The last four World Cups have shown us that experience doesn’t always count. Twice in the last four World Cups, the winning team has been the side with fewer caps.
In 2007, the Springboks had 799 games between them in their match day squad – 45 fewer than previous winners England. While the English were favourites in that game, perhaps the difference was in their leadership.
Widely hailed as one of the best captains of the game, there was a Martin Johnson-sized hole in the 2007 England team. He also left with 84 caps to his name.
The 2003 World Cup winners would not have been too concerned about this heading into the World Cup, as it was expected that Lawrence Dallaglio would close this void.
Fast forward to the 2011 World Cup final. France headed into the match with 966 vs New Zealand’s 961. Not that much of a difference, but the All Blacks were battered and bruised heading into that fixture. Many thought this would be the year the cup headed back north… but not so. The final score was 8-7, the closest it has ever been, and maybe the closest any team had come to the haka as well.
In the years where World Cup has been won by the less experienced team the difference in caps has also been less than 50 (just five in 2011 and 45 in 2007).
The opposite is true when the more experienced team wins the World Cup, though.
This has not been the case when the more experienced team has won the World Cup. In 2003, when England won in extra time, they had 157 more caps in their matchday squad. It was a similar story in 2015. The All Blacks had 124 more caps on this day. On both occasions, Australia were the losers.
Perhaps Michael Cheika has been paying attention. The Wallabies have 1512 caps between them – the most any side has ever taken to a World Cup.
Many might think that the New Zealand World Cup winning side with Richie McCaw, Kevin Mealamu (the two most experienced players in World Rugby at the time), Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu all centenarians in that final, top the list… but that’s not the case.
The Aussie World Cup class of 2019 not only boast four centenarians, with Rob Simmonds the most recent, but also a further four players between 80-99 caps. Cheika has opted for experience by retaining 11 of the players who were in the matchday squad on 31 October 2015.
The Australian players who have 80 or more games represent 30% of the total players in the quarterfinals. The most by any team.
Leicester City has shown in recent years that experience isn’t everything.
“Fall seven times, stand up eight,” is a famous Japanese proverb and while they have failed to make the quarterfinal eight times previously, they have stood up a ninth time.
This time being the only Tier 2 nation in the quarterfinal. A sign of perseverance and determination. While Typhoon Hagibis has ravaged throughout Japan, the Brave Blossoms’ performances have continued to inspire.
Japan enter the quarterfinals as the least experienced side with 796 caps, only 9% of the total player caps, and not a single player with 80 or more games (Fumiaki Tanaka being the most experienced with 74).
They are also the side with the most players who have fewer than 20 games, 16 players to be exact.
Whether it will matter we’ll have to wait for the weekend to find out.
Stats below are totals for the entire World Cup squads ahead of the QFs.
Rugby World Cup: Total and average caps for all quarterfinal teams
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Rugby World Cup: Distribution of total caps for all quarterfinal teams
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