Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Rugby World Cup Will Be a Crashing Bore

The Rugby World Cup is the Mona Lisa of rugby union. We all pretend to love it but deep down, we all know it’s not really worth the queue.

Former Wales, New Zealand and British Lions coach Graham Henry wrote a watery preview in the Observer on Sunday in which he posited that a team with ambitions to win the Rugby World Cup must have a world-class fly-half. Graham Henry’s own World Cup was won with a fourth-choice choice fly-half, a man so out of the reckoning that at the start of the tournament Stephen Donald was half-a-world away, fishing.

Dan Carter has been acclaimed as the best fly-half in world rugby for over a decade. And his godlike boots were filled by Mr Nobody? Maybe you could win a soccer world cup with some midfield dynamo from Sligo Rovers filling in for Leo Messi, but it’s very hard to imagine it.

The 2011 Final was a poor game, and a fitting conclusion for a poor tournament throughout. France should have beaten New Zealand in the final. The French themselves should have lost to 14-man Wales in the semi-final, and the Welsh should have carved up by Ireland, who had won their group for the first time in World Cup history.

That World Cup will live in infamy as the tournament that saw the debut of the choke tackle. Historically, tackling in rugby was about hitting someone hard and knocking him down. Les Kiss, defensive coach for Ireland, realised that a law change to help adjust to the professional era meant that, instead of having to knock players over, it is now much more to your advantage to hold them up instead.

The law of Unintended Consequences took over. Running into space is now a schoolboy error in modern rugby. When you have the ball you find the biggest clump of opposition players you can find and head right for them, knowing that your own team are right behind you to support you in the inevitable wrestling match that follows. And then you do that for eighty minutes and pretend you’re playing the same game as Serge Blanco and Barry John and Tony O’Reilly.

Rugby, to its credit, has been good at policing its laws. It’s considerably more aware than some other codes that laws have to be constantly policed, to ensure the game is still true to its original ethos and not twisted out of shape by devious and squirrelly coaches. Unfortunately, both the realisation that the choke tackle is killing the game and that there may be a drugs issue – imagine a sport where a sixteen stone man can pick up another sixteen stone man and hurl him about like he was an empty dustbin having a steroid issue! The idea! – have arisen too close to the World Cup for it to be saved.

This means that, not only will we get the pointless empty-rubber games of the group stages, where the ten nations that compete at the elite level use forty games to lose two of their number, but we’ll also get a whole lot of sterile rugby to achieve even that rudimentary level of crop-thinning.

Not only that, but the organisers have managed to make the most tremendous balls of the seedings, that sees only two nations emerge from England, Australia and Wales, while Scotland and Argentina have been handed Wonka-esque golden tickets to the playoffs. They’ll go the same way as Augustus Gloop once they get there, of course, but still. It’s hard not to feel sorry for whichever of the the Pool A seeds that draws the short straw and has to watch that destruction at home.

The World Cup will be won by the team that makes the least mistakes. England are the sensible bet, as they’re on a softer side of the draw if they win their group. Funnily enough, Ireland could go on a run if they can beat France and win their pool. That would have been a big “if” once, but France are in the doldrums like they haven’t been since before the Second World War.

A quarter-final against Argentina awaits the winner of Pool D, and the winner of that faces, theoretically, a semi-final against England. Neither England nor Twickenham would have any fears for the Irish (the way New Zealand might, for instance) and you can expect the hype to hit record levels should that matchup come off.

The hype will be forced, though. Rugby is played in Intel-esque clean rooms anymore, with all spontaneity or improvisation or joy strictly forbidden. Recycle, recycle, recycle, kick the penalty, recycle, recycle, recycle, kick the penalty. We’ll cheer if Ireland win, but we’ll have to pretend we like it.

Foot rushes, props lumbering towards the line with the Enemy hanging off them, Simon Geoghegan or Brian O’Driscoll flashing through the gap – all these are things of the past. Recycle, recycle, recycle, kick the penalty. Repeat ad nauseam. Fare well, glory. Hail to thee, assembly line. Let’s form an orderly queue, everybody. Greatness awaits.

FOCAL SCOIR: This is the 1,000th published post on this blog over 12 years. I don't post as often as I used to, real life having caught up with me, but still. It's a kind of an achievement, nonetheless.