Explainer: How Ireland are World Rugby’s number one team
Everyone should ignore this list until November 2nd, it’s ‘a label’, nothing more
Ireland are the top ranked team in the world ahead of the Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Victories over Wales these past two weekends have propelled Ireland to number one in the World Rugby rankings.
“It’s a label,” shrugged Joe Schmidt. An unwanted one at that.
So, how did Ireland end up as the top ranked rugby side in the world, not least as it is just weeks after a hammering by England?
It is based on the ranking system operated by World Rugby, which is updated every Monday.
Each team has a ranking between 1 and 100 with the top-ranked side usually having a score of between 90 and 100.
As of this morning Ireland are ranked top on 89.47, ahead of New Zealand on 89.40 and England on 88.13.
The ranking system is based on a points exchange system which means that after each match the winner and loser exchange points.
The winning team gains the same number of points as the losing team surrenders.
It is worth noting this system makes no distinction between competitive matches such as during the Six Nations and friendly internationals, such as World Cup warm-up matches.
If this sounds ridiculous it is because, well, it is. But them’s the rules.
As World Rugby explains: “Points exchanges are doubled during the World Cup Finals to recognise the unique importance of this event, but all other full international matches are treated the same, to be as fair as possible to countries playing a different mix of friendly and competitive matches across the world.”
Chew on that logic.
The Nations Championship – which failed to get off the ground – would have gone a long way to addressing this imbalance.
The current scoring system, which validly ended New Zealand’s four-year reign at number one, also failed to promote the Rugby Championship winners South Africa or reward Wales’ Grand Slam success with a spot in the top three nations.
There is a mention about the “relative strength of each team” being factored into the scoring but this enters very murky waters.
So, despite its weaknesses, how does the “points exchange” system work?
“For each match there are only five possible outcomes that can affect points exchanges,” World Rugby explains.
“Either side winning by more than 15 points, either side winning by up to 15 points, or a draw.”
Home ground advantage is dealt with by “handicapping” the home side. Their ranking is given three additional points for the purpose of comparing the relative strength of the two sides.
According to World Rugby, the impact of this is to dilute home advantage as a home team will tend to pick up fewer points for winning and give away more points for losing.
The system is also designed to give a higher rating to recent results, which means the impact of past results fades over time.
The upshot is that Ireland, despite 2019 being roundly viewed as a poor year to date, top the pile on the eve of the Rugby World Cup.
This reveals a needless flaw in the ranking system rather than Schmidt’s team earning the title of number one.
“We all know who are favourites for the World Cup and it’s not us,” said the 53-year-old Kiwi.
The All Blacks are 5/4 to win the World Cup with England 4/1 and South Africa 9/2 followed by Ireland 8/1 and Wales 9/1.
The pool stages of the tournament will see further fluctuations in the rankings but really everyone should ignore this list until November 2nd.
The result in the Rugby World Cup Final that night in Yokohama is the only true indication of which rugby nation is the greatest on Earth.