Rugby World Cup: Stranglehold of southern hemisphere under threat

Open tournament presents possibility that a European nation can eclipse past winners New Zealand, Australia and South Africa
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IF THE Battle of Hastings was the first great international fixture of the millennium - the contest ended with one in the eye for the over- confident English, thereby setting the tone for the next 933 years - the final of the fourth Rugby World Cup in Cardiff in early November will very definitely be the last.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the union game would bring up the rear, having fought to preserve the amateur ethic long after everyone else had given it up as a bad job. But this tournament, late in the day as it is, should mark a new beginning for the most demanding team sport yet devised by man. Over the next six weeks, rugby can rise above its recent past and reinvent itself as a 21st century spectacle.

We are about to experience the first openly professional World Cup; the previous three, beginning in 1987, were all "shamateur" to a greater or lesser extent. Not that the current participants will be performing on playing fields that could reasonably be described as level. If Martin Johnson's England team break the southern hemisphere stranglehold and become the first European side to lay hands on the Webb Ellis Cup, the money they are contracted to collect in win bonuses would keep the impoverished Tongan or Romanian unions afloat for the next decade.

But at least the money is there on the table for all to see, rather than concealed inside the players' kitbags. And to be sure, the table is of Arthurian proportions. Upwards of three billion people in some 140 countries will watch television coverage of the event, the RWC marketing executives have sold the competition to a raft of sponsors every bit as swanky as those who pay through the nose to associate themselves with football's Champions' League, and as for the ticket receipts... well, pounds 150 a seat for the final at the Millennium Stadium on 6 November tells its own tale. World Cup accounts tend to be among the more elusive mysteries of contemporary economics, but the best estimates suggest that this is a pounds 50m jamboree.

So what can we expect for our money? In all probability, the most even- handed and least predictable tournament thus far. It is a strange quirk of Rugby World Cup history that no ante-post favourite has yet made it to the winner's enclosure: Australia, considered sound bets in both 1987 and 1995, had to stomach the sight of New Zealand and South Africa pocketing the glittering prizes, while the strongly fancied All Blacks lost out to their Wallaby neighbours in these islands in 1991. This time, the soothsayers are conspicuous by their silence; indeed, they all appear to be looking for seating space on the nearest available fence.

For what it is worth, the Wallabies look distinctly handy; fresh from giving the New Zealanders what for in Sydney last month, they possess both the world's best back division - if the names Burke, Tune, Horan and Herbert mean nothing to you now, they will within a fortnight or so - and the world's most accomplished individual performer in the elongated shape of their captain, John Eales. (Eales is nicknamed "Nobody", as in "Nobody's perfect").

But then, the All Blacks can field more game-breaking talents than the rest of the contenders put together, while the Springboks are in a huge collective grump, which generally spells trouble for someone. The English are fit and formidable, the Welsh are resurgent, the Scottish look dangerous, the Samoans look lethal (take that any way you like) and the French are unnervingly quiet. There are champions in there somewhere. The trick is to find them.

This being rugby, the sporting world's most lifelike representation of a dysfunctional family, even the brightest of horizons attracts a little cloud cover. No one should quibble too much with the choice of Wales as host nation; outside of two contrasting areas of England, the West Country and the East Midlands, and the more homogeneous rural sweep of south-west France, the Welsh passion for rugby is unrivalled anywhere north of the equator. Indeed, the world game is at its most buoyant when the Red Dragon is roaring its head off rather than whimpering into its navel, and the tournament buzz in Cardiff has been climbing the decibel gauge all summer. But was it really necessary to award England, Ireland, Scotland and France a pool apiece, plus knock-out games into the bargain?

To earn themselves a shot at winning their own World Cup, Wales must survive a semi-final visit to Twickenham. It should not be so; whenever a home team is forced to travel across borders, the momentum of the competition slows, its heart beats with less vigour. The next time the tournament is awarded to a European nation, as it probably will be in 2007, the great and good on the

International Board executive should insist on a single venue. France sounds about right. Marcel Martin, the grand old man of Tricolore rugby politics, has always been strangely sceptical of his country's ability to lay on a global tournament of RWC stature, but the seamless success of last year's football World Cup rather spiked his argument.

And then there is the refereeing. To an unnervingly large extent, the success of this tournament will stand or fall on the performance of the 16 officials appointed by a committee chaired by Tim Gresson of New Zealand.

They have two choices: they can either pander to the perceived sensitivities of the viewing public by preventing any meaningful contest for the ball on the floor, in which case we will have 15-man rugby league and five weeks of whistle, or they can go with the gladiatorial flow. Forty penalties a match will not convert the masses. Real rugby - rugby in the raw - just might, given the chance.

It will be a crying shame if the physical intensity is in any way diluted, for there is a whole mountain of unfinished business to be resolved out there on the various mudheaps. This Friday's curtain-raiser between Wales and Argentina is as good an example as any. Three months ago in Buenos Aires, an inspired Welsh pack played the Pumas at their own exaggeratedly masculine game, broke them physically and spiritually in the scrummage and became the first British team ever to win a Test series on the pampas. Four days from now, they will attempt a repeat performance against a humiliated side in search of what the 19th century duellists euphemistically called "satisfaction".

Professionalism has been with us for four years now: four years of division and discord, of petty power games and parlour politics, of expulsions and readmissions, of rebellions and rapprochements, of fines paid and unpaid, of legal challenges filed and then forgotten, of promises made and promises broken, of careers launched and careers betrayed. Four years of disunion, you might say.

The next few weeks represent rugby's chance to rise above it all, to present a united face to those innocent millions who do not understand what the hell has been going on and have no interest in finding out. It dare not miss the boat.