WELLINGTON – While many pundits expect this year’s Rugby World Cup will be the most open one yet, one economist has calculated that the All Blacks actually have a better chance of winning it than they had in 2015.
New Zealand was the first team to win back-to-back World Cups when it beat Australia in the 2015 final and had players like captain Richie McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter, who will go down as greats of the game.
Wellington-based economist Niven Winchester has, however, given the 2019 All Blacks side a 53.6 percent chance of securing a third successive title in Japan on Nov. 2 compared to the 47.1 percent chance his model gave the 2015 vintage.
While the model ranks England as the second favorite, with a 15.5 percent chance of winning a second title, the nature of the draw has resulted in the prediction that New Zealand will face South Africa in the final.
The Springboks, who are in the same opening round pool as the All Blacks, are ranked third favorite with a 12.9 percent chance of winning.
Wales, the Six Nations champion which currently sits atop the world rankings, is the fourth favorite at 7.1 percent, but is predicted to lose to South Africa in the semifinals.
New Zealand’s current rating, however, will raise eyebrows given it suffered its first-ever defeat to Ireland in late 2016 and recently lost to Australia.
“That was my gut feeling too, but I have learned that the model is smarter than me,” Winchester, a senior fellow at Motu Economic & Policy Research, told Reuters.
“Following the 2015 World Cup they went from strength-to-strength.
“In 2016, they were the strongest they have ever been, but in the last two or three years they have come back to the rest of the field.
“But according to the numbers they’re in a better position than they were in 2015.”
Winchester accepted that some might think his model had a New Zealand bias but, half joking, pointed to his British and Australian passports and French wife as evidence of his objectivity.
His statistical model uses more than 70 years of international rugby results and takes into account the venue and relative strength of each team, which means a side could win a game and still lose points.
“If, for example, New Zealand beats Namibia by one point in the World Cup the system will go ‘OK, the All Blacks aren’t as strong as we thought and Namibia is stronger than we thought’, so the All Blacks ranking can go down and Namibia’s can go up,” he said.
“So if you’re not beating lower quality opposition by a big enough margin then your rankings will come down.”
Despite the wealth of data being crunched in the algorithm, Winchester said the weather and individual decisions by players or officials that change the course of matches could not be predicted.
“It is looking at the aggregates of all the action,” Winchester said.
“It takes into account a bunch of factors like how strong is your squad? Teams have injuries. Other sides have more depth and that is reflected. It also reflects the coaching ability and how the captain reacts under pressure. Whatever contributes to the team in the aggregate is what we are capturing.
“Sometimes it is wrong and there is some randomness in there like Japan beating the Springboks (in 2015), sometimes there are upsets and it would be a surprise if there weren’t any upsets.
“We just don’t know where they will be.”
Training in paradise
Australia coach Michael Cheika has plumped for a slice of South Pacific paradise shorn of any daily distractions to fine-tune his Wallaby squad ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
The Wallabies will be based in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia until Thursday, returning to Sydney for a final warm-up match against Samoa two days later before heading to Japan.
“The physical proximity to our country helped our decision to come here,” Cheika said in Noumea, capital of the French-administered territory located 2,000 km northeast of Sydney.
“We wanted a place where the players are far from their daily lives and distractions so they can concentrate on one thing: training and preparation.”
Cheika added that the only game his team had in mind was its World Cup Pool D opener against Fiji on Sept. 21 in Sapporo.
The Wallabies will then take on Wales on Sept. 29, Uruguay on Oct. 5 and Georgia on Oct. 11.
“I’ve been Australia coach for five years and I’ve never seen such great team spirit and desire for collective effort,” said Cheika, who was named 2015 World Rugby coach of the year after leading the Wallabies to the World Cup final.