Goliaths in need of a new David

Rugby: The tournament has yet to deliver an upset, laments Steve Bale in Johannesburg
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The Independent Online
The World Cup is the greatest reminder that rugby union is a global game, in the obvious sense that it is played round the world. But this World Cup has shown another, less comfortable truth: that the countries who play the game to what might be called a world standard are still too few.

If we could have asked for anything more from the enthralling, exhilarating series of 24 group matches, it was for someone to do a Western Samoa, to emulate what the Pacific islanders did by beating Wales in the 1991 tournament and so qualifying not only for the quarter-finals then but for a place here in South Africa four years later. Someone other than Western Samoa, that is.

Had it happened, it would have given credence to the world-wideness (to go with its increasing worldliness, perhaps) rugby union likes to proclaim. Instead, substitute the Springboks for Canada and we have the same last eight as last time, even if they are divided up into a different set of quarter-finals. As the French would doubtless say after their epic match against Scotland: plus ca change...

This is not to say that the groups have shown rugby union to be static either off the field or on it. On the contrary, a whole list of the supposedly lesser teams - the Italians, Argentinians and Canadians in particular - have shown themselves capable of putting up an honourable and sometimes, as in the case of the brawl between Canada and South Africa, dishonourable fight against purportedly superior opposition.

But they could not make the ultimate leap by winning those matches and even Western Samoa have made their way into Saturday's match against South Africa here at Ellis Park without having to beat any of the old rugby powers. So even their case, desperate though they are to join in with the three nations' championship even now being plotted by Rupert Murdoch and the rugby unions of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, remains unproven.

On the evidence of what we have seen over the past fortnight, then, the gap has narrowed but is some way from closing, whatever the woes of the Welsh may be. The likes of Italy and Argentina, for instance, can give England abundant trouble, but they are still not good enough to nail down a precious opportunity. Romania against South Africa, Canada against Australia - these were courageous, even heroic performances which are now gone and may soon be more or less forgotten.

And while Wales are celebrating the slightly embarrassing but handsome consolation that as hosts they will not have to qualify for the 1999 World Cup, the 1995 tournament has had a less beneficent effect in demonstrating that the next one cannot sustain the anticipated expansion from 16 participants to 20.

Because, wonderful as it has been to have the Ivory Coast among us here, the notion of a whole raft of mismatches involving another four teams who could well fare worse than the Ivorians or, heaven forbid, the Japanese would subvert not only the credibility of the World Cup but very possibly the future of rugby in those very countries. Just ask the Japanese after their 145-17 annihilation by New Zealand.

In point of fact this is a ticklish problem for the International Board, which has the ultimate say but also 67 mostly ambitious member unions. It has already been decreed that qualification for the '99 World Cup will be restricted to the hosts, both '95 finalists and the winners of the third-place play-off.

In this context, Wales' embarrassingly premature departure is not an issue. But England, Scotland and Ireland all face problematic quarter- finals this weekend, and if they then followed Wales on early flights home would have to go through pre-qualification next time. They and the French are all subsidiary hosts for 1999 - but what would happen if one of them just happened not to qualify?

OK, this is the realms of fantasy, but then that only reinforces the other point. England, Scotland, Ireland and France all know that, whatever transpires in South Africa over the rest of this month, they are bound to make it in '99. How do they know? Because they have seen from the evidence of their own eyes during the group stage of this tournament that there is no one to stop them.

This is not meant to sound derogatory of the 1995 World Cup, which those matches that have not been hopelessly one-sided have already made an unbridled success. You could not see harder or more thrilling rugby than that produced by France and Scotland or Western Samoa and Argentina, and the opening occasion - this was more than a game - involving the Springboks, the Wallabies, Nelson Mandela and a cast of hundreds gave the wider world an affecting vision of white South Africa at ease with its diminished power and privilege.

At the same time there is an element of wishful thinking in the theory, taken for granted by whites, that the entire rainbow nation is ardently united behind the Springboks, since it is clear that many folk in the townships, where football is overwhelmingly the sport of the masses, would not know one end of a rugby ball from the other.

Still, when a newspaper such as the Sowetan, the largest-selling in South Africa, can acclaim the Springbok rugby team's triumph against Australia with the joyous headline "AmaBokoboko", which is an adaptation of a football salutation, we can take it as read that something special is already happening.