Two decades have passed since a New Zealand team of all the talents won the inaugural World Cup tournament in front of their own countrymen by playing a brand of fast, athletic, piercingly accurate and utterly ruthless rugby that placed them approximately 100 sporting light years ahead of their competitors. At the precise moment they took the field against Italy at Eden Park in Auckland for the opening match of the competition and set about scoring the dozen tries that elevated them to the status of overwhelming favourites, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that the union game had changed for ever.
Yet this sense of revolutionary ferment had little to do with the fact that the best of the All Blacks – Michael Jones and Alan Whetton, Grant Fox and John Kirwan, Sean Fitzpatrick and Steve McDowell – were so extraordinarily good, although it would have been reason enough. Upheaval was in the air because rugby's decision to take temporary leave of its century-old certainties and embrace modernity for a few short weeks had a whiff of permanence about it. By 1991, when the second tournament was played in the British Isles for the benefit of the mass European market, the World Cup had cemented its position as the measure by which everything would henceforth be judged.
There is no other standard that carries a weight of authority. The Six Nations is a wonderful fairground of a championship, but like all fairgrounds, it has more than its share of cheap tat. The Tri-Nations? Nakedly protectionist, hopelessly overblown and fast sinking in the quicksand of its own making. The autumn and summer internationals? Please. Occasionally, leading teams cross the Equator at something vaguely resembling full strength. More often, they tell their elite players to head for the beach, or persuade them to zip down to the nearest private hospital for a spot of keyhole surgery. An increasing majority of these fixtures flirt dangerously with the Trades Descriptions Act and the penny is beginning to drop, even with those satellite broadcasters who would happily cover the South-West Somalian Slug-Racing Championship if it meant filling a few screen hours.
The British and Irish Lions still generate levels of excitement comparable to those found at a World Cup, but the move towards ever-shorter tours and ever-bigger squads has caused untold damage, as has the refusal of home coaches – Carel du Plessis of South Africa in 1997, Rod Macqueen of Australia in 2001, Graham Henry of New Zealand in 2005 – to give the provincial games real meaning by permitting Test players to participate. Above and beyond all else, the Lions always travel at the end of a long and relentless European season, and are therefore both tired and under-prepared. As level playing fields go, those in Durban or Dunedin in June are about as level as the higher slopes of Annapurna.
It is to the World Cup that we turn for the true picture, for it is only here, once every four years, that teams gather together in a state of health and readiness common to all. The playing field is as level as can be. Twice in the last 12 years – in Springbok country in 1995, in Wallaby territory in 2003 – the sport has been blessed with a global tournament of such grandeur that the game took one of its rare great leaps forward. Rupert Murdoch, who would not have known a rugby ball from a plate of stewed wombat and struggles to differentiate between the two even now, bought into the union game after watching Jonah Lomu run through and over England on semi-final day in Cape Town. "I want that man on my television screens," he is said to have said. Eight years on, the best part of a million packed the streets of London to welcome home a sports team that did not include David Beckham.
Both South Africa and Australia ran their tournaments as single-nation events that came to be seen as great flowerings of cultural expression as well as sporting revelry. Everyone assumed France would do the same this time round. Instead, they bought support for their bid by offering games to the three Celtic nations. Ireland gave their games back to the hosts after deciding to press ahead with redevelopment work at Lansdowne Road, but Wales and Scotland will both play important matches in their own capitals. As a result, this World Cup playing field is a lot less level than it should be.
Initially, tournament officials attempted to justify this gross assault on the name of fair play by claiming the French public would not turn out to watch games in the way the Australians did. That argument is no longer being pedalled. More than two million tickets have been shifted for 48 matches spread over 44 days, with a take-up approaching 90 per cent, and there is every likelihood that the final figures will surpass those achieved in 2003. The nearer we get to the opening match between France and Argentina in Paris – a sell-out, naturally – the more ridiculous those matches in Cardiff and Edinburgh appear.
Almost as ridiculous is the notion that the Portuguese, who formed their union as long ago as 1926 but have waited until now to poke their heads above the parapet, should take on the All Blacks in a serious game of rugby, as they will be asked to do in Lyon on 15 September. People can hurt themselves playing this sport - poor Max Brito, a wing from Cote d'Ivoire, was left paralysed after an attempted tackle on a Tongan during a match in the 1995 competition. As Gerald Davies, the great Wales wing, wrote in his history of the World Cup: "This incident highlighted the discrepancies and the imbalance that exists between teams: in fitness levels, in size, in power and strength...Rugby, with its ambitions to expand... finds that there are, in fact, gulfs of difference." It is difficult to conceive of a greater difference than that between New Zealand and Portugal, pray God its consequences are confined to the scoreboard.
