Good and bad: What did we learn from the World Cup?
Monday 24 October 2011
Here comes everyone
The world has its great rugby towns - Brisbane, Cape Town and Pretoria; Gloucester, Limerick and Toulouse - but only three national rugby cultures inclusive of all colours, creeds and classes: New Zealand, Wales and the Pacific Islands. Of those, only New Zealand could have hosted a global tournament within its own boundaries. The success of this venture should not be measured in financial terms, although the numbers generated by this small economy were good. The proper measurement is in the overwhelming level of public engagement, far beyond anything ever seen at a World Cup. The organisers promised "a stadium of 4m people" and delivered spectacularly.
Less is more
When the 2015 tournament is staged in England, the ticket-sale target will be an average 58,000 across 48 games, hence the decision to use big-capacity football venues in cities where rugby union has either a tenuous hold on the public imagination or no hold at all: Manchester and Liverpool, Newcastle and Southampton. That target will take some hitting. Here, many pool matches attracted full houses because the small-town grounds, from Whangarei to Invercargill, were the right size for the fixture. A crowd of 25,000-plus in Albany gave the brilliant Samoa-South Africa contest its proper showcase. A 25,000 crowd at Old Trafford? That's a different story.
The minnows rise
The moment the "smaller" nations started losing heavily, in the third round of pool matches, the po-faced pessimists piped up with their "cut the numbers" argument. Bilge. Anyone blessed with a pair of eyes could see that the United States and Georgia, in particular, were significantly stronger than they had been in 2007, and that Canada and Japan had made up ground on their better-resourced, heavily professionalised rivals.
With an enlightened, even-handed international fixture schedule, all these teams could make the knock-out stage of a World Cup a dozen years from now.
One rule for some...
What was it with the fixture planners? Fully aware that World Cup match schedules had been scandalously biased for years – back in 2003, Italy were denied a place in the last eight because the organisers knifed them in cold blood by ordering them to play two crucial matches in the space of about 25 minutes – they blithely allowed the broadcasters to rig the programme again, to suit the mass viewing market in Europe.
The Namibians, mostly amateurs who were far more in need of a rest than their finely-conditioned professional rivals, faced South Africa on a Thursday night and Wales the following Monday. Unforgivable.
Ninety-nine per cent of the time, 99 per cent of the New Zealand rugby public – which means pretty much the entire population – were fair-minded to the point of saintliness, but when Quade Cooper, the Tokoroa-born outside-half now playing for the Wallabies, went anywhere near a rectangle of grass, he was defamed, denigrated, deprecated and disparaged at decibel levels way beyond the acceptable. To make matters worse, the media joined in with gusto. It was miserable, mean-spirited stuff, as was the anti-Tricolor sentiment expressed in the public prints: page after page of drivel about "Gallic filth and skulduggery". A reminder, please: what's French for cliché?
Nice seeing you...not
And then there were dear old England. Three and a half years in the planning, the red-rose campaign was too embarrassing for words, even though squillions of them continue to be written about the wholly negative contribution made by Martin Johnson and his charges.
There were some who argued from the start – from well before the start, actually – that they would lose the moment they came up against a half-decent side playing reasonably well, but even the Jeremiahs failed to foresee the puerile performance off the field.
Roll on 2015, eh? Maybe they should settle for being non-playing hosts and leave the rugby to everyone else.
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