I started thinking about this a few weeks ago after Wales beat England in Cardiff in the 2019 6 Nations.
Not only did that scupper England’s chances and boost their own of winning a Grand Slam, but it was also the victory that broke their previously held record streak of 11 consecutive wins, set between 1907 and 1910. Now Wales have won 2 more Tests, bringing their current total to 14, I thought it would be the perfect time to over analyse some potentially meaningless statistics until I can draw no meaningful conclusion.
A Rugby World Cup, in its current form, consists of 4 pools of 5 teams. The pools are their own little round-robin competition, with each team playing the four others once, and the top two advancing to the knockout stages. Quarters, semis, a third place play off and the Final. It’s all fairly standard stuff and takes roughly 6 weeks from start to finish all 48 games. Easy.
How is this all relevant to what Wales have just achieved?
To win the Rugby World Cup a team must win 7 games. It’s technically doable in 6*, but every team that has gone on to lift the William Webb Ellis Trophy has done so without dropping a single game. 7 wins in a row and Wales have just managed 14 on the trot. They’re not the first team to string together such an impressive streak, however, and I suppose I should also put a little bit of focus on them now too. On 13 other occasions, 6 teams have equalled or bettered Wales’ current streak.
(Quick sidebar, it might make more sense to just look at all the times that a team has won 7 Test matches in a row, but that’s far too numerous to list… or even count, and I liked the elegance of starting with 14, being twice what has been achieved at the last 4 World Cups.)
Of those 6 teams, only 3 are considered Tier 1.
South Africa on two occasions – 15 between 1994 and 1996 and 17 between 1997 and 1998.
England on two occasions – 14 between 2002 and 2003 and 18 between 2015 and 2017.
New Zealand, the dominant force in world rugby that they are, have achieved this six times. Four of those have happened within the last decade, gaining one more victory than the last streak each time they’ve done it. I won’t list all the dates, but a few might become somewhat more important shortly.
A lot can be said about momentum in rugby, how it affects a team from game to game, what it means across a single tournament or even an entire season, and Wales’ coach Warren Gatland has recently said of the international team that they have forgotten how to lose. Whether playing beautiful and expansive running rugby or building a small lead and then punishing their opposition by purely suffocating them and taking their chances at goal every time, that certainly seems true. Similar sentiments were made of England on their recent run of 18 and New Zealand have a habit of winning in every conceivable scenario.
The big difference, of course, is that winning this many Test matches in a row can take a long time. A single season for a Tier 1 team is approximately 11 to 14 games. Wales started their current run back in last year’s 6 Nations Championship. In fact, of the 10 other streaks mentioned, seven took place over the course of two years, three spanned between three and five years.
If we go back to the aforementioned World Cup we can again note how long it is from start to finish. Specifically for Wales, whose first Pool D match is 3 days after the tournament kicks off, their journey, were they to make it to the Final, is 41 days. Momentum suddenly becomes far more important, and they have perhaps a more favourable schedule in the pools than many other teams, but the difference is stark to what they managed this past week. If we took a run of 7 matches from anywhere in their 14 we would see gaps of not just weeks, but months at a time. If we looked at both the first and last 7 we’d see one taking 8 months to complete and one taking 4 months. Teams will likely spend less than 2 months in Japan this year. It hasn’t been unknown for teams in the pool stages to play as often as 3 matches over eight or nine days.
So, what does this Grand Slam win mean for Wales’ chances at the Rugby World Cup in Japan this year?
If I’m honest, not a great deal, so I apologise for the clickbait nature of the title.
Statistics so rarely actually have any bearings on future outcomes in rugby, and even when they do, my sample size for this particular thought experiment is sort of a big fat One. In the 8 years that a Rugby World Cup has taken place 4 of them have started with a 5 or 6 Nations Grand Slam, France in 1987 and England in 1991/95 and 2003. Of those Grand Slams, only the last by England was followed up by winning the World Cup, but they experienced a loss to France before the tournament and famously fell to pieces in 2004 when half of their RWC winning squad retired.
The other side of this rather disappointing coin is that all the other World Cup winners have won the World Cup as part of a long streak. Granted, not all of them have been as long as my arbitrary 14 (three 10s and 13), but (big but), said streaks have almost all started with the World Cup, or within a game of it commencing. On a slightly tangential note, it might be interesting to look at this from a similar angle later in the year, after The Rugby Championship has been played. Although that tournament and its predecessor, the Tri-Nations, has only been played since 1996, every year it has been played in a World Cup year since, its victor has never won the following World Cup. South Africa remains the one team to have stayed consistent enough to win their World Cup in the middle of a considerable streak, winning their first title in 1995 in the middle of a run of 15 consecutive wins between October 1994 and July 1996.
This isn’t, of course, anything to be taken away from Wales, and their victory and their accomplishment should be celebrated. I just found the idea somewhat interesting with their potential leading into this particular World Cup season. They have four warm-up games prior to the RWC this year, home and away matches to both England and Ireland. In the last month, Wales have now beaten England and Ireland in Cardiff, but they’ve not won at Twickenham or the Aviva Stadium since 2015. Were they to do so this Summer, that would put them at 18 consecutive wins, tied with both England and New Zealand for the record for Tier 1 teams. Their first pool D game being against Georgia means that, by all accounts, with that kind of momentum they could burn through that record and chase something even greater.
I am not, however, talking about the William Webb Ellis Trophy here. I’ve brought up more than once now that the records I’m talking about are held by Tier 1 teams. World Rugby classifies all member unions into tiers. Tier 1 consists of the 10 teams that take part in The Rugby Championship and the 6 Nations. Tier 2 is made up of the thirteen other teams who have previously competed in one of the past 8 Rugby World Cups. Namibia is the only African country under the Tier 2 umbrella. Although none of these will have been against Tier 1 opposition, I bring them up because they have also managed to string together a consecutive win streak of 14 games. Achieved between 1990 and 1992. After Tier 2 is Tier 3, it seems a bit more nebulous and it doesn’t seem particularly well defined, but it covers teams that are earmarked for increased developmental funding. Lithuania appears in this classification. Lithuania, between 2006 and 2010, won 17 times in a row. Yes, it took them 4 years and, like Namibia, this would not have included victories against the same kind of teams England, Wales or New Zealand would have won against, but it remains no small feat.
Finally though, and where I should choose to end this rambling, is Cyprus.
Wales have won 14 consecutive Test matches so far, with a potential 4 more to go before the World Cup. And, as discussed, winning the World Cup now is predicated on winning 7 games in a row.
I’ve sidled my way around to bringing up Cyprus because, although they aren’t even considered a full member of World Rugby and none of their international matches contribute to the IRB World Rankings, they hold the real world record here. The Mouflons, as they are known, played their first competitive match in 2007, against Greece. They have yet to play even 50 more, averaging about 4 per year. But between 2008 and 2014 Cyprus went on to win a whopping 24 consecutive matches. Cyprus have won 24 games in a row and Wales, with a fortuitous run leading up to and in Japan this year, could very well run that record close.
I doubt any Welsh fans will consider it a foregone conclusion. Many may not even dare to be that optimistic. But, if they have indeed forgotten how to lose, then look out Cyprus.
* This has been achieved, in World Cups before 2003, but only because there were fewer teams, so fewer matches in the pool stages.