by Rugby4Cast / 09th January 2019


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So with the turning of the calendar, we now find ourselves in a World Cup year. How exciting! But how are the international sides performing? And how does this compare to previous years and cycles? Well, here is a (relatively) quick run-down of how each team is doing in the current 2019 Japan World Cup cycle. We’ll try to follow this piece up with a more detailed look at each team individually in the coming weeks.

Historical Winning Cycles

Firstly, some context. The graph below shows how the last few World Cup winners have gone about building towards their eventual global title. It shows a rolling average of the teams previous 12 months win percentage for each of the 4 years in that particular World Cup cycle. A World Cup cycle is assumed to start at the end of the previous World Cup and continues until the end of the next.
Therefore, the yellow Australia 99 line shows Australia’s win percentages in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999. England’s grey 03 line shows England’s win percentage in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 and so on and so forth.
For example, it can be read from the below that New Zealand in their 2015 cycle (denoted by the dashed black line) won 100% of their previous 12 months of games when they went from year 2 to year 3 (so from 2013 to 2014).
The orange line shows the average winning percentage of each of these World Cup winning cycles. For the purposes of this analysis, we consider it a good indication of where a team should be if they want to consider themselves World Cup contenders. However, as can be seen below by South Africa in 2007, it is by no means a requirement to meet these standards if you want to win the World Cup.
[We chose not to go any further back that 1999, as this was around when the ‘professional’ era began. Also, the number of matches each team played per year has remained roughly consistent since then.]

A few things that can be immediately read from this graph:

  • Year 1. There is the most variation at the beginning of the cycle. Sides win percentage varies between 40% and around 95%, and the average win percentage hovering around 70%.
  • Year 2. Sides show more consistent performances. All five of the previous winners are generally within a range of 65% to 90% and the average winning percentage is just under 80%.
  • Year 3. Shows more variation again with all the sides showing a dip in form from the previous year. All (bar the South Africans in 2007, recover towards the end of the year and record a win percentage of above 80%.
  • Year 4. The most consistent year of the cycle. With all the sides (bar South Africa 2007 again), consistently recording above 80% wins.

It should be noted that as this graph shows a rolling average, the South African’s final year in the 2007 cycle will look worse as it will include some 2006 results. If we take just 2007 alone South Africa won 77.8% of their matches. Because of this (and other reasons) 2007 may not the best comparison for World Cup winning cycles, but we’ll cover that in more detail in a later piece. Be sure to watch out for it.

But why?

We won’t try to infer too much as to the reasons behind these fluctuations, as it is really anyone’s guess and there will be some individual facts and circumstances for each. If you have any interesting thoughts then please let us know in the comments below, however an initial reading from 30,000 feet could be that:

  • Year 1. Teams are rebuilding after the previous World Cup and try out new players and squad combinations. Win percentage is therefore the most volatile.
  • Year 2. Teams begin to have a relatively set squad and are generally happy with their core players. Win percentage stabilises.
  • Year 3. Teams experiment around their core squad a year out from the World Cup and try a few players in different positions. Generally however, they keep their cards close to their chests and don’t reveal any final match day moves or combinations. A few losses occur.
  • Year 4. Teams field nearly full strength sides win percentage is the most consistent. Eternal glory awaits.

Current World Cup Cycles

So how are the sides performing currently? The below graph shows the current 2019 World Cup Cycles for Six Nations and Rugby Championship sides. Each side is represented by their national colour. The average win percentage of previous World Cup winners is shown by the same orange line.


Everyone will draw different conclusions from this so we’ll again leave you to decide exactly what to think about this. However, here are a few things that we think are worth mentioning:

  • Only Ireland and New Zealand are currently in the above 80% ‘hot zone’ at the end of year three. Four of the last five winners have also been in this position. Wales are also very close to this requirement, and Scotland are the best of the rest. However, Ireland have had a much poorer year 1 and year 2 than might be expected from a ‘normal’ World Cup winner.
  • England are taking the ‘have a good first 2 years and then bad third year’ to the extreme. They have won over 90% of their matches in the first 2 years, and then below 50% in the third. It is not the ‘normal’ profile for a World Cup winner (if such a thing can be said to exist) but they have shown greater fluctuation than even South Africa in their winning 2007 cycle.
  • Wales are building very nicely. Given their current win percentage of around 80%, Warren Gatland’s side can definitely consider themselves well placed as dark horses for the title.
  • South Africa and Australia have had very low win percentages in this cycle. Australia’s win percentage has continued to plummet from their last World Cup cycle. They currently have just over a 30% win rate and, statistically at least, they appear pretty out of it.
  • South Africa have had a bit of a resurgence after a very poor 2017. Although we consider them to be moving in the right direction, and to contend for the title in Japan, if they went on to win from this position they would have had the lowest total win percentage of any World Cup winner over any four year cycle. However, there are many ways to skin a cat…

Let us know your thoughts on the above, and anything else you might like to see.
Happy New Year!

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