Lessons to be learned before deciding World Cup destination

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The Independent Online

The main topic of the past week has been where the rugby World Cup for 2007 is to be staged. Already we have seen an unedifying squabble between Australia and New Zealand about the next World Cup competition, to take place in under a year's time. Now we are worrying about the one after that. I am in favour of prudence and foresight, but this is ridiculous.

The main topic of the past week has been where the rugby World Cup for 2007 is to be staged. Already we have seen an unedifying squabble between Australia and New Zealand about the next World Cup competition, to take place in under a year's time. Now we are worrying about the one after that. I am in favour of prudence and foresight, but this is ridiculous.

At all events, there seem to be four choices: England alone; France alone; England and the Celtic nations; or France and the Celtic nations, together with Italy. The Celtic nations will, it is said, decide the outcome. They may not possess sufficient votes to hold the arithmetical balance of power. But in practice they have enough to swing the result.

The last competition, in 1999, was not exactly a fiasco but it was certainly a disappointment. Wales were supposed to be the host country. What this meant was that the final was held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

I was opposed to the building of the Millennium Stadium because of the inconvenience and expense and because I thought the old National Stadium, itself heir to the Cardiff Arms Park, was a perfectly good ground. There was also at the back of my mind the perhaps unworthy thought that my fellow countrymen, whose dilatory ways I knew well, would fail to complete such a large project on time or even at all.

Well, I was wrong, though I regret the disappearance of the National Stadium. The new ground is the finest arena in the northern hemisphere. It has already served as an inspiration to the Wales football team. Unfortunately there is no sign as yet that it is performing the same function for the national rugby team.

The one trouble with the Millennium Stadium, as far as I can see, is that there are no clear – so no easily comprehensible – rules about when and in what circumstances the roof is to be closed. If there are, I have yet to hear them. It seems to be a matter for the whim of some rugby bureaucrat. And yet, this is the most crucial decision that could be made before a rugby match.

In fact, the whole competition in 1999 was predicated on the assumption that England would be in one of the semi-finals at Twickenham and – with no great inconvenience to England fans – would progress to the final at Cardiff. When this failed to happen, England having been eliminated at the quarter-final stage by South Africa, our chauvinistic press lost interest in the competition, which had never been specially great in the first place.

But perhaps it is unfair to blame our great newspapers – or, for that matter, the television coverage either. It was not the newspapers which produced so many mediocre performances, notably that of Australia in the final. The only matches that I can remember without having recourse to the record books both involved France.

The first was at Toulouse, where France beat Fiji 28-19. The match was memorable not because of any outstanding play but because Fiji should have won it. At one stage they were up 19-13. But the referee, Paddy O'Brien of New Zealand, disallowed a perfectly good try from Fiji; allowed a dubious try from France; and gave France an equally questionable penalty try.

The second memorable match, was, of course, the France v New Zealand semi-final at Twickenham. It finished the career of John Hart, the New Zealand coach, and inaugurated the career of Christophe Dominici, the French wing. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it crowned his career. For where, after some tribulations, is Dominici now? He is certainly not in the current French side.

There has been a surprising lack of analysis about why the last World Cup failed to take off. One reason, as I have indicated, was that England failed to reach the semi-finals, so diminishing the media interest. Another reason was that it was held all over the place, in six European countries. It lacked a focus.

There will be a focus next year. For 2007 it is a choice between England and France. Inevitably and, up to a point, rightly there will be some blurring at the edges. It will be a shame not to use the Millennium Stadium at some stage, irrespective of whether England or France are hosts. But Murrayfield, Lansdowne Road, even Ravenhill in Belfast and St Helen's in Swansea, both of which used to stage full internationals? Certainly the level of support at Murrayfield during the last competition does not suggest it should be given any further chances at the next one to be held in these islands.

Referees will naturally be of the essence. I have already mentioned O'Brien. On Saturday I watched Nigel Williams preside over Wasps v Gloucester. Wales are in low water but, if we no longer produce the best players, we now have the best referees.

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