Trying times for new format

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 1997, 12:00am

Try and try again. This seems to have been the thinking when the format of this tournament was planned.

Rugby World Cup (RWC) Ltd officials, after sitting down to devise a fair method for the three-day event, have come up with a complicated preliminary round system which has been roundly criticised by most people and which came close to being changed at one stage.

We will try and explain the format and the thinking behind using such a system - which has been labelled as 'crazy' by New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens, and 'taxing' by Wales coach Kevin Bowring.

Organisers have split the 24 teams into eight pools of three. Defending champions England, runners-up Australia and hosts Hong Kong were slotted in first.

The first question then facing RWC Ltd was which teams from which qualifying tournaments would go into which pools. This was decided on the basis of how they finished in the qualifying tournaments.

Here lies the basic weakness of the format. The system takes no account of the fact that teams might have been weak when they were playing in the qualifying tournaments. A good example is Canada who, when they took part in Lisbon, were also touring Australia and at the same time taking part in the inaugural Pacific Rim Championship.

The other weak link is that since it was RWC Ltd which told the teams which qualifying tournament they should play in (they only ensured that top sevens sides New Zealand, Fiji and Western Samoa would be separated), some tournaments might have been harder than others.

And as tries mattered in the qualifying process (and at the finals too), the strength of the opposition had a sizeable impact on the final equation.

To balance this anomaly, RWC Ltd decided that, instead of one preliminary pool round, there would be two. This not only gives teams a second chance, but, hopefully, will cut down criticism that teams were placed in 'hard' pools on day one.

Already we see this charge being levelled by New Zealand who feel that they have a harder first-day outing (against Tonga and Japan) than Spain (who face Cook Islands and Morocco). And the irony is that the Kiwis thrashed Spain by some 60-odd points in the final of the Lisbon qualifying event.

So how come the winners of Lisbon get a harder draw (on paper) than the runners-up? 'It is a crazy system,' says Kiwi coach Tietjens. 'We would have been better off finishing second in Lisbon than winning that tournament.' To jockey for favourable positions on the second day, New Zealand will thus have to score as many tries as they can because this is what matters.

'It is not enough winning, you have to rub your opponents' noses in the ground,' says Peter Else, Hong Kong Rugby Football Union secretary.

At the end of the first day, all 24 teams will be re-seeded 1-24 on the following basis: (a) number of wins; (b) number of tries scored; (c) number of points scored and (d) difference between points scored and conceded.

The pool winners will be ranked 1-8; the second-placed teams will be 9-16 and the third-placed 17-24.

They will be placed in eight pools in the following way: 1-8 in Pools A to H; then 16-9 and 17-24. So Pool A will comprise 1, 16 and 17, Pool B 2, 15 and 18 . . . Pool H will be 8, 9 and 24.

After the second day's play, the teams will be ranked in the same manner as they were following the first round. Thus, for the Cup competition, there will be eight teams ranked 1-8. The quarter-final will see 1 v 8, 4 v 5 in the top half of the draw and in the bottom half 2 v 7, and 3 v 6. Similarly in the Plate and Bowl.

'It is a taxing format. The winners will truly be the world champions,' says Wales coach Bowring. But it can't be as taxing as the first World Cup in Edinburgh in 1993 when England had to play 11 matches to win the Melrose Cup. This time, the winners will need to play, aptly enough, seven games.

A flaw in this system is that it could throw up a Cup quarter-final where Fiji would meet New Zealand - that is if the teams are not going all out from day one and scoring tries, tries, tries.

Oh, and by the way, tournament organisers will be using a computer to do the draw at the end of the first two days of play. If done manually, it would take ages.

Anything which needs to be done by computer must indeed be complicated.