Johnno’s Dilemma: IRB Rankings Point the Way for England

James HutchisonSenior Analyst IApril 18, 2008

As England fans welcome another new dawn, the turning of another leaf, and yet another England management structure, thoughts inevitably turn to the future.

The country is once again tingling with excitement about the opportunity to finally see our young guns develop and flourish in the right environment. There is a wealth of talent in England, and with the right man in charge, England’s fortunes may just be on the up at last.

“Select Haskell as captain” they cry, “Pick Care and Cipriani”. It’s all with the future in mind, ideally to foster a team to peak in New Zealand and steal the Web Ellis Cup from under the All Blacks’ noses.

However, this grand plan could fall flat on its face if there aren’t any immediate improvements in England’s performances. Seedings for the World Cup draw will now be based on IRB rankings, rather than the performance of teams at the last World Cup, and the cut off point is at the end of this year.

The top four seeds used to be determined by the four semi-finalists at the previous World Cup and the position in which they finished - hence England, France, Australia and New Zealand were all the number one seeds in their groups in 2007.

Under the old system, South Africa, England, Argentina and France would have made up the top seeds in New Zealand, and with the All Blacks, Australia and Wales to throw into the mix, there would have been some interesting groupings and possibly more than one ‘Group of Death’. However, brown envelopes must have been exchanged somewhere along the way and the system is changing just in time to spare the All Blacks’ blushes.

Seedings will now be based on the official IRB rankings as of December 1st 2008, a system whereby New Zealand has not been out of the top four since it was devised by our sport’s governing body in 2003.

England is currently in fifth place behind Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa, with Wales hot on their heels in sixth. To give themselves the best opportunity in 2011, they must break into the top four this year, which means they simply have to win matches.

Unfortunately, their 2008 fixture list makes worrying reading in this context. Ignoring the Barbarians game, first up is the two Test tour of New Zealand, a country in which England have won once - back in 2003 when Johnno’s men were at the peak of their powers. In the autumn, Twickenham will be opening its doors to the Pacific Islanders (a game which will not affect the rankings), followed by Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

The rankings work on an exchange system, in which teams take points from each other depending on the match result (click here for a full explanation). Australia looks like a vital game to win, since they are closest to England in the rankings, but by then New Zealand may have stolen so many of our points that we are out of contention.

So Johnson’s primary objective is to get through to Christmas with at least three wins out of five, which should guarantee a place in the top four. With that in mind, what approach should he take?

Is it a long term plan, blooding youngsters in difficult fixtures this year, perhaps taking the view that to win the World Cup, you must be good enough to beat every team, so the seedings are in fact a moot point?

Or is it a focus on the short term, with a must-win approach, even if that means playing it safe with a 10-man game? The winning margin affects the ranking points, so should it be a damage limitation exercise, rather than throwing caution to the wind and accepting a 70-point drubbing because the experience will do the players some good?

It’s a difficult dilemma. England fans may need a little patience before we see the team fulfill its potential - consider the next few performances in this context before making judgements about Johnson’s ability. If people start losing faith without an understanding of this predicament, we may end up taking another step backwards.

The last thing we need is another review by Rob Andrew, which ultimately bows to the influence of the baying media and takes an almighty, albeit popular, gamble - but don’t get me started on that one.

By James Hutchison

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