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Samoan rugby star Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu tweeted earlier this week that he thought the disparity between rest period for his team (three days) and Wales (six) was unfair and contributed to the 17-10 Welsh victory.
Fuimaono-Sapolu likened the situation to slavery, the holocaust and apartheid. Hyperbole certainly, but his point was made – it’s an injustice.
As we’ve seen in recent Rugby World Cup competitions, some countries are expected to play two games in five days, while others – often the ones best positioned to handle the torrid pace of the competition – have more favorable draws.
In Pool D, Samoa has breaks (non-competition days) of three, six and four
days. Wales gets six, seven and five. In Pool C, the USA’s pool, the Eagles
get breaks of three, seven and three days, while Italy (the final opponent
for the Eagles) gets eight, six and four. Leading into the USA v. Italy
game, the USA will have three days after Australia, Italy six days
This type of weird, staggered schedule comes as a response to 1999, widely considered the least enthusiastic Rugby World Cup of all. One of the reasons fans weren’t as engaged, especially in lower-tier matchups, as they could have been, was that all the games in a single round were played over a weekend (including Fridays). October 1-3 saw the first round of matches, and then a five-day break before the next round. Most observers felt the long breaks sucked the momentum out of the event, and since 2003 the games have been staggered.
All that’s well and good, but staggering means some teams get short breaks and others get longer. A quick look at the schedules from the last three World Cups shows that the top teams get the primo spots. The teams that don’t necessarily have the depth to rebound on short notice are exactly the teams asked to do so.
In RWC 2011, it seems the optimal break time is five days (the average break is actually 5.45 days but deviates from 3 to 9). Of the eighteen times a team gets a break of less than five days, 15 (83%) are Tier II nations. Of the 31 times a team gets a break of more than five days, 19 (61%) are Tier I nations. Tier I nations lead the standings in who gets that ideal break of five days, with eight such breaks versus three for the Tier II nations (two for Japan).
Part of the reason we still see long breaks for Tier II nations is that, of
course, if you have a short turnaround, the schedule still needs you to
hang around to play some games later. The really long breaks fall fairly
evenly – three Tier II countries and and two Tier I countries have breaks
of eight or nine days.
Is there another way, a way in which all teams have relatively similar, and
reasonable, breaks, but the fans get a regular dose of rugby? Possibly.
Here’s what might work:
Play all a pool’s matches on one day (no new idea here, it’s what the RWC does, for the most part, anyway).
Put one or two idle days in there about once a week.
Every team goes through the competition with breaks of five days. Every team gets a bye, which means they have a break of nine days once in the competition.
The complication here is that three teams in each pool get a long break in the middle of their games, while one has to take the break at the beginning (basically starting their World Cup five days late) and one at the end of pool play.
I would propose that the team to get the long break at the end of pool play should be the #2 seed. That would set them up nicely to produce competitive quarterfinal matches.
Who gets the early break? It’s a tough thing to ask anyone to do that, and it would likely be a situation where IRB rankings, and therefore seeds in the pool, have an effect.
But with this plan, you have 60 breaks between pool play games. Of those, 48 are five days, and 12 are nine days.
This schedule would still have rugby games virtually every day, but would, like the current schedule, carry a few off days as well. And just perhaps, it would even the scheduling playing field a little bit.
Fuimaono-Sapolu apologized for his statement relating the schedule to global catastrophes and injustices, but stood by his statement that unfairness remains. Rugby World Cup Ltd. met with the Samoan team and the player to voice their displeasure, but did not punish Fuimaono-Sapolu for his statements. Perhaps that’s because he had a point.