World Cup chasm threatens to swallow Uruguay

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The Independent Online

It will certainly be the running story of this World Cup, and probably its running sore: the chasm that now exists between rugby's rich and poor, the professionals and the amateurs; the haves and the have-nots.

Five days from now - 24 hours before England confront the full might of Georgia in a game they are confidently expected to win by at least 70 points - one of the truths of this tournament will be revealed on the super-fast going of the Subiaco Oval. If South Africa, undermined by injury and riven by scandal, beat the gallant no-hopers of Uruguay by anything resembling a cricket score, the organisers' worst fears will be confirmed.

Four years ago, the Springboks played the South Americans at Hampden Park in Glasgow and were made to work rather harder than anticipated for their five-try, 39-3, win.

Since then, the Uruguayans have upped their act. "We have learned, we have progressed, we are more organised now," said Diego Ormachea, the head coach. "We have 10 of our players operating overseas, three of them at the top level in France. This is good for us. I hope all 30 of my squad sign foreign contracts after this competition. I think they have something to offer. And if they go abroad, it will be excellent news for the game in my country.

"They can return home with new ideas, and implement the skills they have been taught. Experience is everything."

So far, so hunky-dory. But Ormachea, who led his country against the Boks in 1999, also admitted that the brand of rugby played by the leading half-dozen nations in the world was no more recognisable to he and his kinsmen now than it was the last time the extended family of the union code gathered together in common purpose.

"We play the same rules, but not the same game," he agreed with a shake of the head and a hint of something very like fear spreading across his proud features. "While we have improved, so have the big teams. Have the South Africans improved by a greater margin than us? We are about to see."

At the weekend, the Uruguayans trained in splendour on the wide, green acres of Wesley College. Montevideo, it was not. They had the best of everything - a luxury team bus, pristine changing facilities, a state-of-the-art scrum machine, unlimited quantities of fruit and enough isotonic drink to break a small dam. But both Ormachea and his successor as captain, the balding midfielder Diego Aguirre, were operating under the distinct impression that another 36-point defeat at the hands of the Boks would be an achievement worthy of a national holiday.

Of course, it is not the Uruguayans who are in the front line of battle to close the gap on the full-timers and underpin union's bold attempt to market itself as a truly international sport. That burden is carried by the three Pacific Island teams - Fiji, Samoa and Tonga - along with Argentina and Italy. Of these, only the Argentinians are in a position to force the issue. Each of the island sides might expect to make the last eight, but for the fact that their greatest assets are playing their rugby elsewhere.

The economic imperatives of professional rugby may work in favour of England, who have blossomed in the pay-for-play era, but for the average Tongan, the idea of improvement is individual rather than collective. Put at its most brutal, a European club contract means his family gets fed.

If Ormachea's wishes are fulfilled - if his charges show enough in adversity to attract the talent-spotters from England or France - there will be a price to pay in four years' time. Uruguay will probably qualify for France 2007, always assuming the tournament organisers resist the temptation to restore the tournament to its original 16-team format. But will the players endanger their livelihoods by heeding the call of their country? Probably not. And that will mean more hundred-point beatings of the kind suffered by Tonga and Italy in the 1999 World Cup, and of the kind awaiting the small fry over the next month.