Rugby Union: Rugby must divorce itself from stigma of past failures

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I HAVE a friend, a solicitor, who insists on a full turn-out at his office immediately after the Christmas holidays. Indeed, some members of the staff are expected to get in early. This is not because he is at all tyrannical or oppressive by nature: quite the reverse. It is simply because it is his busiest time of year. It is when old or not-so-old married couples decide to separate or divorce. They contemplate each other across the cold turkey and say: "We can't go on like this any longer."

As with some married couples, so with the game of rugby football. There is a feeling in the air that things have to change soon if the game is not to go down the plughole. Or, rather, this feeling was abroad until Rob Andrew came up with his plan for the future organisation of the game (in England, at any rate). And Dr Tony O'Reilly produced his scheme for its future financial structure.

As it is, we can only hope. What is surely evident is that rugby cannot lurch from crisis to crisis, like a drunk staggering from lamp post to lamp post, for very much longer without the risk of implosion.

In practical terms, this would entail a series of bankruptcies, liquidations and law suits, some of the latter brought by dissatisfied players - such as the unjustly discarded players from London Irish who were recently successful in the courts.

We are always being told that the success of the game depends on marketing. As so many members of that trade or profession are currently involved in rugby at a variety of levels, it is surprising that the marketing is so inept. Take, for example, the organisation of the Rugby World Cup.

This was not exactly a once-in-a-lifetime but certainly a once-every- so-often opportunity to set out a rugby sweet stall. And yet what happened? The competition was not a fiasco but it was manifestly a grievous disappointment.

There was one factor in this failure for which the organisers could not be blamed: the unpredictable weather. For though the October-November period can produce some lovely days, as it did in 1999, it managed to produce for this occasion several foul days as well, as it did for Scotland v New Zealand at Murrayfield and South Africa v Australia at Twickenham.

The main reason why the competition did not take off, I think, was that most people, including rugby followers, were - unless they had perused the sports pages with a diary in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other - unable to understand why one country was playing another at any given moment. Comprehending the scheme of things required a certain mental effort which most people were reluctant to make. The play-offs were particularly confusing to the lay reader.

These difficulties can be resolved fairly easily. The qualifying matches should be separated by a close-season from the competition proper. These qualifiers could run for one or even two previous seasons. There would be four groups of five or six, with (on present form) Australia, France, South Africa and New Zealand in separate groups. Eight qualifiers made up of the first and second countries in each group would then assemble in one country: in one of the two Antipodean nations, in South Africa or in one of the six European nations.

The marketing men might object to this because of the comparative poverty of the Celtic nations and, possibly, of Italy as well. I should certainly support the exclusion of Scotland - as a venue rather than as a competitor - not so much because of their relative lack of wealth as because of their distinct lack of enthusiasm for the game, as demonstrated only too convincingly during the last World Cup.

But there is no reason why Wales, by contrast, should not be able to sustain an international competition with complete conviction. In October enthusiasm was high in that country despite the patently bogus nature of the claim that they were the host nation. All they were given of any substance was the opening ceremony and match against Argentina on the first Friday, and the disappointing final between France and Australia.

The truth is, as we know, that the entire shooting match was predicated on the assumption that England would be in one of the semi-finals, both of which were to be played at Twickenham. When this happy progression was impeded, first by New Zealand at Twickenham and then by South Africa in Paris, interest in the competition melted as far as the English press and television were concerned.

The other reason lay in silly kick-off times on silly days. On Friday afternoon, for instance, most people are still working. And, while successive matches on Saturday and Sunday are feasible enough, three matches on one Saturday are all together too much of a good thing, like eating a whole tin of chocolate biscuits and being deservedly sick. So a Happy New Year to you all or, in Welsh, Blwyddyn Newydd Dda.