England’s Rugby World Cup conundrum: win pool C or finish second?
Should they top the group England would likely be on a collision course with Australia and the All Blacks
England play Argentina on Saturday in the Rugby World Cup and victory for Eddie Jones’s men will almost certainly secure them top spot in pool C.
The following Saturday they play France in their final pool match, but Les Bleus are a third-rate team these days who struggled to beat the United States and will find the going tough against Tonga on Sunday.
England’s reward for finishing top of pool C would almost certainly be a quarter-final clash with Australia, with the winner then likely to face two-time defending champions New Zealand in the semis.
England wouldn’t want that. The Aussies have been awkward opponents for the English in previous Rugby World Cups with three losses in six encounters, including the 1991 final and a thumping 33-12 defeat four years ago.
But it’s the All Blacks who have the strongest psychological hold over England. The nations have met three times in the RWC and New Zealand have won them all. That dominance extends to their encounters overall, stretching back to the first in 1905.
In 41 matches England have won just seven, the most recent a 2012 victory against a touring Kiwi side ravaged by a stomach bug.
The All Blacks have won the six matches since, and while some - particularly their 16-15 win at Twickenham last November - have been tight, the Kiwis always sneak home because the English seem to lack the belief that they can beat the reigning world champions.
No worries about Wales
If England finish second in pool C, however, their route to the final would likely involve a quarter-final against Wales and then a semi-final against South Africa. Both are less daunting than the Antipodean pair.
England have won three of their last five Tests against the Springboks and while Wales are the Six Nations grand slam champions, England have won seven of their last ten matches, including a resounding 33-19 victory in August.
According to The Times, England’s chances of winning the Rugby World Cup are “14.5% if they win the pool and 16.4% if they finish second”.
Those statistics are based on a model developed by Rugby Vision that simulated the tournament one million times.
The system, the brainchild of Niven Winchester, a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calculates the expected score margin and the probability of each team winning and harvests results from 70 years of Test matches, with greater emphasis on recent matches.
The Times explains that if England finish runners-up in pool C they are almost twice as likely to reach the final (41.3% compared with 22.8%) because of their perceived easier route through the knockout phase.
“The reason for this is simple,” Simon Gleave, the head of sports analysis at Gracenote, told the Times. “New Zealand will most likely be the semi-final opponents if England win pool C.”
If they top pool C
- Semi-final: 72.8%
- Final: 22.8%
- Champions: 14.5%
If they finish second in pool C
- Semi-final: 67.8%
- Final: 41.3%
- Champions: 16.4%
Statistics from Rugby Vision