Did bigger and richer countries win RWC ?

In general, international sporting success can be linked to national income (GDP per capita) and population size.

Put differently, look at the list of Olympic medal winners.  Very often larger richer countries tend to do well, perhaps for two reasons. Firstly, they have the financial clout to dedicate resources to developing athletes (hiring costly overseas coaches, buying expensive equipment, building stadia and other facilities).  Secondly, they have lots of people.  More people should imply a bigger talent pool to choose from.

The combination should imply that richer countries produce more talented athletes, who can out-perform on the international stage and bring home the medals.

But what about RWC, does the same logic apply ?   The answer is more nuanced – when as ever – we did our empirical testing.

What we found is that higher income countries are indeed more likely to be good at rugby union in general (compared to say very poor ones).  However, in the select situation of the 20 teams in RWCs, GDP per capita did not make a difference. Why so ? Well perhaps its because wealthy countries such as the U.S., do not rank particularly highly in rugby.

In terms of population, the effect is also nuanced.  Rugby is not particularly strong in India for example (which has a population of 1.3 billion people and is a world power in the sister sport of cricket).  The four countries that have won RWC (Australia, England, South Africa and particularly New Zealand), are not hugely populated by international standards.

So we found that as regards RWC, GDP per capita had no effect, and having a higher population had a negative effect (i.e. bigger countries were less likely to do well).

Observation 3: national income did not affect success in RWC and the effect of population was negative. 

Tradition is also very important.

The cynic may say that that’s obvious and thats possibly true.

But this site only relies on pure subjective opinion when there’s no data available to check.  Here, there is ample data available.  So we tried to see if we could demonstrate empirically if there was a robust relationship – i.e. to show if tradition really matters….

Well what we did was to look at how long a country has been playing rugby.  In Europe, the first international championship took place in 1882 between England and Wales.  As a historical aside, the game was a twenty a side affair in those days.  There was no formal scoring system.  The match ‘winner’ was chosen by adjudication.  Imagine – a world with no TMO.  Other countries joined the international party subsequently.

The specific test we employed was to check the relationship between longevity (measured by numbers of years played) and World Rankings.  What we found is that the relationship is positive.  In simple terms each additional year played adds a small increment to a nation’s World Ranking points total.  The net effect is that in general, the nations that have been playing the game the longest, have the highest international ranking.

Observation 2: tradition, as measured by longevity in years of play has really counted in RWCs. 

History and Geography really matter.

Economists fundamentally believe and can show that history and geography can really affect outcomes in many aspects of life (recall that economic / econometric analysis techniques have been shown to work satisfactorily when applied to sports).

As a starting point with Rugby Union, its no secret that Rugby Union’s development as a sport is closely associated with the diffusion of the British empire in the 19th century.

Next, have a look at this map of  world climate zones from the UK Met Offices and see where the world’s temperate climates are.  Then if you’re really interested, have a look at this  rotating economic globe  from the Nordhaus economic geography project at Yale.  It plots where economic activity is strongest around the world.

What do we see ?  The main action takes place in the temperate zones between the tropics and the polar caps.  Then, have a think about where the British Empire spread, and where Rugby Union is strongest (see World Rugby’s international rankings list ).

What do you see ? Well it seems that Rugby Union is strongest in countries that had at least one of the following characteristics:-

i. part of Britain, a former colony / a member of the British Commonwealth (currently 53 countries, see members list )

ii. coastal: i.e. must have had contact with the British navy at some point (can you think of a land-locked country that is strong in rugby union ?)

iii. has a temperate climate (UK and Ireland certainly, New Zealand, Argentina, then parts of South Africa, and Australia – then note that this includes all of the countries who have won the Rugby World Cup).

To make this more scientific we tested for linkage between tropical land mass and rugby union success. We also tested for the relationship between being land-locked and success in rugby. We found the relationships are negative.  Countries that are either land-locked or have some land mass in the tropics are less likely to do well at rugby. That isn’t just our opinion, its supported by econometric analysis of relevant geographic and rugby data.

Observation 1: history and geography are an important part of the Rugby World Cup winning story.

Success in RWC is surprisingly explainable.

For something as complicated as a World Cup, that may seem like a strong statement.  Indeed it is, but we wouldn’t say so if we couldn’t know that we can show it….

Interested ? Read on.

We’ll get to the juicy stuff soon but before then an introductory word.  All over the world economists and econometricians (economic statisticians) try to explain complex problems that we see all around us in the world.  It turns out that the analytical techniques used are quite handy when it comes to sports.

So instead of asking something like: ‘Why do sales of luxury goods rise when peoples incomes go up ?’ we focus on sports (because we really really like sports !).

The first paper on the economics of sports was written in 1956. Since then, a large body of research literature has been developed that tries to explain many aspects of sports. Why do certain teams win leagues, why do some clubs make money and some the opposite ?   Increasingly, the techniques are being used to analyse results data.

We want to be a premium analysis site, so we put all of the above together and try to get to the heart of what is going on, what fundamentally makes things tick ?

Hence the research question: ‘Who has won Rugby Union World Cups, and why ?’.

Lets give it a lash.

Who has won Rugby Union World Cups, and Why ?

The short answer to the first sub-question is that only four nations have ever won the Rugby Union Cup over its history since 1987.  The New Zealand All Blacks, South African Springboks, and Australian Wallabies each have two wins, England has one. France has played in three finals and unfortunately for them, lost in all three.

Explaining why these nations have won is a much more difficult proposition.  Clearly, they are the world powers in rugby, but that begs another question, why are they so strong ?

Over the years, many arguments have been made.  Some say its down to tradition and Southern Hemisphere dominance.  Some say its depth of playing numbers.  Some say its due to a frontier mentality.  What do you think ?

We spent several months researching this question academically, and think we have found some interesting answers.  We’ll cover them in the next few posts.