The Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks, and Luck

19 September 2019

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I wrote this article before the 2011 Rugby World Cup. (It had an original publication date of 4 September 2011. Have I been blogging that long?!)

As we enter into the 2019 Rugby World Cup, I thought it would be apt to re-post. I haven’t made any changes, because the key point is evergreen.

The 2011 Rugby World Cup begins in 5 days time. It is a competition that is held every 4 years.

Since winning the Webb Ellis trophy the first time the tournament was played in 1987, the New Zealand All Blacks have consistently disappointed New Zealand sports fans. They made it to the final in 1995 and have otherwise only managed to get to the semi-finals, with the exception of 2007 where they were knocked out before getting into the top 4.

According to the IRB world rankings, the New Zealand All Blacks are ranked number 1 team in the world going into the upcoming tournament. I believe they’ve been ranked number 1 before many of the world cups they have competed in.

A feature of tournaments of this nature is that the “best” team is often not the team that wins the tournament.

Leonard Mlondinow explains this in his book The Drunkards Walk. Talking about the baseball world series, he notes:

you will discover that in a 7-game series there is a sizable chance that the inferior team will be crowned champion. For instance, if one team is good enough to warrant beating another in 55 per cent of its games, the weaker team will nonetheless win a 7-game series about 4 times out of 10. And if the superior team could be expected to beat its opponent, on average, 2 out of each 3 times they meet, the inferior team will still win a 7-game series about once every 5 matchups. There is really no way for sports leagues to change this. In the lopsided 2/3 probability case, for example, you’d have to play a series consisting of at minimum the best of 23 games to determine the weaker with what is called statistical significance, meaning the weaker team would be crowned champion 5 per cent or less of the time…. And in the case of one team’s having only a 55-45 edge, the shortest statistically significant “world series” would be the best of 269 games, a tedious endeavor indeed! So sports playoff series can be fun and exciting, but being crowned ‘world champion’ is not a very reliable indication that a team is actually the best one.

It’s an interesting point. It certainly means that it’s hard for a team that wins the Webb Ellis to say it is the best team in the world.

The All Blacks may not have won the world cup since 1987, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been the best team in the world. All that we can really say is that the team hasn’t won the world cup champions in the succeeding years.

And likewise, although they may be ranked number 1, and are (in the eyes of many kiwis at least) the best team in the world, that’s no guarantee that they will win the world cup on 23 October 2011.

Being the better team going into any match, let alone a quarter- or semi-final, and especially a final, doesn’t mean the team will win. There is a large degree of uncertainty which makes the result unpredictable. You could say there’s an element of luck.

And without a doubt, that uncertainty about who will win makes those key games exciting.


All Blacks, luck, probability, rugby

About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or a popular author of erotic, supernatural, mystery novellas. Sometimes he says he was in a band that opened for Robbie Williams. None of these are true.

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