Rugby World Cup: When it comes to World Cups, football is what interests Blair

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WELL, THE best team in the competition won, and France gave me my money's worth. What follows is a rehearsal of some critical points which I and several other colleagues in the commentating trade have been making in the last month or so. I am cheery of making the principal point, not because it has been made before - for it has not been emphasised nearly enough - but because I try to keep away from politics in this column. This space is supposed to be about rugby.

Nevertheless, it must be said clearly that Tony Blair and the ministers responsible for sport have behaved in a disgraceful way over the Rugby World Cup. These latter ministers are Kate Hoey, the Minister for Sport, and Chris Smith, who was formally her boss at the Department of National Heritage.

If successive governments had adopted a laissez-faire approach towards all sports, there would be no reason to complain. There is a good deal to be said for regarding sport as having nothing whatever to do with government. But that is not how the politicians see it.

Jenny Shipley, the New Zealand Prime Minister, is gallantly meeting the national squad on their return to the islands, even though it is said that their relative lack of success may cost her party the forthcoming election.

Then again, Mr Blair duly turned up at Cardiff for the final. But I suspect his presence there owed more to the opportunity it provided for meeting the French Prime Minister than to any affection for rugby which he may possess. My theory is that he was forced to play the game during his schooldays at Fettes College and has hated it ever since.

Certainly he has paid it little enough attention during his period of office. In summer 1997, in the week before the Lions were to play the third and final Test, I suggested to Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, that Mr Blair should send a message of cheer and encouragement to our brave boys in South Africa.

What exactly, Mr Campbell inquired - for he is a supporter of Burnley Football Club - was going on in that part of the world? I explained. He said he would draw the matter to the attention of his master. Whether the cable was ever sent I do not know. But Fran Cotton, the manager of the successful Lions party, did not receive the CBE to which he might have thought himself fully entitled.

While the Rugby World Cup was proceeding in this country and in France, there was not a word of encouragement or even of notice from Mr Blair, Mr Smith or Ms Hoey. Instead Mr Blair devoted such time as he could spare for sporting matters to the campaign (which leaves me unmoved) to hold the football World Cup in this country in 2006.

A little encouragement from Mr Blair and his colleagues would have been pleasant; that is all. It would not have changed the nature of the competition.

ITV has been rightly criticised for its failure to publicise the tournament adequately. It was a specially lamentable decision not to show last Thursday's play-off on the main channel, but only on HTV Wales, ITV2 and Eurosport, so confining it to a tiny proportion of the population.

And yet television, like the mirror, only shows what is there already. In future there should be four groups of five nations. The eight quarter- finalists should assemble in one country, which could be Wales, Scotland or Ireland. There should be no more than one match on a single day. Above all, the laws about ruck and maul must be changed to make them more comprehensible to players, to referees and to spectators.

In my team of the cup I am going to assume superior wisdom to that of the national coaches. Accordingly, it is Christian Cullen who is at fullback. I might well have had Allan Bateman at outside centre if he had played there at all for Wales rather than as a reserve wing. Alan Tait narrowly misses selection in this position, as does Jason Little. And Christian Califano is forgiven his butt.

ALAN WATKINS' WORLD CUP VX: C Cullen (New Zealand); C Dominici (France), R Fleck (South Africa), T Horan (Australia), J Lomu (New Zealand); C Lamaison (France), G Gregan (Australia); C Califano (France), K Wood (Ireland), K Meeuws (New Zealand), J Eales (Australia), A Benazzi (France), J Erasmus (South Africa), O Magne (France), T Kefu (Australia). Replacements: A Mehrtens (New Zealand), J van der Westhuizen (South Africa), A Tait (Scotland), C Dowd (New Zealand), M Hammett (New Zealand), F Tournaire (France), L Dallaglio (England).