Rugby World Cup is it a level playing field?
This is a segment of an article I wrote for JL Pagano’s Sunday Rant about the Rugby World Cup on Facebook. Well worth a read….
Once every four years the global rugby community is treated to a fantastic sporting occasion. We get to see the world’s greatest rugby teams battle it out for the Webb-Ellis Trophy.
I believe it is safe to say that since the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, the tournament has improved considerably as has the standard of rugby played. The main reason for this must be put down to the professionalism of the sport. During the Rugby World Cup, we get to enjoy all the established professional rugby teams go from strength to strength. Every rugby fan gets a thrill from watching New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and the home nations, Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy. According to the I.R.B. Rankings, these teams, along with Argentina make up the top 10 rugby nations in the world. These countries with the possible exception of Argentina are all professional rugby teams. This is my rugby world cup rant….
Rugby World Cup goes truly global
Rugby is becoming more of a global sport. For the first time ever, Russia is competing at this year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The Russian Rugby Union have invested heavily in their domestic rugby infrastructure. Georgia too is a country taking massive strides in establishing itself as serious rugby nation. Another milestone is that this is the first Rugby World Cup to be broadcast on free to air television in the United States. This marks a significant turning point for the sport in this country. Without a doubt, the so-called “developing nations” are making conscious efforts to grow the game within their respective countries. These countries need as much help and assistance as possible from the I.R.B.
Rugby World Cup is it a level playing field?
The rugby world cup fixture list is testament to my rant. In each of the quadrennial tournaments, the fixture list consistently appears to favour the top rugby nations. Teams such as New Zealand, England and Australia have plenty of rugby resources at their disposal. They have considerable sized player pools to choose from and the national sides are professional outfits. The top ten rugby nations in the world are expected to get through the pool stages. This means that these teams are expected to play more games than the “minnows” during the course of the tournament. So, perhaps the reasoning behind the inconsistent world cup fixtures is that the top rugby nations are expected to go further in the competition than the less developed nations so their squads deserve more rest between games? This is a shallow argument.
Rest between games plays a vital role in any team’s success during competitions. There is a reason why club rugby sides usually only play once a week. Countless studies into player fatigue have been conducted. I took part in a major study into player welfare while I was playing in the Aviva Premiership in England. The results indicated that injuries are more commonplace in squads with the least amount of rest between games. Rugby is a very physical sport and the body needs to be allowed to recover between matches. The Rugby World Cup fixture list has provided little rest period for some of the nations that need it the most.
Rugby World Cup Twitter Revolution
Samoa’s Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu brought a lot of attention to the imbalanced fixture list on Twitter. The Samoan centre got carried away by making comparisons to the holocaust, but the point he was trying to make was that his team’s condensed fixtures were unjust and impeded the progression of Manu Samoa. He had a point. Samoa played against Wales just four days after playing Namibia. That meant that the Samoan squad had only three full days between games. Cleary that is unjust compared to Wales’ rest period of six full days between rugby world cup games. Make no mistake about how important this rest period is. Wales beat Samoa 17-10 and this sparked Sapolu’s outcry. The I.R.B. threatened to suspend the outspoken player but wisely chose not to. Sapolu dared the I.R.B. to carry out their threat, stating it was another unjust act by rugby’s governing body.
Samoa ‘s Rugby World Cup campaign is over. Always an exciting team to watch, one wonders how those narrow defeats to Wales and South Africa could have been different with more rest between games.
Namibia are another nation who can feel aggrieved with the fixture list. With very limited resources and player pool, Namibia were always going to struggle. Their cause was not helped by the fact that they only had three full recovery days on two separate occasions. The African side were in the Rugby World Cup Pool D, along with Samoa, South Africa, Wales and Fiji. Namibia played against Samoa four days after their opening game against Fiji. Namibia did have a full week’s rest before facing South Africa but were again in action against Wales four days later. Considered a tier three team by the I.R.B., Namibia reached the Rugby World Cup finals on each occasion since their debut in 1999. They are now ranked 19th in the I.R.B. rankings.
Rugby World Cup & USA Rugby
The Rugby World Cup fixture list has been equally cruel on the United States. The Eagles also only three full rest days between games on two separate occasions. Rugby here in the U.S. has huge potential. The national team’s compact Rugby World Cup fixtures hinder that potential. U.S.A. played against Russia, four days after their defeat to Ireland. They also played against Italy four days after losing heavily to Australia. The fixture list makes no sense and is extremely unfair on teams with limited resources. With more rest between games, I believe the U.S. Eagles could have pulled off a major upset.
Success breeds success and successful teams by their very nature generate support. With more victories comes more publicity. This plays a crucial role in the awareness of the sport in the developing rugby nations. It is very difficult for these teams to string consecutive victories together with such concentrated match schedules. This in turn, hinders the awareness of the sport in the psyche of the general public of these nations.
Rugby World Cup Investing for the Future
We have reached the Quarter Finals stage of the Rugby World Cup. The supposed rugby “minnows” have performed valiantly. The rugby public has witnessed this during the competition. There is so much potential in the second and third tier teams. The I.R.B. need to recognize this and invest appropriately in these regions. I do not envy the task of the I.R.B. who have worked very hard already to expand the development of the game globally, but more needs to be done. Rugby here in the U.S. has seen participation numbers grow by 51% over the past 18 months. It is the fastest growing team sport in this country. There is massive potential in North America.
Tonga’s surprise win over France means that unless Canada beat the All Blacks, Tonga finish Rugby World Cup Pool A in third place. This means Canada will not qualify automatically for the Rugby World Cup in 2015. Regardless of this, investment is warranted for both U.S.A. and Canada rugby.
The logistics of organizing the fixture list of a Rugby World Cup is undoubtedly a tough task. However, the fixtures need to be fair on all teams. Let’s hope that we see this in 2015…
Rugby World Cup article featured on Harpin on Rugby’s Sunday Sidebar on Facebook
More Rugby World Cup on LineoutCoach.com
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby U20s Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now based in California and taking rugby to the USA. He writes for RugbyMag.com and other publications when not coaching for Belmont Shore and blogging on lineoutcoach.com about the Rugby World Cup #busy