Why Some Nations Are Better at Rugby Than Others

Or, why does New Zealand have the best rugby team in the world?

Courtesy of Amazon.co.uk.

The 2011 Rugby World Cup - the most important international tournament in the sport - is being held in New Zealand, an island nation in the South Pacific of around 4,000,000 people and a Gross Domestic Product that ranks near that of Belarus. New Zealand is, quite literally, 1,000 miles from anywhere (and by "anywhere," I mean "Australia", itself thousands of miles from Europe, Asia, or North America) and is almost comically difficult to get to.

This is the second time New Zealand has hosted the event.

Begging the question from the casual observer, "why?" Why does the International Rugby Board, the sport's ruling body, itself situated thousands of miles away in London, England, continually hold its signature event in places like New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Wales? Why has the United States of America, or China, or Japan never even been seriously considered as an event host?

Because when it comes to rugby, only a handful of nations - about 10, maybe 11 - are truly successful. For the most part, those countries are England and former English colonies, with England's neighbor France being the only true exception. The Rugby World Cup, started in 1987, has been held in New Zealand (1987 and 2011), Australia (1987, 2003), England (1991), South Africa (1995), Wales (1999), and France (2007), with matches played in Ireland and Scotland in 1991, 1999, and 2007.

This list of hosts, with the additions of Argentina and possibly Samoa, doubles as the list of dominant rugby nations in the world, the countries with the best national teams and the most vibrant professional and amateur leagues. These countries turn out the best rugby players in the world, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Why Them and Not Us?

So what, apart from the colonial thing, do these countries have in common that countries like the United States, or Japan, or Russia, or Germany do not? The short answer is "time." The rugby nations have, to put it bluntly, been playing rugby at a higher level for a lot longer than the second-tier nations.

Rugby as a sport was basically invented in the 1820s. The first international rugby match was between England and Scotland in 1871. Ireland played its first international match four years later, followed by Wales in 1881, South Africa in 1891, Australia in 1899, New Zealand in 1903, France in 1906, and Argentina in 1910. These are the nine countries that were the first to play international matches, reflecting - at least to an extent - a level of commitment to the sport and a critical mass of players and teams all the more remarkable given how geographically remote some of these countries are.

These nine countries also have the most victories in the Rugby World Cup, including all the championships. Even South Africa, whose teams were held out of the Cup for the first two tournaments for political reasons, is still fifth on the list of total wins and have won the Cup itself twice in the four tournaments in which they have competed.

The list of the oldest national teams and the most successful national teams matches up almost exactly. Only the Pacific island nations of Samoa and Fiji, both of whom started playing internationally in 1924, have had any significant success in the Cup of the nations who started playing internationally after 1910.

Why is Time So Important?

Rugby is a deceptively subtle and complicated sport. Despite its public stereotype as a simple contest of brutes bashing into each other like bighorn rams during mating season, rugby actually has many nuances that can take years to learn. A good rugby player has to learn to make decisions quickly in a way that makes these decisions seem almost instinctive, and that sort of process takes a long time to sink in. It helps if, like with most activities, a person learns to play rugby as a very young child, when learning is easy and quick.

And in order for a person to learn rugby as a very young child, there must an adult - several adults - there to teach them. And since rugby is a team sport, there must be several other children around to learn at the same time. And for that to happen, there needs to be a community in which rugby is popular enough that they have a league set up in which several teams of children can compete against each other.

For such leagues to exist presupposes that the sport has a certain high level of popularity, and that there large numbers of people in the community who love rugby, play rugby, watch rugby, and want their children to play rugby as well. This sort of popularity takes decades to grow; if rugby started in the 1820s, that means there have been eight or nine generations' worth of Englishmen playing rugby. New Zealanders have been playing rugby longer than Americans have been playing football, or baseball, for that matter.

And Americans have been playing rugby for a relatively short time, for the most part. Yes, a team of Americans did play its first international match in 1912, and yes, the Americans won the only gold medals in Olympic rugby in 1920 and 1924, but rugby is still a relatively new, relatively unpopular sport in America, and their RWC record reflects that: out of six appearances in the tournament, they have only managed three wins: two against Japan (16 years apart), and one in 2011 against Russia, who themselves only started playing internationally in 1992.

The United States team will play their final match of the tournament against Italy, a nation that provides an excellent example of how slow national rugby growth can be. Italy played its first international match in 1929. They have appeared in every RWC, and have managed to win eight matches total (nine if they beat the United States), including victories against Fiji in 1987 and Argentina in 1995. Italy have spent the last 20 years or so slowly improving, joining the Five (now Six, obviously) Nations in tournament in 2000 to give their players better exposure to high-level competition.

And it has paid off, to a limited extent. Italy has no chance of making the playoffs again in 2011, but, given 10 or 20 more years, they might be able to. At which point, they'll probably be knocked off in the quarter-finals, probably by somebody like Wales or South Africa. Such is the slow crawl of rugby time.