One topic certain to always create debate in Australasia is any direct comparison of the two champion teams of the rugby codes – the Australian Kangaroos in rugby league and the All Blacks of New Zealand in rugby union. Every five years or so on average, a cross-code match between these teams is proposed, only then to be hosed down as a potential event by one or both teams.
Each team represents the dominant rugby code in its respective nation – though the Australian population of 26 million greatly exceeds that of its much smaller neighbour of New Zealand, with less than 5 million inhabitants.
Despite the differences in the nature of play in the two codes, the patterns of success experienced by both of these national sides is quite similar in terms of overall winning percentages.
The Kangaroos have an overall winning percentage of just under 70% - whereas the All Blacks overall winning percentage is higher at just under 77%. The All Blacks first international match was in 1903 and the Kangaroos in 1908, so the length of time over which these percentages have been arrived at is also roughly comparable.
However, a clear difference between the two sides is brought into stark evidence by their respective World Cup records.
The Kangaroos record in World Cups is unmatched in world sport. They have won a truly remarkable 11 of 15 Rugby League World Cups since 1954 (73%). In contrast, the All Blacks have won the Rugby (Union) World Cup on three occasions out of nine tournaments for a relatively low winning percentage of 33%.
While the Kangaroos record has been remarkably consistent since the start of the Rugby League World Cup in 1954, with their only losses coming in 1954, 1960 and 2008, the All Blacks went for a period of some twenty years in which they were unable to win and hold the Rugby (Union) World Cup (their first World Cup win was in the inaugural tournament of 1987, their next as late as 2011).
During much of this period, the All Blacks were still rated as the number one rugby union nation in the world – yet they were consistently unable to win the Rugby (Union) World Cup during this period.
Some might say the World Cups are not equivalent in comparing the two codes. There is a particular tendency among rugby union people to over emphasise the size of their game when compared to a real global sport in soccer/football, while simultaneously downplaying the size of rugby league as an international sport.
A glaring discrepancy in the competitiveness of the codes is not, however, borne out by a comparison of the statistics in each World Cup competition.
The number of different finalists and winners in the two competitions are extremely similar – which suggests the World Cups in rugby league and rugby union are far more equivalent than is often considered to be the case.
Only 5 nations have competed in Rugby (Union) World Cup Finals – New Zealand, France, Australia, England and South Africa. Similarly, only 5 nations have competed in Rugby League World Cup Finals – Australia, New Zealand, France, Great Britain (constituted by players from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) and England (in its own right).
The Rugby (Union) World Cup has been won by four nations; the Rugby League World Cup by three nations. (In comparison, the FIFA World Cup in soccer has had nine different winners – allowing for West Germany and Germany playing as separate teams before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.)
Therefore, in terms of direct comparisons on the playing field, it is fair to say that the rugby World Cups are roughly equivalent in terms of competitiveness.
Despite this, the Kangaroos record far exceeds that of the All Blacks when the respective World Cups are directly considered. This fact seems to be born out much more clearly in World Cup competition than in the similar overall winning percentages of the two teams.
So, next time someone speaks of the greatness of the All Blacks as an international sporting side, don’t forget to remind them that the Kangaroos record in World Cups leaves them for dead.