Michael Donaldson crunches the numbers on the Rugby World Cup and comes up with a formula for winning the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Only four nations have lifted the Rugby World Cup (New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and England) and only five nations have made the final (add France). Is rugby that predictable? Here's a look at what history tells us about the previous winners.
Come from the Southern Hemisphere
It goes without saying that Southern Hemisphere teams win the bulk of World Cups. So, if you're in the market for a winner there's seven out of eight chance that the winner will be from south of the equator.
Analysis: Seems a given …
Have a world ranking inside in the top two - with one notable exception
There's been a lot of angst about World Rugby's ranking as New Zealand, Wales and Ireland rotated through the No 1 spot in the weeks ahead of the cup. Most critics say the rankings are nonsense (even World Rugby president Agustin Pichot agrees).
But are the rankings that far off?
The official world rankings were introduced in 2003 just before the RWC of that year and the top team, England, went on to win. Rugby statistical website Pick And Go has used the World Rugby's algorithm to back-date rankings to 1960.
Here's how they calculated the rankings for the winners of previous World Cups:
• 1987: New Zealand ranked No 2
• 1991: Australia No 2
• 1995: South Africa No 4 (but had only just returned to world rugby)
• 1999: Australia No 2
• 2003: England No 1
• 2007: South Africa No 4
• 2011: New Zealand No 1
• 2015: New Zealand No 1
• 2019: Ireland No 1, New Zealand No 2, England No 3, South Africa No 4.
Analysis: Either Ireland or New Zealand should win with the exception being South Africa who have won from No 4.
Lose one or two games in the lead-up
Only two teams have been unbeaten in a World Cup year: New Zealand in 1987 because they didn't play any tests before the cup, and South Africa in 1995 because they played just one warm-up against Samoa.
For the rest of the World Cup-winning teams, losses in the lead-up are part of the puzzle. Here's the pre-tournament played-win-loss record of the eventual winners:
• 1987: NZ P0
• 1991: Australia P4 W3 L1
• 1995: South Africa P1 W1
• 1999: Australia P7 W5 L2
• 2003: England P10 L1
• 2007: South Africa P9 W6 L3
• 2011: New Zealand P5 W3 L2
• 2015: New Zealand P5 W4 L1
Analysis: None of the leading contenders have a 100 per cent record. All the hand-wringing about New Zealand losing to Australia shouldn't be a concern. South Africa are unbeaten but have that 16-16 draw with New Zealand.
Have an average age of 27 or 28
The World Cup-winning teams in the professional era have had average ages of 27 or 28. Pre-professional era the average age naturally drops, but only to 26. The exception was super-vet All Blacks of 2015 with an average age of 29. A lot has been made of New Zealand's "Old Blacks" in the lead-up to the cup - thanks Aussie media - but the truth is that New Zealand has a relatively young team in 2019.
Average ages of RWC-winning teams:
• New Zealand 1987: 26
• Australia 1991: 26
• South Africa 1995: 27
• Australia 1999: 27
• England 2003: 28
• South Africa 2007: 27
• New Zealand 2011: 28
• New Zealand 2015: 29
• Average squad age of the top eight in the world based (source Wikipedia):
• England 26.74
• Argentina 26.77
• Wales 26.83
• Australia 27.3
• New Zealand 27.3
• France 27.4
• Ireland 27.9
• South Africa 27.9
Analysis: Based on historical data England, Argentina and Wales are too "young" to win the cup. The rest have the perfect "age".
Have a lot of caps
As a rule, the number of caps in the winning team has increased with every World Cup as players play on for longer. It's now a given that you need at least 1000 caps across a squad these days. The total caps for the World Cup squads, among the top eight are:
• France 807
• South Africa 1030
• England 1053
• Wales 1085
• Ireland 1116
• Argentina 1149
• New Zealand 1222
• Australia 1406
Analysis: There's only one outlier here. France cannot win the World Cup with only 807 caps across the squad.
Have a 10-year veteran
Nearly all World Cup winning teams have featured a 10-year veteran:
• New Zealand 1987: You could argue that injured captain-elect Andy Dalton fits the bill. It was his 10th year in international rugby and even though he didn't play he was influential.
• Australia 1991: Simon Poedevin
• South African 1995: none but they'd been out of rugby for a number of years
• Australia 1999: Tim Horan
• England 2003: Martin Johnson
• South Africa 2007: Os du Rant, Percy Montgomery
• New Zealand 2011: Richie McCaw
• New Zealand 2015: McCaw, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith
10-year veterans among the top-eight:
• Ireland: Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Jonathan Sexton, Keith Earls
• Australia: David Pocock, Sekope Kefu, Will Genia, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale
• New Zealand: Kieran Read, Ben Smith
• Argentina: Agustin Creevy, Juan Manuel Leguizamón South Africa: Tendai Mtawarira
• Wales: Alun Wyn Jones
• England: Courtney Lawes
• France: Louis Picamoles
Analysis: Ireland and Australia are incredibly experienced but of Australia's 10-year veterans none are regulars in the starting 15 so how valuable are they?
