The forthcoming World Cup in England, now just seven weeks away, will generate more hard cash than any previous tournament: independent analysts expect total business output to cruise past the £2bn mark. But the sport’s organisers are still likely to face some very awkward financial questions once they finish counting their money, the most difficult of which will be the future of the game in the Pacific Islands.
International union needs Samoa, Fiji and Tonga: all three are ranked amongst the top 12 nations and without them, the 15-man code would have as much claim to “global” status as professional camel racing. Yet even though New Zealand, the world champions, finally broke the habit of a lifetime by deigning to play a Test on Samoan soil this month – a wonderfully competitive game that remained in the balance until the last knockings – the dire consequences may well prevent other leading countries making a similar trip.
According to the Samoan prime minister, Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, the host union lost the best part of £400,000 – a significant amount by local standards. “Income from the game didn’t cover our expenses – the extended camp for the players, the food and allowances and transport,” he said. With New Zealand officials openly stating that a return visit is unlikely because their business model depends on more lucrative fixtures against touring sides from Europe, the prospects of Samoa or their neighbouring island teams playing home matches against top-ranked opposition appear bleaker than ever.
Once the World Cup is over, there will be the usual calls for a serious reappraisal of the way international rugby is financed.
There will also be the usual resistance from the wealthiest countries, England among them, to radical problem-solving – particularly any move to give the more impoverished nations a share of the gate when they visit the great union venues in the northern hemisphere and play in front crowds of up to 82,000.
Samoa are not the only “developing nation” facing difficulties that will not be eased by events at the World Cup. Japan, hosts of the 2019 tournament, have already kissed goodbye to the spectacular £1.3bn stadium in Tokyo that would have staged the final – the project was recently scrapped because of rising costs – and will soon find themselves in need of a new forwards coach.
Steve Borthwick, the former England lock and captain who has been working with the Test side since retiring as a player a little over a year ago, is expected to link up with Bristol this autumn – a move that will cement the second-tier West Country club’s status as hot favourites for promotion to the Premiership. Andy Robinson, who runs the show at Ashton Gate, has a vacancy on the coaching staff following the departure of the highly regarded Danny Wilson to Cardiff Blues and has strong links with Borthwick, having worked with him at Bath in the late 1990s and again with England between 2001 and 2005.