WELLINGTON – While many pundits expect this year's Rugby World Cup will be the most open one yet, one economist has calculated that the All Blacks actually have a better chance of winning it than they had in 2015.
New Zealand were the first team to win back-to-back World Cups when they beat Australia in the 2015 final and had players like captain Richie McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter who will go down as greats of the game.
Wellington-based economist Nevin Winchester has, however, given the 2019 All Blacks side a 53.6% chance of securing a third successive title in Japan on Nov. 2 compared to the 47.1% chance his model gave the 2015 vintage.
While the model ranks England as second favourites, with a 15.5% chance of winning a second title, the nature of the draw has resulted in the prediction that New Zealand will face South Africa in the final.
The Springboks, who are in the same opening round pool as the All Blacks, are ranked third favourites with a 12.9% chance of winning.
Wales, the Six Nations champions who currently sit top of the world rankings, are fourth favourites on 7.1%, but are predicted to lose to South Africa in the semi-finals.
New Zealand's current rating, however, will raise eyebrows given they suffered their first ever defeat to Ireland in late 2016 and recently lost to Australia.
“That was my gut feeling too, but I have learned that the model is smarter than me,” Winchester, a senior fellow at Motu Economic & Policy Research, told Reuters.
“Following the 2015 World Cup they went from strength-to-strength.
“In 2016, they were the strongest they have ever been, but in the last two or three years they have come back to the rest of the field.
“But according to the numbers they're in a better position than they were in 2015.”
Winchester accepted that some might think his model had a New Zealand bias but, half joking, pointed to his British and Australian passports and French wife as evidence of his objectivity.
70 years of results
His statistical model uses more than 70 years of international rugby results and takes into account the venue and relative strength of each team, which means a side could win a game and still lose points.
“If, for example, New Zealand beats Namibia by one point in the World Cup the system will go 'okay, the All Blacks aren't as strong as we thought and Namibia is stronger than we thought', so the All Blacks ranking can go down and Namibia's can go up,” he said.
“So if you're not beating lower quality opposition by a big enough margin then your rankings will come down.”
Despite the wealth of data being crunched in the algorithm, Winchester said the weather and individual decisions by players or officials that change the course of matches could not be predicted.
“It is looking at the aggregates of all the action,” Winchester said.
“It takes into account a bunch of factors like how strong is your squad? Teams have injuries. Other sides have more depth and that is reflected. It also reflects the coaching ability and how the captain reacts under pressure,” he added.
“Whatever contributes to the team in the aggregate is what we are capturing.
“Sometimes it is wrong and there is some randomness in there like Japan beating the Springboks (in 2015), sometimes there are upsets and it would be a surprise if there weren't any upsets.