It is by no means certain that England will find a way out of their brutal pool at the home World Cup in 2015, or that the tournament will generate the level of business needed to hit some equally intimidating financial targets. But this much is beyond dispute, a full two years ahead of time: the competition will set new standards of fairness across the board and leave a legacy worthy of celebration.
When the 48-match jamboree begins with a Friday night game between the host nation and Fiji (always assuming the two-time quarter-finalists qualify ahead of such mighty South Seas contenders as New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands), the smaller countries – the “minnows”, as they are patronisingly known – will find themselves on a similar schedule to the All Blacks, the Springboks and pretty much everyone else. Indeed, the vast majority of the outsiders will still be in England come the last weekend of pool matches. In previous World Cups, most have been bundled on to an outgoing plane long before the close of the group stage.
For this, the organisers deserve all the hosannas going. It would have been easy to load the match programme in favour of the comparatively wealthy top eight nations and against those poorer countries, some of them still resolutely amateur, who are least able to operate on a playing field as level as the upper reaches of Annapurna. Instead, there is an air of commonalty about the fixture list that will unshackle the tournament from the injustices of the past.
At the last global gathering in New Zealand, an outstanding Samoa side might have reached the semi-finals had they not been forced to play four games, two of them against Wales and South Africa, in the space of 17 days. In Australia in 2003, it was the Italians who were skinned alive by the fixture planners. They too would have made the knockout stage had they been granted more than five minutes between major contests.
This kind of blatant victimisation, driven largely by broadcasters, has been a stain on World Cups for longer than anyone cares to remember, but it was the Romanians who made the point most forcefully when, in 2011, they fielded a second-string side against England in order to protect their best players ahead of a winnable match with Georgia four days later. Most fair-minded rugby folk left the tournament with a sour taste in the mouth and a nagging suspicion that nothing would change. Yet things changed, very much for the better.
England, handed all the advantages tournament hosts have come to expect, will play their pool games against Fiji, Wales, Australia and the final qualifier – Russia or Uruguay, at a guess – over 23 days, from weekend to weekend. On the first three they will be in familiar surroundings at Twickenham; the last will be a missionary job in Manchester, at the Etihad Stadium.
Virtually everyone else will face one short turnaround: yes, even the reigning champions from New Zealand, who start with a tough game against Argentina on the opening Sunday before facing the winner of the African qualifying competition the following Thursday. The Wallabies will have only three clear days between their opening two fixtures, while the Springboks face a physically demanding hit-out with either Canada or the United States just 96 hours after a highly significant meeting with Scotland.
Some of those most abused in the past, including Samoa and Italy, will be better off than the majority of the tier-one contenders. Brett Gosper, the CEO of the International Rugby Board, did not quite say that he and his fellow senior administrators were making amends for the crimes of rugby history, but he made it clear that a “fair and balanced schedule” had been at the top of the planning agenda.
“This should be the model for all future tournaments,” said John O’Neill, the former chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union and a current member of the Rugby World Cup board. “There must be no turning back. It is impossible to ignore certain commercial realities when you’re dealing with an event on this scale, but the 2011 tournament was the last at which an unfair fixture list could be tolerated. The only team having any kind of advantage should be the home team. Everyone else should be treated equably.”
O’Neill also said renewed efforts would be made to ensure that leading professional sides in the British Isles and France released foreign imports to their national sides in good time for the tournament. (Last autumn, as highlighted in this newspaper, Fiji travelled to Europe with a severely weakened squad after some leading players made themselves unavailable, allegedly under pressure from the clubs paying their wages). “There is a regulation in place and we can’t allow it to be a toothless tiger,” the Australian said. “Player release is fundamental.”
While the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff will stage eight fixtures including two quarter-finals, there will be no obvious leg-up for Wales, who must face both England and Australia at Twickenham. Initially, the Six Nations champions thought they might take on the Wallabies in their own backyard, but fierce resistance from the Australian hierarchy put paid to that idea.
Assuming the Millennium Stadium plays its part in driving business – it will boast a raft of eye-catching games, including a potentially decisive contest between France and Ireland – the bean counters badly need England to show strongly. They are already biting their nails. Should the hosts finish second in their group, which would be no mean performance, their way to the final will probably be blocked by South Africa, and then New Zealand.
At least they will face Wales, their recent conquerors, on the old cabbage patch in south-west London. “None of us sat there and enjoyed watching what happened in Cardiff,” said the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Ian Ritchie, referring to the extremely damaging 30-3 defeat in March. “But the World Cup is a unique opportunity for us and we will give every support to the national team. We know where we need to go and what we must do to get there.”