s runners-up, and the Pool D winners play group C’s runners-up. Take your pick.

Rugby World Cup pools (top two progress to the quarterfinals)

Pool A: New Zealand, France, Italy, Uruguay, Namibia.

Pool B: South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, Tonga, Romania.

Pool C: Wales, Australia, Fiji, Georgia, Portugal.

Pool D: England, Japan, Argentina, Samoa, Chile.

Wait, when was the draw?

England and Wales were ranked in the top four on January 1, 2020, only two months after their respective finishes of runners-up and semifinalists at the last World Cup in Japan.

They have tumbled down the rankings in recent years – England are eighth and Wales 10th ahead of the World Cup that starts in France next Saturday – but both were in the first of five bands when the draw was made in Paris on December 14, 2020.

Bands for World Cup draw (based on rankings on January 1, 2020)

Band 1: South Africa, New Zealand, England, Wales.

Band 2: Ireland, Australia, France, Japan.

Band 3: Scotland, Argentina, Fiji, Italy.

Band 4: Samoa, Georgia, Uruguay, Tonga.

Band 5: Namibia, Romania, Chile, Portugal.

One team from each band was placed in four pools of five.

Essentially, England and Wales are the top seeds in their respective pools, despite their lowered rankings which are a reflection of their decline.

World Rugby’s decision to make the draw from rankings more than three years out of date has been heavily criticised.

Chief executive Alan Gilpin said the early draw was because of logistical reasons. He has since acknowledged “frustrations” and said future draws will be made closer to the tournament.

Wales (4th to 10th) and Japan (8th to 14th) have dropped the furthest in the rankings since the last World Cup. They would be two bands lower if the draw was made today, with Wales in the third band and Japan in the fourth with Italy, Tonga and Portugal.

Bands if World Cup draw was done today (based on rankings on August 28, 2023)

Band 1: Ireland, South Africa, France, New Zealand.

Band 2: Scotland, Argentina, Fiji, England.

Band 3: Australia, Wales, Georgia, Samoa.

Band 4: Italy, Japan, Tonga, Portugal.

Band 5: Uruguay, Romania, Namibia, Chile.

Wales have tumbled down the world rankings since the last Rugby World Cup.

What might happen with a lopsided draw?

The All Blacks and France surely won’t lose to Italy and will progress from pool A. In pool B, it’s hard to see Scotland finishing above South Africa and Ireland to make the quarterfinals, while Tonga are unlikely to advance from such a competitive pool, even with five former All Blacks.

As well as the brewing quarterfinal exits for two of the world’s best, it’s difficult to predict pools C and D.

A 33-strong All Blacks squad has travelled to France for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Fiji have a great chance of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007, with Wales and Australia at a low ebb and facing the humiliation of a pool stage exit. Fiji’s win over England last month will give them enormous belief of toppling the Welsh and Eddie’s Wallabies in pool C.

England and Argentina will still be favourites to advance from pool D, making their opening clash vital, although Japan and Samoa could both spring surprises in the pool which looks the most open.

The two quarterfinals from pools C and D are anyone’s guess. Wales v England? Australia v Japan? Fiji v England? Wales v Japan? Australia v Argentina? Fiji v Japan? Wales v Argentina? Australia v Samoa? Wales v Samoa? Fiji v Samoa?