Friday, September 09, 2011

Lifting in the Lineout - The Rugby World Cup Format is Wrong

One of the reasons that rugby has adapted so well to professionalism is its willingness to change its laws as the game evolves. And not only that, rugby is willing to try a law for a season and then change it back if it doesn’t work. The administrators are always willing to do what’s best for the game.

Which makes it all the more of a pity that they haven’t tweaked the format of the World Cup. A phony war will be conducted all through the group stages, leaving the stakes impossibly high come the knockout stages where the safety net is suddenly swept away.

There are three divisions in world rugby. In the first division, there are the super powers – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England and France. In the second division, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Argentina. In the third division, there’s everyone else.

Only a first division team can win the World Cup. A second division team can’t win it, but on their day they can stop someone else from winning it. The third division teams, God help them, are cannon fodder, and nothing else.

This means that forty group games will be played at the World Cup in order to reduce the top ten rugby playing nations to eight. That’s not the most efficient way of going about it.

In amateur days, it would be lovely for the USA to play New Zealand – they were all amateurs anyway and, even though the USA would still lose, there wasn’t the same air of businesslike formality about the All-Blacks running in try after try. There was still a place for magic and romance, no matter how thin a sliver.

But that’s all gone now as the professionals go about the expert dismemberment of the amateurs, and then have to trust all to eighty minutes of on-the-day inspiration from the quarters on. The pool games are too little while the playoffs are too much.

What’s the solution? There isn’t one, really. Perhaps the first ten teams in the world should play the World Cup as a league, each with one game against the other, and then some sort of semi-final and final to keep it interesting? It seems the fairest way.

The problem would be that the sheer physicality of modern rugby makes that impossible. Some players might manage the twelve game slate, but at a horrific cost to their health in later life.

And so we’re left with this strange shadow-boxing tournament for the first forty games of the World Cup and then the manic intensity of the final seven (let’s not count the third place play-off – nobody else does). But I suppose it’s the only World Cup we have and it’s better than nothing.

Of the five contenders, your Spailpín wouldn’t begrudge any of them, really. Australia isn’t even vaguely a rugby country but when it comes to the World Cup the Wallabies are unquestioned specialists.

New Zealand and South Africa are the greatest rugby cultures in the world (as would Wales be, if only it had the resources available to the other two) and An Spailpín has a lot of time for Martin Johnson’s heroic refusal to apologise for being English. Love him or hate him, the man’s got style.

And France. Always France. One of the greatest rugby nations, and the only one of the great traditional powers that was never part of the British Empire. That’s part of what makes them so different and so exciting.

But while it would be lovely to see France finally win a World Cup, the New Zealanders’ longing for the title, especially now on home soil, has become so acute that we are now in the peculiar situation of the favorites being the people’s champions too – to see New Zealand frustrated in every tournament is becoming cruel to everybody. (With the possible exception of the Australians, of course. Aussies are like that).

Ireland? Ireland should progress from their group, and then stand a fighting chance against South Africa (if things go according to seed), the Tri-Nations country against which the Irish have the best record. Not getting out of the group would be disappointing, but hardly novel. Losing the quarter-final would be par for the course.

But as the twilight quickly descends on the Golden Generation of O’Gara, O’Connell and O’Driscoll, it would be wonderful if they could win the quarter-final and claim one more page of history before night falls. Because when night does fall, it could last a long, long time.

Ka mate, ka mate...