Yet this seems more of a World Cup than some previous World Cups, for the serious contenders for semi-final places number at least six and possibly more. A 16-team tournament, accompanied by a second-tier production, would be a more accurate reflection of union's place in the wider scheme of things than the current 20-team format – England suggested as much in 2001, only to be laughed out of court – but a goodly number of the forthcoming fixtures will be genuine contests. Perhaps as many as 40 per cent of the matches will end with the teams being separated by two full scores or less, which would be the best figure since the highly competitive 1991 competition, when more than half the games were close-run affairs.
At the bottom end, few would care, or even notice, if the amateurs of Portugal and Namibia stayed home. Both countries know what it is to concede more than a century of points to professional teams, and few doubt they will be reacquainted with the experience in the coming weeks. But at the top end, things are happening fast. Ireland are better than England these days, so the Big Five of old has grown into a Big Six. Argentina are also ranked higher than the reigning champions, and could easily influence the outcome of the tournament if the referees give their magnificent forwards an even break.
Given that they will join the Irish and the South Americans in the most cut-throat pool ever seen at a World Cup, the hosts can hardly be accused of organising things to suit themselves. France are in decent shape, nonetheless. If they have lost just a little of their joie de vivre while Anglo-Saxonising themselves on the discipline front – it is tempting to wonder if Bernard Laporte, their coach, was born in Leicester rather than the Midi-Pyrenees – they possess enough star quality to emulate New Zealand, England, South Africa and Australia in reaching the final of their own tournament. Clement Poitrenaud, Vincent Clerc, Yannick Jauzion, Frederic Michalak, Yannick Nyanga and Imanol Harinordoquy all have it in them to shape the competition in their own image.
Significantly, Laporte's squad has a large Toulouse contingent at its heart. The coach's relationship with the grandest club in Europe has not always been healthy – Toulouse do things the Toulouse way, not Laporte's way – but philosophical differences tend to be forgotten when the big prizes are up for grabs. Virtually half the Tricolore back-line contenders hail from Les Sept-Deniers, not to mention Jean-Baptiste Poux, Fabien Pelous, Thierry Dusautoir and the electrifying Nyanga up front. It is a sure sign that France intend to play, as well as compete.
England may compete without playing. Despite the presence of Brian Ashton as strategist-in-chief – a man who travelled to Toulouse to study the methods of the French maestro Pierre Villepreux at first hand before forging a well-earned reputation as the most visionary coach to emerge in the British Isles in a generation – they are heavily forward-orientated. In and of itself, this is no bar to them mounting an honourable defence of their title: after all, it was Martin Johnson and his pack who ruled the roost in 2003. Yet the England of four years ago were adept at capitalising on the few try-scoring opportunities they managed to create. This current team finds itself stranded in a creative desert.
Even if the champions lose to South Africa in Paris in the pivotal game of Pool A – and they are widely expected to finish second – their route to the semi-final may be less hazardous than is generally assumed. The potential for distortion generated by the decision to allow Wales to play Australia in Cardiff means England might be better off progressing to the last eight as runners-up rather than group winners. Unfortunately for them, the Welsh play the Wallabies 18 hours after their meeting with the Boks, not 18 hours before it.
Ashton's team cannot run into the favourites, New Zealand, before the semi-final stage. If they are honest, they would rather not run into them at all. The All Blacks have been the form team in the world since the last tournament, but in a sense, this is a symptom of the peculiar problem they have with World Cups. They are always the form team for the three years after an event, but since that first explosion of silver-ferned brilliance in 1987, they have not been the form team when it has mattered most. They know this to be true down Auckland way, and they are heartily sick of it. Henry, that most astute and ambitious of coaches, has geared everything towards success over the coming weeks, and will stand or fall on the outcome.
New Zealand should win, not least because they have more of the best players, in more positions, than anyone else. But three teams – France, Australia and South Africa – understand how to beat them, even if they struggle to translate that understanding into action. It is perfectly easy to imagine Richie McCaw, one of the wonders of this rugby age, clapping his bandaged hands around the Webb Ellis Cup and lifting it into the Parisian night sky next month. But it is far from impossible to imagine him slinking out of the same stadium, having messed up at the semi-final stage for the second successive tournament.
This is the glory of it. We know the All Blacks will threaten to win a first title in 20 years, but that is as much as we know. Maybe even Portugal will have their moment in the sun. After all, the Romanians are far from unbeatable.Reuse content