The Rugby World Cup brings with it anticipation and hype head of the first kick and this year it looks like the games are living up to their billing. Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson looks at the development of the big name teams being challenged by up-and-coming rugby sides.
By Howard Johnson
Hype can be a pain in the arse. We’re all guilty of it, of course – those of us who make our living from this sport we love. After all, we’re the lucky ones who get paid for endlessly debating the minutiae of rugby just like so many others do for free and for pleasure in pubs and bars the world over every time a game takes place. So there’s always a financial imperative for us to keep the chitter-chatter going. But even I have to admit to getting sick and tried of the huge, massive, monstrous build-up that inevitably precedes every Rugby World Cup. The endless conjecture, the interminable predictions, the never-ending jaw-jaw. It makes you want to put your hands over your ears like that poor bugger in Edvard Munch’s famous painting ‘The Scream’. Make it stop! Make it stop!
But for once I have to admit it. As far as I’m concerned this seventh edition of rugby’s biggest tournament has so far totally justified the hype. We’ve had passion, we’ve had drama, we’ve had excitement and we’ve had edge-of-the-seat, no-bloody-idea-which-way-this-is-gonna-go games. RWC 2011 been, let’s be honest, a revelation.
The previously-known World Cup truth that so often remained unspoken is this. For all the excitement they created you might as well have totally avoided the entire group stages of any tournament to date. With two teams qualifying from each pool and the gulf between the game’s elite and what we’ve dismissively called ‘The Rest’ so ridiculously vast, the idea that there were going to be any genuine shocks was frankly laughable. OK, there may have been the odd five minutes here and there where the thought ‘Maybe, just maybe’ flashed across your mind. As an England supporter I can still vividly remember our pool game against Samoa in Melbourne and a slight tightening of the buttocks with around about 20 minutes to go. But almost without exception the big dogs would then pull their socks up, get their heads down and put the minnows away comfortably. So far the 2011 edition has proved different.
It’s true that there hasn’t been a genuine upset in amongst the eight games played so far. But there’s no doubt that the sniff of one has been right there in the nostrils in – let’s count them – five of the matches to date. Japan gave the French the fright of their lives in Pool A before Les Bleus finally put John Kirwan’s valiant troops away. Scotland genuinely looked like they were going under against Romania. England huffed and puffed and choked before securing the slightest of advantages against Argentina. Ireland struggled for long periods against the USA. And Wales against South Africa? Well let’s just say that the Springboks will surely never again be so relieved to hear a final whistle as they were in Wellington after a truly thrilling, pulsating game. RWC11 seems to have proved so far that the axis of world rugby power is finally starting to creak and shift – and not before time!
Now I’m clearly not about to go overboard and start making any ridiculous claims. The big boys of world rugby are still the big boys of world rugby and in my view there’s about as much chance of one of the unfancied outfits making it to the quarters as me getting called up to the England squad as an injury replacement. But there is genuine evidence that the gap between the haves and the have nots is shortening.
We’ve known one thing for some time already. For rugby to sustain itself and to prosper it needs genuine competition amongst all of the 20 teams that compete at the World Cup. The casual observer is going to be put off – potentially permanently – if he sees one-sided game after one-sided game in the pool stages. Particularly if he’s been reading all of us hyping up the competition in advance of a ball being kicked.
This isn’t going to happen overnight. But there’s been a definite feeling about the place that for once the pool stages are not going to be a total phoney war, a mere unappetising starter that everyone will push aside dismissively before the main course finally arrives. There’s been some competitive, entertaining, hotly-contested rugby played that has amply rewarded those of us with the stomach for getting up at a hideous hour to catch the games up here in the northern hemisphere. The IRB has often talked about the need to support the lesser nations in their quest to become greater nations. For many years rugby’s ruling body has claimed to be actively supporting this development with both expertise and cash, but it was hard to tell as an outsider if the strategy was really working. Does this Rugby World Cup provide the first proof positive that we’re finally starting to see the benefits of the board’s strategy?
Of course there’s still time for all my optimism to be dashed. If a Georgia or a Russia or a Canada suffer an absolute hiding then we might have to admit we’re back at square one. But somehow I don’t think that will happen. The little leaguers are coming. Maybe not this time. Maybe not even in four years’ time. But eventually they’ll get there. And the Rugby World Cup will be an even more thrilling and fascinating event for it! And then we’ll really be able to debate their prospects endlessly!
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