Global gathering needs Fiji and Samoa to come to the party
Big performances from the South Seas countries would add an extra edge to World Cup that has competitive pools and punishing schedules for the home nations
The New Zealanders have not had it easy: it is hard to think of anything more catastrophic in the build-up to a long-coveted home World Cup than an earthquake – two earthquakes to be accurate – wiping out parts of the second-biggest host city in the country and making it a no-go area for visiting sportsmen. By way of adding insult to injury, the organisers of the seventh Rugby World Cup, which begins here in Auckland on Friday, have made life difficult for themselves with some muddle-headed fixture planning that leaves the tournament at risk of a grotesque mismatch on launch night. If there are still 4,000 unsold tickets for the opening contest between the All Blacks and Tonga, it serves them right.
Still, things could be worse, and probably will be in four years' time when the Rugby Football Union, perhaps the most dysfunctional governing body to be found anywhere on the sporting planet, stages the eighth tournament in England. After the latest outbreak of committee-room turmoil at Twickenham – another day, another legal opinion – those with the best interests of the 15-man code at heart must be wondering whether a global showpiece produced by the wealthiest union in the game will be any better than one pieced together by a country whose claim to this one was based on the argument that they would never again be in a financial position to bid.
World Cups are often followed by upheavals: the move to professionalism was plotted during the 1995 tournament and sanctioned soon afterwards; the closing days of the 1999 competition were soured by an unholy row over broadcasting; the 2007 version, utterly compelling to all those capable of distinguishing between a proper game of rugby and a game of pat-a-cake, led some poor misguided souls on the International Board to concoct a raft of rule changes that would supposedly make tries easier to score and, by extension, the sport more "entertaining". Philosophically incoherent, the dumb-it-down brigade were defeated – but it was a narrow squeak.
If anything, the undercurrents in 2011 are even more hazardous. Rugby union in its seven-a-side configuration is now an Olympic sport, or will be when the Games are held in Rio de Janeiro five years hence – a development that opens up funding streams to new and developing nations infinitely more lucrative than anything available at the moment. Countries as different as Kenya and the United States, neither of whom count for a fat lot in 15-a-side terms, have made significant strides in the shortened form. Which is all fine and dandy.
What is not fine is the prospect of one or more of the South Seas countries – Fiji, most likely – throwing all their eggs in the sevens basket and giving up on Test rugby as a bad job, for the full game requires all the serious practitioners it can get. The Fijians are not bad at 15s: hell, they knocked Wales out of the last World Cup with a joyously athletic performance in Nantes and very nearly did for South Africa, the eventual winners, on a mesmerising afternoon in Marseilles. But they have a whole history of brilliance at sevens and, given the economic gulf that separates rugby in the Pacific islands from rugby in Western Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, could anyone seriously blame them for following the money?
To be truly successful, this World Cup needs what the last one had: big performances from two of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Given the nature of the first contest, one of these three could be out for the count before 18 of the 20 contenders have set foot on the field. All three of Tonga's meetings with New Zealand at full international level have been horribly one-sided: defeats of 45-9, 102-0 and 91-7 tell their own depressing story. If the hosts were serious about making a box-office killing on opening night, about setting a tone appropriate to the third-biggest global competition in existence, they would have had the guts to play France instead.
Happily, the other pools are genuinely competitive, in that they have three potential quarter-finalists rather than two. England must find a way of dealing with Argentina and Scotland, both of whom have caused their share of trouble in recent years, while Ireland's poor summer form brings Italy – no pushovers now they have a dozen years of Six Nations experience behind them – into the equation. And Wales? They find themselves in the most difficult pool ever thrown together by a World Cup draw. If Warren Gatland's men make it to the knockout stage, they will have done so via the Way of the Cross.
So what can the early risers in Europe expect when they switch on their televisions for the flurry of morning kick-offs – or, in the case of games as attractive as Wales-Samoa in Hamilton on 18 September and Fiji-Samoa in Auckland a week later, dead-of-night kick-offs? According to Martin Johnson, who played at three World Cups and won one of them before taking on the England managership for this Antipodean shindig, there will be some cut-throat rugby throughout the tournament.
"It's going to be very, very interesting," the grand old Leicester lock said before departure. "We're past the stage of asking if there will be an upset, because we already know the answer to the question. None of us are sure of what will happen in the pool stage in the way we once were: just looking at our own group where we face the team that finished third last time and a team that has never failed to reach the last eight... that's a real challenge for us, isn't it? I've been making the point for ages that all the talk about style is irrelevant. My message? Just win the game, man. And then win the next one."
Johnson made another point, about the importance of what he called "game sequence". England have a difficult opener against Argentina, followed by what is certain to be a bruising, abrasive set-to with the granite-hard Georgians – a match in which the body count will be at least as significant as the result. Romania are third up, and their weakness at Test level will at least allow the manager to rest key personnel ahead of the decisive offshore Calcutta Cup contest with Scotland on the final weekend of round-robin activity. A sympathetic schedule? It could be better.
Equally, it could be much more demanding. Ask the Welsh, who are contemplating two games that pose a serious threat to life, limb and prospects of success – South Africa first, Samoa second – in the space of seven days. The broadcasters will want Wales to prevail: when it comes to ratings, the British Isles mean more to them than the Pacific ones. Yet four years ago, when Argentina surged into the last four of the tournament by beating France, Ireland and Scotland in short order, the television people back in Buenos Aires took the previously unimaginable step of adjusting their football programming and giving top billing to rugby.
This is the power an oval-ball World Cup can wield when it provides us with tales of the unexpected. More tries? No thanks. Not if it dilutes the drama.
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