In From The Side: The Biggest Shock Ever?

by Whiff of Cordite

Whiff of Cordite is just about coming down after Saturday’s events. What a stunningly ferocious and unexpected performance. The fortitude and mental strength of Ireland performance didn’t just shock us and Australia, it shocked the world, and has blown the tournament apart – the likelihood is now that the 3 big Southern Hemisphere guns will be in the same side of the draw, although we wrote a piece earlier this week on how NZ might just be better off losing to France.

So while the debris is still settling, let us actually ask: how big a shock was this in RWC terms? As is customary for a nerdy blog, which loves numbers, we’ll let the evidence do the talking, CSI style.

*puts on sunglasses*

So, this is the seventh rugby World Cup; and just five teams have dominated the first six editions: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France. The Big Five are responsible for:

  • 12 out of 12 finalists
  • 21 out of 24 semi-finalists. The exceptions being Wales in 1987, Scotland in 1991 (asterisk here) and Argentina in 2007


Impressive. But even more impressive is the following statistic: there has only been three previous occasions in tournament history where a Big Five country was beaten by a non-Big Five country, Wales-England in 1987 and Argentina-France (twice) in 2007. Scotland’s asterisk above is due to the fact they only got to the semi-final by beating rubbish sides (recall South Africa weren’t invited) – and they blew a chance to beat England when they got there. The 3 Southern Hemisphere nations had actually never been beaten by anyone outside the Big Five.

Until now that is - Ireland have added a third name to the above list, and, based on historical precedent, should be thinking about a semi-final – it’s certainly within their compass. But where does Saturday rank compared to the other occasions a Big Five team has been downed?

  • In the mid-80s, English rugby was in the doldrums. In the 5 Five Nations championships preceding 1987, Wales finished above England, and they did again (and won the Triple Crown) the next year. To be blunt, Wales beating England wasn’t a shock in the old amateur days
  • From 2002-2006, Argentina had beaten France 4 times out of 5, including a 10-point win in Marseille – perhaps the toughest away match in world rugby. The surprise of the Pumas opening day win wasn’t that they won, it was that Spreaders didn’t blow them off the park in the last 20 minutes (and he paid the price for that). The second victory, in the third place play-off, was a stunning display, but ultimately inconsequential. We weren’t sure even whether to count it
  • Ireland had not won a Test in the Southern Hemisphere in the lifetime of Egg Chaser and Palla Ovale. They had won the Grand Slam and beaten the World Champion Springboks in 2009, but appeared to be in decline. The build-up to the tournament was marked by sloppy and unimaginative rugby. Their opponents had won the 2011 Tri-Nations (albeit helped by some “strategic” selections by South Africa and New Zealand)


So what’s the verdict? We can only draw one conclusion, that Saturday saw the biggest upset in World Cup history. And on the basis of history, it should be the springboard for Ireland’s best ever performance at this level.

However, let’s end on a statistical note of caution: if we lose to Italy, even with a bonus point, we will go out, assuming everyone gets winning bonus points against Russia and the USA. So in terms of qualification, this hasn’t changed a whole lot. However, if we do qualify, it’s going to be as group winners, and into the more manageable side of the draw. And yes, you are right, if we had got the bonus point against the USA, a bonus point loss to Italy would have sufficed to top the pool.

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