One of the more depressing World Cup days, the kind of day that emphasised rugby's lack of perspective and demanded that those in control of the sport pay an urgent visit to the nearest shaving mirror for a long, hard spell of self-examination. While the French, those paragons of disciplinary virtue, were immersing themselves in the minutiae of England's tactics at the line-outs and breakdowns, a problem of genuinely serious cultural and economic importance was being discussed in front of two men and the proverbial dog at a downtown hotel in the heart of Aussie Rules territory.
John Boe, the highly experienced and successful coach from New Zealand who is preparing Samoa for their Pool C match with England this weekend, has spent the last month banging the drum on behalf of South Seas rugby with the kind of driving passion Buddy Rich reserved for his show-stopping solos. Yesterday, he reached for the sticks once again. In his view - and it is a view that has put him in such bad odour with the major powers that he is almost persona non grata in his own country - the game in the Pacific islands is on the brink of collapse.
"We are in danger of losing something very precious," he said, firmly. "I am fearful of what will happen at the 2007 World Cup. Do we really want this sport of ours to become a five-horse race? That's rugby league country. This present Samoan team cannot be compared to the teams of 1995 and 1999, because we do not have the number of senior players we had then. In four years' time, those that we do have will be gone, and there will be no way of replacing them unless action is taken to address the inequalities of the sport. So much of Samoan rugby is at the heart of what our game is meant to be about; Samoan values are an essential part of rugby's nature. If it disappears as a competitive concern, we will all be the poorer.
"I coach for old-fashioned reasons. I take pleasure in helping talented young people reach their full potential, and this Samoan team is the best team in the world in that regard. I look at what England have and I don't envy them at all, because I've coached at Super 12 level in an environment where things run like clockwork and I know that there are more important things in life. But if Samoa and teams like them are continually disadvantaged by being denied access to their players and to regular competition at the top level, they will fall away. The International Rugby Board have a responsibility to the global game. They cannot walk away from this." Strong words, honest words. And Boe has paid a price for his outspokenness. Initially loaned to the Samoans by his principal employers, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, he has now been informed that his contract back home will not be renewed. This development has confirmed Boe in his suspicion of the NZRFU and their motives in respect of their Pacific neighbours. New Zealand have never played a Test match in the islands - a sporting scandal of significant proportions - and by holding dozens of Samoan-qualified players to strict provincial contracts, they have effectively drained the pool of available talent. "It is quite clear that the NZRFU wants Samoa as a feeder union," Boe said.
Because the islanders have no voice on the IRB council, there is little immediate prospect of a move towards re-establishing a competitive balance between the haves and the have-nots. Boe wants the board to take a second look at player eligibility - "There are wonderful Samoan players who will never be seen on the international stage because they have played seven-a-side rugby for New Zealand," he said, incredulously - and would welcome a new, more inclusive tours policy that would allow the island unions to maximise income.
"Rugby is not just a game in Samoa, but a cultural phenomenon," he pleaded. "It is the one thing Samoans feel they have given to the world, and it needs support and understanding." In the light of all this, the sudden appearance of France on the anti-England bandwagon already packed with purple-faced Australian pundits seemed more than a little ridiculous. Bernard Laporte, the Tricolore coach, and his assistant, Jacques Brunel, joined the Wallabies in complaining about English chicanery in the contact areas. So, too, did Fabien Pelous, the long-serving lock forward, and Pierre Berbizier, the scrum-half who played for France in the 1987 World Cup final and coached them to third place in 1995.
Pelous appeared the most upset. "The English not only have quality, but they cheat in the loose and at the line-out," he said. "In the past, people reproached us for getting round the rules. Now, it is England's turn." Brunel accused Martin Johnson, the England captain, of "playing the man rather than the ball" at line-outs, while Laporte singled out Neil Back, the Leicester flanker, for criticism. "He gets in positions where he should be penalised, and we have talked about this with the referees," he said.
And Berbizier? "England have often waged this kind of propaganda war, so it serves them right," he commented. Happy days.Reuse content