When Sun State Upset the Texecutioners at the Rugby World Cup

What a rugby game and a roller derby game (don't) have in common, and what that might say about the current state of competition in the WFTDA.

The 2015 Rugby World Cup, one of the most-watched sporting competitions on the planet, is underway in England. A stupendous event just took place there, which has a fascinating correlation with the roller derby going on at the WFTDA playoffs and in the greater WFTDA gameplay environment.

The World Cup is just starting with pool play, which inevitably means the powerhouses of the rugby world will destroy the smaller rugby countries that scraped into the field.1 International rugby is still pretty top-heavy, so some blowouts are expected early in the competition.

Yet something happened that wasn’t supposed to happen. Something wonderful.

South Africa is a two-time World Cup champion and currently ranked third in the world. Japan, ranked 13th and a regular World Cup participant, has a lifetime RWC record of 1-21-2. Yes, that’s 21 losses. And the one win came 24 years ago!

That’s to give you an idea of how large the difference is between the top tier of rugby and everyone else, not unlike how large the difference is in the current roller derby landscape. The top 20 teams from the International Rugby Board’s 102 member nations play in the World Cup…and even the 13th team has been terrible in comparison to the upper echelon of rugby!

No matter. It was South Africa vs. Japan. South Africa was heavily favored to win, because of course they were. Japan was expected to put up a good fight but lose, because of course they were.

But then…sports.

The magnitude of this upset is unfathomable. What makes it even more incredible was how it was achieved: Japan was trailing by 3 points in extra time, and could have kicked a (field) goal to secure a draw. Nope! They went for it. They got it.

Now, get this: In terms of the large discrepancy between the participating teams, the South Africa/Japan rugby game has a curiously similar twin to a game that happened during the WFTDA Division 1 roller derby playoffs.

This is a nutty coincidence, actually.

Take a look the table below comparing the rankings between roller derby, using Flat Track Stats; and rugby, using the official world rankings published by the International Rugby Board. Using the ratings for the respective top teams in the world (Gotham and New Zealand) as a benchmark, check out what two roller derby teams come up when we compare their ratings differences between that of a similar difference in rugby between South Africa and Japan.

.

Within a few tenths of a rating point, South Africa is the Texas of the WFTDA, and Sun State2 is the Japan of the Rugby World Cup.

It just so happens South Africa and Japan had already faced each other last weekend—on a roller derby flat track in Dallas, Texas.

Texas takes Game 5 of #WFTDAPlayoffs in #Dallas #BigD1

A post shared by Women's Flat Track Derby Assoc (@wftda) on

Here’s how you can appreciate the magnitude of the upset that just happened at the 2015 Rugby World Cup:

Imagine that the Sun State Roller Girls beat the Texas Rollergirls last week.

No, really. Really think about it.

Think about how unlikely and/or impossible that would be. How much of a chance would you give Sun State really have of beating—not just “putting in a good effort,” not just “keeping it close,” but actually beating—a team as good as Texas on any given day? Even the most outrageous upset scenario would be spoiled by the reality that is apparent on the final scoreboard, in this game and so many others.

Yet in rugby, the impossible has happened—and it’s already being called the greatest upset in Rugby World Cup history.

We make this comparison between rugby and roller derby for a few reasons. Firstly, just because of how quaint the coincidence is that the rankings gap of these teams would so neatly line up like this. Even though the rating systems each sport uses is different, we can only presume the ranking systems in use are equally accurate in judging the relative differences between the teams at and near the top of them.

But on an absolute scale, there actually isn’t a significant difference between the teams. At least, there shouldn’t be.

When you put in the time and effort to make it to the premier competition in your sport—the Rugby World Cup or the WFTDA Division 1 Playoffs—you are a great team. Period.

Sun State has just as many great athletes as does Texas. Texas is that extra bit better in comparison, naturally, but it’s not as if the Aussie squad is fielding 14 buckets of wallpaper glue on roller skates. Though the relative difference between the teams is large, in absolute terms, maybe they aren’t so different.

