Monday, 12 September 2011

Less Cannon Fodder Makes for a Compelling Rugby World Cup

I've always enjoyed Rugby Union World Cups, probably more so than their football counterparts. In the absence of soap operas regarding fallouts, training ground spats, and clashes of personality, the game itself is given room to take precedence with both committed and casual spectators. While the build-up to matches involving the Uk Nations in particular is covered by television, this is only done to a level that stops well short of what might be considered saturation point. "Ok - I know who's injured, which players are being brought in to counter the specific strengths and weaknesses of the opposition and who to look out for on the opposing side. Thanks for that, now let's get on with the game itself".

It's a highly welcome breath of fresh air when set against the constant, in-yer-face hype that accompanies the major tournaments in international football. The occasional flat and disappointing spectacle is that bit easier to forgive when television executives have not been plying you with the message that an encounter between two middle-ranking nations is set up to be an affair that will be talked about for decades afterwards. Nor do rugby pundits make a habit of posthumously re-writing history, by attempting to convince the viewer that a sporting powerhouse's one-sided demolition of a relative minnow, or a dull, tryless grind-fest were somehow 'epic' (as football presenters frequently attempt to with tame goalless draws). As a viewer, please let me watch the game, take in the commentary of a man who used to excel at it and then make up my own mind as to whether or not it is worth remembering.

All that said, this is not to say that the showpiece tournament of the 15-man game has not had its share of historical problems. Without doubt the biggest single issue has been that of chronically lop-sided mismatches in the pool stages of the competition. The first World Cup to feature fully-professional players in 1995 saw a widening of the gap between the top tier nations and those who lagged behind, most brutally demonstrated by the All Blacks' 145-17 annihilation of Japan (they notched a phenomenal 21 tries in a single match, converting 20 of them, with second-choice kicker Simon Mulhane bagging a world record 45 points). Every subsequent competition has seen at least one side notch a three-figure score against opposition that was clearly overwhelmed and out of its depth, with Australia's 142-0 massacre of Namibia in 2003 the highest recorded margin of victory to date.

This is bad for the sport on a number of levels. First up, mismatches of this magnitude sell rugby well short of its true potential on the one occasion when it enjoys something resembling worldwide television coverage (the equivalent competition in rugby league has suffered from this problem to an even greater degree). Moreover, nations clearly ill-equipped to at least put up a vaguely competitive effort against the game's elite do not benefit from the experience of being utterly destroyed on a massive stage, even if the privilege of playing at a tournament they worked hard to qualify for is not something you would wish to take away from the players involved.

In this sense, the decision to expand the World Cup from 16 to 20 teams for the 1999 tournament may well have been a misjudgement at the time, a well-intended effort to spread the global appeal of the sport that facilitated further one-sided beatdowns. In reality, while minor upsets have taken place in previous World Cups and unfancied teams (Argentina, Samoa) have made significant progress, they have themselves been few and far between, with the overwhelming majority of match results following a pattern that could easily have been predicted beforehand. This is clearly not a good thing for a sport looking to widen its appeal.

However, watching some of the weekend's action (albeit at distinctly nocturnal hours in some cases) has convinced this bunny that the current World Cup has the potential to be easily the best ever. It is perhaps telling that the real surprise was the failure of a genuine surprise result to emerge, with all completed matches (eventually) going to form. Scotland, victim of multiple World Cup nightmares in another sport, were 13 minutes away from total disaster against Romania, once the emerging nation of world rugby in the 1980s, but perceived prior to the tournament as a side in terminal decline (Scotland indeed hammered the same opposition 42-0 as recently as the last World Cup).

Led by mammoth forward Marius Tincu, the pack coached by former All Black Stephen McDowell clearly won an important part of the on-field battle, overturning an early Scottish lead to score two pushover tries and take the initiative themselves at 24-21. The decision to withdraw Tincu from the action seemed inexplicable at the time, and ultimately swung a match that looked set to slip away from the Scots back in their favour. The Romanian scrum in particular looked mean, menacing and physical, frequently driving their opponents back and even achieving a couple of seemingly unthinkable turnovers. Scotland's next match is against Georgia, whose forward line is said to be even more uncompromising - if they are anything other than fully-focussed, then a massive upset which nobody would have entertained prior to a ball being kicked may just be on.

By the way, I'm well aware that England had struggles of their own last weekend, so for anyone who suspects a tad of anti-Scottish bias, here's Jonah Lomu single-handedly tearing Will Carling's team a new one while quite literally running over Tony Underwood and Mike Catt in the 1995 semi-final.

I'm sure some of you will have had better things to do at 4-30am on Saturday than watch a game between Fiji and Namibia, but the events that had just taken place in Invercargill kept this bunny's curiosity sufficiently alive to take it in. The Fijians are a side capable of being brilliant on one day and utterly useless the next, blessed by individuals with a talent for carrying and moving the ball at speed, but equally prone to bouts of petulance and indiscipline. Namibia have historically been the definition of World Cup cannon fodder, yet to win a finals match in eleven attempts going in. Though they stretched that unwelcome run to twelve, this was an encounter well worth watching that hinted at genuine improvement.

In the 80 minutes, Fiji blew hot and cold in the way that might typify them as a team, while the rank outsiders gave things a real go, scoring two tries in a closely-fought second half. Indeed, only a heroic tackle to hold up a blue-shirted forward on the line prevented a try close enough to the sticks that would have pegged the score back to 39-30, with a conversion to follow and some twenty minutes still on the clock. It was apparent that the Namibians have come to this World Cup fitter, more organised and with a clearer gameplan than at any of the three previous tournaments where they have usually fulfilled the tag of whipping boys (sure, they kept Ireland down to a respectable-looking 32-17 in 2007, but most would accept this owed more to the sheer ineptitude that underpinned that Irish campaign than anything else).

At 32-15 down as they were at half time against the Fijians, they might previously have been on the receiving end of 70 points or more. In that sense, the final score of 49-25 in represents what might be considered measurable progress in reasonable time. Their game against South Africa may well follow a predictably one-sided pattern, but though Wales and Samoa should still possess too much for Namibia over 80 minutes, hopes of avoiding humiliation and posing one or two questions of their own would appear not unrealistic based on the events of Saturday morning. If the lowest-ranked side at the tournament can make such clear forward strides, then there is hope for those seeking a more even contest across the board.

As I mentioned the Fijians, here are some of the best moments of perhaps the utlimate modern player from the island - explosive and undeniably gifted, but a frustrating and wasted talent lost to lifestyle choices, Rupeni Caucaunibuca.

It has been refreshing to get through the first series of matches and see not one result that might prompt a reaction along the lines of "what exactly was the point of that?". France vs Japan and Ireland vs USA were both games from which it would not be unreasonable to fear something of a cricket score. That it took two late tries from les Bleus for them to run out convincing 47-21 winners, while the Americans performed above expectation before eventually succumbing 22-10 suggests a depth if not in quality, then at least of sides who possess sufficient fitness and organisation to compete at international level for an entire match. This may present more banana skins for the established nations than they might have expected, but that can only be a good thing for the World Cup and, by extension, rugby itself. Take care and I'll catch you soon.

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