Ireland's veterans are a big part of coach Joe Schmidt's plan while New Zealand has the experience of Kieran Read and history shows a 10-year veteran as skipper is another plus.
Have fresh faces
Rugby World Cups have frequently thrown up star performances from relatively young players. From John Gallagher in 1987, through Bob Egerton, remember him – a winger who had a meteoric, single, unbeaten year in the Aussie team culminating in a World Cup win, to England's Steve Thompson in 2003, to JP Pietersen and Francois Steyn for South Africa in 2007, Israel Dagg for New Zealand in 2011 and Nehe Milner-Skudder in 2015.
With the exception of Thompson, all those young players are outside backs with an X-factor. This is an inexact science but among the top eight here are wingers with less than a year's test experience (and who are likely to play).
• New Zealand: George Bridge, Sevu Reece
• England: Joe Cokanasiga
• Argentina: Bautista Delguy
• South Africa: Cheslin Kolbe, S'busiso Nkosi
• France: Alivereti Raka
Analysis: With two exciting wingers each New Zealand and South Africa have doubled-down on the X-Factor and it would be no surprise to see Kolbe or Bridge become stars of the tournament.
Have an experienced loose forward trio
If fresh and fast is the key for outside backs, experience and rugby wisdom is critical to the loose forwards, according to website The1014.com.
The breakdown is the most critical area of the game – it's where the most penalties are conceded, where turnover ball can be won, where momentum can be gained. Having a trio of wily players experienced in gamesmanship, knowing where to be and how to win the ball is critical.
From the All Blacks in 1987 who had Alan Whetton, Michael Jones and Wayne Shelford – arguably one of the most famous loose trios in rugby history – the winning sides are littered with great loose forwards.
• Australia 1991: Simon Poidevin, Willie Ofahengaue and Troy Coker.
• South Africa 1995: Francois Pienaar, Ruben Kruger, Mark Andrews
• Australia 1999: Matt Cockbain, David Wilson, Toutai Kefu
• England 2003: Richard Hill, Neil Back, Lawrence Dallaglio
• South Africa 2007: Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Danie Roussouw
• New Zealand 2011: Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read
• New Zealand 2015: Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read
Without being able to predict who will take the field, we've looked at average caps among loose forwards in top-eight squads:
• England: 16
• Wales: 25
• France: 26
• Ireland: 29
• Australia: 40
• South Africa: 42
• Argentina: 43
• New Zealand: 49
Analysis: New Zealand's loose forwards, perhaps helped by Kieran Read's caps, are the most experienced with South Africa also presenting a dynamic loose trio in Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit but it looks like a long road to hoe for England, Wales and France.
Lose in the previous quarter-final
Remarkably a quarter-final loss in the previous tournament is massive signpost. There's a motivational logic to this and we only need to look at New Zealand in 2007 as a prime case.
Humiliated in 07, their resolve to succeed next time was cast-iron. You could argue the same for England – eliminated in the 1999 quarter-final at "home" (they lost to South Africa at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff) was the springboard for 2003 success.
There are exceptions of course – New Zealand in 1987 with no prior tournament, South Africa of 1995 (they hadn't played the previous cup) and New Zealand in 2015. Also, 1991 winners Australia were eliminated in the semifinals but for the sake of argument, that would have felt a lot worse since it was at home!
Winners with previous Cup elimination stage in brackets:
• 1987: New Zealand (n/a)
• 1991: Australia (SF)
• 1995: South Africa (DNP)
• 1999: Australia (QF)
• 2003: England (QF)
• 2007: South Africa (QF)
• 2011: New Zealand (QF)
• 2015: New Zealand (Winner)
The beaten quarter-finalists from 2015 are: Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France.
Crunching the numbers:
We want a team that comes from the Southern Hemisphere, is ranked No 1 or No 2 in the world (or in South Africa's case we can make an exception if they are ranked No 4 – oh look, they are). It helps to be a beaten quarter-finalist in the previous tournament, have a 10-year veteran, an experienced loose forward combo and at least one exciting young back, an average age of 27-28 and more than 1000-caps across the squad.
Crunching all the numbers it feels like New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa are the top three teams but no matter what the numbers say, Ireland would have to beat either New Zealand or South Africa in the quarter-finals and then likely beat one of them again in the final to win. Is that possible? If you believe so, then Ireland is your team. No 1 and eliminated in the previous quarter-final is a great yardstick.
But there's that southern hemisphere thing … a more likely scenario is that the opening pool match between the All Blacks and Springboks might turn out to be nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the final.
And the winner is … South Africa
From the southern hemisphere, just risen to their preferred No 4 in the rankings, with an experienced loose trio and exciting wingers.