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Please abolish the third-place play-off: Rugby’s pointless and outdated relic

The ‘bronze final’ at a Rugby World Cup is an outdated concept that no one wants to be involved with and hopefully England and Argentina are contesting the last one on Friday evening

Luke Baker
in Paris
Friday 27 October 2023 08:11 BST
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It’s the game that players don’t want to play, fans don’t want to watch and the media don’t want to cover. All of which begs the question, why does the Rugby World Cup third/fourth place play-off still exist? Answers on a postcard please.

Actually, the answer is fairly simple, of course. It follows the old adage that when you’re not sure why something counter-intuitive is happening in sport, the reason is always the same. Money.

World Rugby and its sponsors will undoubtedly make a bit more cheddar from England facing Argentina on Friday evening at relatively little expense, although it remains to be seen how many of the Stade de France’s 80,000 seats are filled, let alone what sort of atmosphere those in attendance create. You suspect it might not quite reach the level of fan delirium that some of the other instant classics at the Paris stadium have generated during this tournament.

Let’s not beat around the bush – World Rugby can badge it as the ‘bronze final’ all they want but the third/fourth place play-off is an entirely pointless exercise and it’s long since time that this outdated relic of a concept was given the chop. Please, do everyone a favour.

In a tournament that is based around winning a trophy rather than climbing onto a medal podium, a battle for third serves precisely no purpose. At the Olympic Games, bronze medal matches/contests make perfect sense and having one athlete or team rightfully earn their place as a sole bronze medallist is far more satisfying than both losing semi-finalists stepping on the podium.

But there’s no podium at a Rugby World Cup – there’s the winning team, the runners-up and then the losing semi-finalists, quarter-finalists and those who were knocked out at the group stage. So what are we doing here? The stakes have truly never been lower.

Here’s a question for you, a little pub debate if you will. What’s your favourite ever third/fourth place play-off at a Rugby World Cup? Which one springs to mind first when you run through the Rolodex of all the iconic clashes in your mind?

New Zealand comfortably beat Wales in the 2019 third-place play-off. Apparently. (Getty Images)

Don’t worry, I couldn’t remember a single one either… Although a quick scroll through Wikipedia tells me that, for example, New Zealand beat Scotland 13-6 in 1991, Argentina beat France 34-10 in 2007 and Australia beat Wales 21-18 in 2011. Apparently.

If not to save the fans from its pointlessness, then how about axing the game for player safety reasons? As they proudly announced the new global calendar after 16 years of negotiations earlier this week, World Rugby consistently mentioned ‘player load management’ as one of their main drivers.

The crowded fixture schedule and incredible physical intensity of modern rugby already push players’ bodies to their limits, so in an age of increased focus on player welfare, getting rid of an entirely worthless fixture such as this should be an easy decision. Imagine if one of the players gets injured in this futile fixture on Friday evening and misses months of club action as a result – it would really not be a good look.

Of the two teams condemned to play out this fixture on Friday – rather than licking their wounds from harrowing semi-final losses last weekend and returning home to their families after five months away – Argentina have remained more on message about its importance.

“It is the most important game of the year; it is playing for third and fourth place with this shirt,” insisted Pumas hooker Julian Montoya earlier this week.

Oh… Well, let’s give Montoya the benefit of the doubt and assume that either something was slightly lost in translation or he has really bought into the classic coach-speak of “the most important game is always the next game” or maybe even that he was being brutally deadpan and sarcastic. Because otherwise, he appears to have forgotten about, for example, the semi-final he played against the All Blacks literally seven days ago when ranking his most important games of 2023.

Argentina will try to forget last weekend’s heavy defeat to New Zealand (Getty Images)

While Montoya may have stretched the bounds of believability with his sentiment, Los Pumas genuinely do seem far more up for the game than England. Perhaps the combination of wanting to forget the 44-6 humbling by New Zealand, avenge the pool-stage loss to England and send off Michael Cheika, who will be replaced as head coach by Felipe Contepomi after the World Cup, in style has given them a greater sense of purpose.

Making just three changes to the starting XV, compared to England’s eight, from the semi-final side has left them with a team much closer to full strength. In the fine margins of Test rugby, that fact, combined with the added motivation, may prove the difference.

But regardless of the result, I implore World Rugby to do the right thing. Please make this the last-ever third/fourth place play-off and save us from having to endure this nonsense again in 2027.

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