Seventh Rugby World Cup begins in New Zealand

By Huw Silk

The seventh edition of the Rugby World Cup – supposedly the world’s third most watched sporting event, after its footballing equivalent and the Olympic Games – kicked off in Auckland, New Zealand last night. Russia is the only nation out of the twenty competing making its World Cup debut this time around, which illustrates rugby’s difficulty in demonstrating the kind of broad international appeal that football has.

The relative lack of spread of rugby across the world is something that the International Rugby Board (IRB) has attempted to address. The 2019 World Cup is to be hosted by Japan, a country that has qualified for every World Cup but has never made it past the group stage.

That is one telling indicator of how little rugby has progressed internationally since the inaugural tournament, also hosted by New Zealand, in 1987. At that event, the hosts, along with Australia, England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales all qualified for the quarter-finals; Fiji completed the octet, benefiting from the exclusion of Apartheid-era South Africa.

At the next World Cup in 1991, two ‘lesser’ nations – Western Samoa and Canada – reached the last eight, the former thanks to a shock win over Wales in Cardiff in the group stage, the latter filling the vacuum left by the Springboks’ continued absence.

But between 1995 and 2007 – in other words, since South Africa have competed – arguably only two teams have progressed to the knock-out stages against the odds – Argentina and Fiji, both in 2007. (The 1999 tournament, hosted by Wales, featured a quarterfinal play-off system, in which Argentina defeated Ireland.)

And, if the bookmakers are to be believed, 2011 will follow the established pattern; seven of the eight teams that comprise the Six Nations and Tri Nations tournaments are all heavily odds-on to qualify from the group stage. Only Scotland, vying with England and Argentina for a place in the last eight, is seen as having a true struggle on their hands.

Rugby needs to spread, and, as a part of that of that process, the World Cup needs some upsets.It is telling that the Sunday Times’ list of five ‘Days When The Underdogs Found Their Bark’ includes one match when the favourite won anyway (England 35-22 Samoa, 2003).

At the last World Cup, individual moments offered a glimpse of what might have been. Ireland stuttered to a 14-10 win over debutants Georgia, who will feel that they should have won after failing to capitalise on spending the last minutes of the match metres short of the Irish try line.

In the same group, the men in green also struggled against the true minnows of Namibia; whilst they eventually triumphed by fifteen points, the Africans scored a brilliant try that fired up neutrals.

Elsewhere, American winger Takudzwa Ngweya capped a brilliant team move by scorching past South African opposite number Bryan Habana, commonly regarded as the fastest player in world rugby. Even so, New Zealand’s 108-13 crushing of Portugal was indicative of the vast gulf in class between established and lesser rugby nations. Portuguese prop Rui Cordeiro’s face was a picture as he celebrated his try in that match, but that his team was so far in arrears at that stage demonstrates that, for minnows, international rugby is more of a experience than an exercise in seeking success.

Compared to football, rugby sees far more scoring opportunities. Between two well-matched teams, this can provide sometimes provide for a much more entertaining, free-flowing match than one might see in a football contest, again between two relatively equal sides. On the other hand, a gulf in class is exposed brutally, far reducing the scope for an upset.

In football, a dominant team may not have the rub of the green and may fall to defeat thanks to a single goal that came against the run of play. In rugby, though, that team will have, in all likelihood, racked up enough points to withstand conceding such a surprise score.

For the sake of this form of rugby, it would be ideal, as the Sunday Times columnist Stephen Jones notes, to have a number of upsets in the forthcoming tournament; Rugby Sevens is much more well-established throughout the non-traditional rugby world, a fact reflected by its inclusion in the Olympic Games from 2016.

The IRB was criticised for awarding this tournament to New Zealand, when most observers expected a victory for the Japanese bid, taking the World Cup to Asia for the first time. But if the event sees the breakthrough of a number of smaller countries, it can be seen as aptly marking the start of a decade in which rugby should significantly widen its appeal.

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