Long Gap Between Matches: So Who is the Top Ranked Rugby Team?

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England v Scotland - RBS Six Nations
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 11: Dylan Hartley of England celebrates winning the The Calcutta cup with his England team mates after the RBS Six Nations match between England and Scotland at Twickenham Stadium on March 11, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

This weekend, Ireland host England in the final match of the RBS Six Nations Championship. A championship that the English team have won, with a round to spare. Sound familiar? The All Blacks achieved the same feat in The Rugby Championship. For fans of the game the problem is; with such a long gap between matches, many are asking “who is the Top Ranked Rugby Team?”

That is not the fault of the playing teams. They have each had undoubted success–congratulations on England matching the Tier One World Record for consecutive test wins–but it has created a conversation in many circles. If England and New Zealand were to meet today [theoretically] who would be the winner? and would that result be in a quasi-World Championship playoff?

Just to mention it, brings an excitement and anticipation that in reality, the Rugby World Cup can only compare. The so called ‘Four Year Cycle’ then means fans and observers seemingly have to sit patiently for any match between the two sides, is not currently scheduled. And that wait has been for sometime now.

Long Gap Between Matches: Who is the Top Ranked Rugby Team?

The last time the two sides met, was on November 9, 2014. In an awesome Test, the game was won by the visitors 21-24. It was pre-2015 World Cup, so was a seminal build-up to that tournament. And while one team went on to triumph, it has been the reversal of fortune from England that has captured the attention, and applause.

Since being brought into the role, head coach Eddie Jones has gone unbeaten. That is to say, the team he coaches has–a self-effacing man, he would put all the glory found onto the group of players.

Now is the tough bit: World Rugby rankings. The points awarded and gained from International Test match victories are calculated to show one teams performance. Over the last 24 months, there is no doubt about who is crowned World Champion. The All Blacks have been ranked number one for a period over ten years (non-consecutive) that it means every other side is measured against them. Is that a fair reflection of teams placing?

Rankings Not the Only Measure of Performance

A game played between the two sides, with each well prepared, is the ideal. No lingering injuries, every position filled by the strongest candidate. The thought of it would make the occasion a ‘must see’ event.

Unfortunately, put the hypothetical aside. For all the demand that is called for by fans, observers and stakeholders, the two unions have not agreed to face each other. This is; and has become, a hindrance to the timing of any future clash. The Rugby Football Union (RFU) and New Zealand Rugby (NZR) cannot come to agreement over many topics; including gate takings revenue sharing, dates and commercial interests. That is because the more the two sides meet, it lowers the interest.

Possibly, that is not accurate. They may want to, but for reasons other than rankings. Messrs Ian Ritchie and Steve Tew will hold the interests of their own Union dearest, but the fact that the two best teams have not met for nearly two years, is not their main concern.

Anecdotally, the evidence is that ‘it is better for World Rugby’ to have them face each other at a World Cup. But can that be possible? The rankings and pool allocations for the 2019 tournament are due to be released on May 10. Of course, that does not automatically ensure that each team would meet in an ideal final.

A Grand Finale May Not be Best for Rugby

Waiting is often the recommendation to ramp up the anticipation. Waiting for that right moment, or even hinting at a match-up only to withdraw it–all to make it more enticing. But is that the right attitude?

Maybe for the British and Irish Lions tour, where that unique occasion is scheduled once every four years, and is shared across the three Southern Hemisphere nations. And with a tradition going back to 1888 it is an exception, not the norm.

That unique nature excites even the All Blacks head coach. Steve Hansen told BBC Radio Five Live’s Sportsweek “People here are very excited about the fact they’re coming as we don’t get many touring teams in world rugby any more.”

What fans are expecting now is that the Lions tour is an unofficial World Series. Like an ‘All Stars’ versus the World Champs match–a great idea–but that is only if the Lions squad gels. Like in 2005, if they are not well drilled, it could be a mixed bag, with no lasting correction to the rankings, or the All Blacks dominance.

So no, the two sides must not wait any longer to play next. It is just to prolonging the suspense. At this time, the opposing teams are staring each other down, not ‘signing the contract’ to use a boxing parlance, and in reality there are only limited dates likely for any quality match-up:

  • 2018 June/July International window
  • 2018 November International window
  • 2019 tour date (tbc) this could be scheduled during current ‘Global calendar’ negotiations.
*Note: the 2017 November Test window has already been scheduled, with the All Blacks playing a Barbarians XV at Twickenham, instead of England.

A Battle for Top Spot Must Occur

The best outcome, is that a match occurs prior to any single tournament otherwise the fixture may hijack the tournament. It could make all other results meaningless. So a possible semi final match would possibly be climactic; more so than the actual last match of the RWC in Japan.

While that could happen–and it would still be a tremendous match–but for most, the time is now. Such a long gap between matches seems counterproductive. It might create hype, but when results are analyzed many begin to say “well they never played New Zealand.” If you could justify the ranking by saying ‘our team has played all the leading nations in the last two years’ then the best team can back up their argument.

New Zealand (even acknowledging the gap since 2014) have that justification. A single loss in 2016, few losses over the period between 2011-2015 World Cup wins–it has been a credible reign. Now, the team who wishes to usurp them are England.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – JUNE 16: New Zealand All Black Reuben Thorne tackles England’s Martin Johnson in the rugby test at Westpac Stadium, Wellington, Saturday. England won 1513. (Photo by Ross Setford/Getty Images)

One of the fiercest rugby rivalries, England have always tested the All Blacks and are respected for that. If the organizations can get around the bargaining table, and schedule a match prior to September 2019, it will be special. As the 1995 match was, or the 2003 match in Wellington–where England rolled the hosts 13-15. That was a highly memorable match that took it’s natural course. The two top-ranked sides facing off.

What fans want is this. Not drawn out, not [unfairly] withheld and in the spirit of competition. For mine, it must happen sooner, rather than later.
“Main photo credit”

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