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Gallagher column: Agustin Pichot is right to question his own world rankings

Agustin Pichot

GUS PICHOT is never one to avoid an issue and he spoke for many earlier this week when he vowed to change the World Rugby rankings system which he believes is too complicated and fundamentally unsound.

Considering Gus is actually second in command at World Rugby that was quite an admission.

This is not just an academic argument, a bit of banter in the bar over bragging rights. World Rugby now use the rankings to seed a nation for the World Cup draw which can be massively important in determining who reaches the knock-out stages.

It goes a long way to protecting the big boys from an awkward Pool of Death and the system only really falls down when awkward teams like Argentina punch well above their perceived weight and ranking or an erratic side like Wales temporarily slip in the world rankings just before the draw is made and find themselves outside of the top eight.

World Cup matches are, perhaps not unreasonably, upgraded and given more weight within the ranking system but given the already strictly regimented draw you might also argue that only emphasises the element of self-perpetuation among the old guard going on. Perish the thought.

Pichot, below, has been making his views known for many years but what particularly irked him this week was Wales’ newly acquired top dog status despite the fact that they haven’t beaten New Zealand – the team they leapfrogged over to gain the top ranking spot – since 1953. That’s 30 straight defeats against the All Blacks.

He could have added that Wales have never beaten fifth placed South Africa in South Africa and have recorded just one win against sixth placed Australia in their last 14 meetings over the last decade. Don’t get me wrong, Wales are clearly a quality side with genuine World Cup aspirations but their number one ranking does seem, er, rather counter-intuitive.

The convoluted rankings system – the mathematics – makes cricket’s Duckworth Lewis looks like child’s play and there is not enough space to explain it fully, plus life is too short.

In brief it is based on an exchange of three ranking points between two competing teams based around the match result, match status, opposition strength and home advantage. All matches are worth a net of 0 points – if the winner gains say 2.1 ranking points they loser will be deducted 2.1 ranking points.

In theory it is mathematically possible for the bottom ranked team in the world to become the top ranked team in about 20 games. There is no particular advantage in playing more matches, in fact you can often move up the rankings while not playing.

For me the greatest weakness in the system is that not enough recognition is given to a narrow defeat – you would earn almost no ranking points for, say, a 20-19 to New Zealand at Eden Park – and the system generally doesn’t begin to adequately factor in the quality of opposition.

Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images

Argentina, currently ranked a lowly 11th behind Japan, now play almost all their meaningful Test rugby against the big three from the southern hemisphere in the Rugby Championship and unsurprisingly victories are in short supply – five wins and a draw since they started playing in 2012.

In the same period though world ranked number one side Wales have claimed only six wins in their November friendlies against the SANZAR giants when I would argue strongly the southern hemisphere teams are some way short of their competitive best.

This week’s world rankings will tell you there is vast gulf between Wales and Argentina but rugby common sense tells you there is almost nothing to choose between them and both could go a long way in the coming World Cup.

It’s and odd one though. Proving the rankings – the system – wrong seems to inspire the Pumas but Italy struggle to pick up the gauntlet.

Italy’s Test programme is built around the Six Nations where the other five teams are currently all in the top eight of the current World Rankings, with three in the top four. Not much joy to be had there and predictably their world ranking has steadily gone downhill and they cop much abuse and criticism along the way

Yet when Italy step down a level they put away Georgia – touted by some as Italy’s replacements in the Six Nations – comfortably last November despite missing key players while they thrashed Russia 85-15 in a recent friendly and picked up an impressive win on the road in Japan last summer.

If Italy competed in the European Nations competition and not the Six Nations, they would spend most of the year unbeaten and achieve a misleadingly high ranking.

It would be wrong to dismiss the ranking as irrelevant. Since their inception in 2000 at least one World Cup finalist every four years has come from the top four going into the tournament, but you need to read carefully between the lines. Until Gus gets things fine-tuned I would suggest that the bookies odds remain a much better guide to the current batting order. They, incidentally, make Wales fifth favourites to win the World Cup.

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