Philippines v Portugal 2013 International 9's

The latest IRB world rankings came out on December 10th and show the top four countries, in order, New Zealand, England, Tonga and Australia.

The IRL states on its website that world rankings are based only on the results of senior international matches with the following criteria:

– The relative ranking of the opponent i.e., the higher the ranking of the opponent the greater the weighting of the result

– The competition i.e. games in official competition are weighted higher than bilateral arranged games. Rugby League World Cup games carry the greatest weighting

– More recent games are weighted more than older games and only games in the previous four seasons are considered

It says given that only one senior international match was possible in 2020, due to COVID-19, for the purposes of the calculation, 2020 has been discounted, which means that results from Rugby League World Cup 2017 are still active in the calculations, although with the minimum weighting applied.

Right off the bat, these rankings must surely have a question mark over their legitimacy as; 1) they don’t come out too often, only twice a year in fact, and 2) 2020 didn’t count. So, realistically, how can they reflect true rankings?

“On the one hand it is good to have enough fixtures played in 2021 to run the world rankings, on the other hand, there is some volatility in some of the placings due to the skewed nature of who was able to play fixtures and who wasn’t,” said IRL chairman Troy Grant.

The Kangaroos were consistently ranked #1 in the world from 2012 to 2014. They then flip-flopped with the Kiwis and were ranked #2 from mid-2015 through the end of 2016, before they regained the #1 spot, a position they held until RLWC2017.

During that same time span, New Zealand was #2 apart from the 18 months when they were ranked ahead of Australia, England was consistently #3, while Tonga ranged anywhere between #16 and #11 prior to RLWC2017. The Kangaroos went on to win the title at that tournament.

In October 2019, Australia beat New Zealand and lost to a Tonga Invitational side in the Oceania Cup, yet by the end of that year just before the pandemic took hold, the Kiwis were back at #1, Australia was #2, England #3 and Tonga #4.

COVID-19 then put the clamps on all international rugby league in 2020.

In 2021, men’s senior international games have been few and far between, but there were some matches played in the second half of the year. In October, England beat France and Scotland drew with Jamaica. Some European Championship games were also played, as were one or two irrelevant fixtures.

In July of this year, both Australia and New Zealand opted not to go to the planned RLWC2021 in England with Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys saying, “We made the right decision not to go based on the well-being of our players.”

RLWC2021 CEO Jon Dutton responded by saying, “Could we have carried on without Australia and New Zealand? We could, but I don’t think we would have been credible.”

Clearly, international powers-that-be realised that if Australia in particular wasn’t at the RLWC, the tournament wouldn’t carry as much favour with the media, sponsors, and fans. And why is that? Because the Kangaroos have consistently been the best team in the world for a long time.

Consequently, the decision was made to postpone this year’s RLWC for 12 months. Both Australia and New Zealand have since confirmed they will be at RLWC2022.

Referring to the abovementioned IRL criteria used for ranking teams, it could be argued that Australia has been penalised because the Kangaroos didn’t play any games in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic and the ARLC’s stand on players’ health and well-being. And that is despite the IRL’s own concession that 2020 has been discounted because of COVID-19.

So, even though they were #2 just two years ago, due to them playing no games since, and the teams above them not playing a whole lot more by the way, they have dropped two spots in the rankings. Really? Taking into account their long-term dominance, even just since international rankings came into play in 2003, does anyone seriously think that if the Kangaroos were to play England or Tonga today, they would lose to them?

And looking further down the list, does anyone honestly believe that relative newcomers Sweden should be ranked at #32, higher than #36 Canada and #38 South Africa? When was the last time the Swedes played anyone of note, or any games at all for that matter?

No ranking system is perfect, and the IRL does not claim that its system is, but surely the algorithms, data, scores, etc. it uses to determine rankings could be tweaked to keep the list more current. And how about putting them out more than just twice a year?

Perhaps releasing them on a monthly basis would provide a more up to date sense of what’s really going on, not to mention that doing so would help avoid the shock of sudden movements, either up or down the list.

Brian is a strong and effective communicator with more than 30 years’ experience in broadcast and electronic media. He has been writing for Rugby League Planet since 2012 and is frequently the first reporter to break news stories about the sport. He has been our North American correspondent reporting on news in the US, Canada and Jamaica covering everything from league standings to strategy analysis to breaking news on key trades to editorials and colourful features on athletes. He is now writing about rugby league on a broader scale to cover developments around the globe. An accomplished storyteller, Brian started his career in Australian radio, before moving to the United States. He is an experienced podcast host and producer and is also a successful TV commentator having done play-by-play and analysis for ESPN, FOX Sports and the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) among others. Brian has his own YouTube channel @brianlowe5567 where he posts his interviews for Rugby League Planet. Be sure to check it out and subscribe.