In rugby, that means a heavy underdog has a distant-but-tangible chance of winning.3 Maybe it should be that way in roller derby, too.

At the very least, it can be better than a 349-111 game score between two great teams.

Consider that, perhaps, the WFTDA game is not very good at promoting competitive gameplay. It’s not a stretch to argue that one of the things it’s the worst at is inflating scores with easily earned and unnecessary points, as most obviously seen in triple-digit blowouts.

Much of this is a direct result of some of the rules the WFTDA uses. The right rule changes can help make games between competently good teams more accurately reflect how good they actually are in comparison to one another.

Two minute jams, for example, may be hurting the WFTDA game competitively more than they promote the athleticism/endurance of the players playing it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in games that pit a higher-ranked great team against a lower-ranked great team.

Say for example, WFTDA jams were only 90 seconds. What might happen? Well, instead of racking up more and more points against depleted defenses in the last 30 seconds of a full jam, a team like Texas would be forced to line up for new jams and compete for Lead status more often. That would give a team like Sun State more chances to directly influence the outcome of the game by showing what they can do on offense more frequently, which might then translate to more lead jammer pickups and the jam control and scoring that comes with them.

texas-sun-state-adjusted-score-90s-jamsOut of curiosity, we tracked the score at the Texas/Sun State game as if scoring had stopped after 90 seconds, instead of the 2 minute maximum we’re used to seeing. Including points scored in theoretical additional jams played due to the time saved, Texas would have scored about 40 points less than they actually did without really changing what Sun State scored.  Even with another two or three jams to work with!

Depending on what might have happened in those extra jams, the game could have been much as 50 points closer…by doing nothing more than implementing one super-simple rule change.

A scoreline of Texas 300, Sun State 110 wouldn’t change much in a game that was always going to be a blowout. But it does demonstrate that a lot of the points being scored by highly-ranked top teams on middle-ranked top teams aren’t a product of the absolute ability gap between them, but rather a byproduct of how the WFTDA is inadvertently exaggerating how their relative ability gap translates to the scoreboard.

This could very well be affecting many of the games that are between opponents ranked somewhat close to each other, making them less competitive. When you see an 80-point bout, a 60-point bout, a 35-point bout, or a 20-point bout or less during the playoffs; we here at Roller Derby Notes regularly wonder how much of that margin is due to a still-developing and evolving rule set, and not the true skill difference of the teams.

With all of the great players and teams out there in roller derby land, shouldn’t there be more closer games between opponents no-so-far-apart in the rankings? Like how competitive it always is in the WFTDA Division 2 playoffs, but within a much larger rank-difference window where tighter games have a much better chance of happening more frequently.

At the very least, the style of gameplay being played should naturally make it a lot more difficult for top teams to score at-will against smaller ones through shorter, more frequent jams and the additional initial passes they require.

If that kind of environment, maybe more smaller teams can get more chances to earn lead jammer and go on some offensive runs to keep the score closer deeper into the game. If that happens more often, maybe a few of the top teams will start making mistakes under pressure, keeping the smaller team within striking distance. If the smaller team skates clean and refuses to go away, you’d keep the crowd interested and engaged for longer, and more frequently across several games.

And maybe, once in a blue moon, all of those things happen in just the right way—creating an upset on the level of Japan beating South Africa at the Rugby World Cup.

Is roller derby in a place where Sun State could upset the Texecutioners? As things stand right now, no. In 2015, a reality like that is years away if nothing else changes. Sure, teams will get better, and the likelihood that those better teams will face each other in closer, more heated contests is something that will inevitably happen with time.

But now and in the immediate future, maybe those teams are actually much closer to each other than what many scoreboards would lead you to believe.

Perhaps close enough, to where a few common-sense changes to the rules in the right places could turn a great performance by the underdog from a 50-point loss today, to an unbelievable upset tomorrow.