It would have been quite an event, next week's ceremonial draw for the 2003 World Cup: a glittering, if cauliflower-faced, array of rugby's great and good, knocking back the bubbly on the Sydney waterfront and hoovering up photo-opportunities on the steps of the opera house. If the orchestra had been serenading the oval-ball plutocrats with excerpts from Wagner's Ring cycle, it would have been perfect. After all, the composer knew a thing or two about arrogance, greed, brinkmanship and the corrosive properties of power.
But for the sea of bad blood separating Australia from New Zealand – a Tasman of thrombotic ill-feeling, you might call it – the showpiece would have gone ahead as planned. The directors of Rugby World Cup would have announced a fixture schedule as pure as the driven snow, with no hint of the political and commercial acrobatics they had performed in order to put the "right" teams in the "right" groups, thereby ensuring a healthy revenue stream for those with the most negotiating muscle – that is to say, the Wallabies. And the weaker nations, like the used and abused Argentinians? They would have been told, politely but firmly, to shut up and get on with it.
New Zealand's withdrawal from the sub-hosting arrangement they had tacitly agreed with the Australians – a very serious decision, driven by the equally serious fear that with the economics of the tournament loaded in the Wallabies' favour, they would lose a small fortune on the deal – means this shambolic venture is now on hold, pending the implementation of a contingency plan under which Australia will put on the entire show.
In one sense, this is excellent news: the multi-host World Cups of 1987, 1991 and 1999 were flawed affairs, with little momentum and no obvious sense of identity. The Australians, lavishly equipped with more top-class stadiums than you could shake a boomerang at, are confident of their ability to match, maybe even surpass, the stunning 1995 tournament in South Africa, a competition uniquely dressed in the garb of single nation. Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Canberra, Townsville and Gosford all contributed handsomely to last summer's Lions tour of Wallaby country, and Adelaide is also hunting a piece of the union action. Good? It should be great.
However, the events of the last few days have left an overwhelming impression of organisational incompetence, accompanied by a distinct odour of fish. RWC's lack of transparency over World Cup seedings is nothing new, but it has surpassed itself this time: last Tuesday night, when the launch was still a going concern, nobody from RWC or the International Rugby Board was willing or able to confirm any details about the seedings below Australia, France, South Africa and New Zealand – the official top four from the 1999 tournament.
Shortly after that competition, the IRB published a magazine in which Argentina, England, Scotland and Wales were ranked fifth to eighth in that order, on the basis of points scored in defeat at the quarter-final stage. (The Pumas scored 26 points against France, England 21 against the Springboks, Scotland 18 against the All Blacks and Wales nine against the Wallabies). This arrangement appeared to place Wales with Australia in 2003, the Scots with France, the English with South Africa and Argentina with New Zealand.
Two years on, the IRB issued another publication containing another set of rankings, this one promoting Wales ahead of Scotland without the slightest hint of an explanation. Significant? Definitely. The French may have delivered a top-notch Six Nations performance in Paris last weekend, but there is still more chance of getting a result against the Tricolores on neutral territory than of beating the Wallabies in Sydney.
Nor was that the end of it. Subsequent leaks from RWC insiders suggested that Wales were in fact fifth seeds, not seventh, and that Argentina had been relegated to eighth; not for any sound competitive reason, but because their low profile made them the rugby equivalent of negative equity. If England, the big commercial attraction, were going to be based in Australia rather than New Zealand – and as senior partners, the Australians made damned sure of that – the hosts would have to give the sub-hosts the best of the rest. Hence a format under which a group containing the Wallabies and the Pumas would be spiced by the addition of Ireland, highly marketable wild cards who failed to reach the quarter-finals last time out.
No one ever quibbled with the assertion that a World Cup draw is necessarily fraught with difficulty. "The problem is one of equity," sighed a weary Chris Rea, the IRB's communications manager, during his attempt at shuttle diplomacy in New Zealand earlier this week. "We've rehearsed the exercise time and time again, and the danger of a huge imbalance between the various pools is always present. It would be terrific to do this with all the razzmatazz of football, but we are not in the happy position of having a dozen or so teams capable of making the semi-finals, or of having 20-odd teams who can play the best on a level field." For all that, the governing classes have done precious little to dispel the increasingly popular view that the major issues are financial rather than competitive.
When push came to shove, the New Zealanders felt they could not square the commercial circle and pulled out. Their much-publicised concern over clashes between the World Cup dates and those set aside for their own National Provincial Championship was, according to senior figures from both Antipodean unions, nothing but a smokescreen designed to conceal the fact they could not make the maths add up. Politically, rugby relations between the two countries have seldom been worse: the anger over New Zealand's decision to veto expansion plans for the Super 12 tournament, under which Australia and South Africa would have been granted an extra team, runs very deep indeed. This latest breakdown merely adds an oil-field of fuel to the fire.
Depressing? It would be, were it not so laughable. Next year's tournament could, and should, be the most fascinating yet, not simply because England, France and, to a lesser extent, Ireland have closed in on the great triumvirate of southern hemisphere superpowers – "We're really not worried about playing the Boks, the Blacks and the Wallabies any more, and I don't think the French are either," said Clive Woodward, the England manager, this week – but because a number of developing nations are making things happen in hitherto neglected corners of the rugby landscape.
In Eastern Europe, North Africa and South America, ambition is rampant and excitement high. Georgia and Russia, who fought out a 12-12 draw in front of 65,000 spectators in Tbilisi last weekend, are fancied to qualify; so too are Morocco, one of six African nations fighting for a single place at the finals. As for the American zone, Chile's recent 33-13 victory over Uruguay in Santiago signalled the emergence of an important new contender in a region where the oval ball is slowly gaining in significance.
Sadly, nothing is more likely to undermine young and vibrant rugby communities than the sight of their alleged elders and betters cancelling glitzy launches, tweaking draws for their own benefit and bitching about money. You can almost hear the newcomers wondering whether it might not be simpler to stick to football, where the scandals are bigger and better organised.