The 2007 Rugby World Cup media coverage is going through its usual bout of hand-wringing over the “minnow” teams. There are basically only two camps – those who think these lesser teams shouldn’t be at a World Cup at all, and those who think they should.
The “kick ‘em out” crowd argue that tests involving minnow teams against the big boys, where the likes of the Springboks pile on 100+ points are (ahem) “pointless”, and lessen the credibility of the World Cup. They say the games have nothing of the true test-match about them for the rugby purist, and benefit neither the team being hammered, nor the team doing the hammering.
The “bring ‘em in” brigade insist that including these teams at the World Cup fosters the game as a world-wide sport, and adds colour and variety to the event. They argue that most spectators enjoy and enter into the spirit of these test matches, and are not rugby purists. They add that the matches do benefit the minnow teams, giving them a taste of the top-flight version of the sport, and enabling them to promote it back in their home countries.
Watching events unfold in France over the past few weeks, there is a strong argument that inclusion is definitely better than exclusion. Across the board the minnows have been challenging the more established teams, if not for the full 80 minutes, for a good part of it before amateur legs grow tired in the face of the physical onslaught of a professionally trained foe. From that first upset where Argentina set the tone by earning themselves a French scalp, we have seen Tonga frightening mighty South Africa to lose only 25-30, Georgia pushing the Irish to lose by 10-14, and Romania going down 24-18 against Italy.
Those were the close score-lines, but they don’t tell the full stories of how some minnow teams managed to find a way to put together a single great move against a top nation, or how they managed to snuff out one ferocious attack. These moments are absolutely epic for the minnow players involved in the heat of the action, but they tend to be mostly ignored by high-flying rugby pundits and journalists, plying their trade from some lofty media eyrie.
Excluding these teams will simply act to reinforce the status-quo, and maintain the traditional power bases of rugby. The gain-sayers argue that a World Cup is no place to “educate” minnow nations in the arts of the sport, and that it should be simply the pinnacle tournament – a joust to the bitter end by the best of the best, with every test match a true test in the traditional mold.
I’m sorry, but this is simply head-in-the-sand thinking. The reality is, rugby world-wide is very much a minority sport, and if that approach were taken to its logical extreme the IRB would only invite six countries along. Let’s take a close look at world-wide rugby. The rugby officialdom often talk in terms of “tiers” of rugby nations. You have your tier 1 group, which are nominally these ten: New Zealand, Australia, England, South Africa, France, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Argentina, and Italy. The tier 2 nations are nominally these: Canada, Fiji, Japan, Romania, Samoa, Tonga, United States. The rest (approx 80 countries) are lumped into tier 3.
Cutting to the chase, the argument is generally one of “should there be 16 or should there be 20 teams” for the Rugby World Cup. The current 20-team format has 4 pools of 5, instead of 4 pools of 4.
Clearly, with a 16-team rugby world cup the chances are that no team from tier 3 would ever get to the tournament, since there are 17 teams in tiers 1 & 2. This would be bad from a world rugby perspective, since all the tier 3 nations would see that there were, realistically, no slots at the World Cup for them, and would therefore have less motivation available for their amateur players to put in the hard yards of training and practice for qualification.
It’s one of those chicken or the egg problems. If the Rugby World Cup itself makes a significantly positive difference in bringing tier 3 nations along, then inclusion will only increase the standard, and it will foster the game world-wide. If, on the other hand, it has no effect either technically, or in promoting the game in those countries, then it is indeed a waste of time.
I do believe that this tournament has answered the above questions for anyone who can interpret all of the close results, and passionate play from the minnow teams thus far. And for those who can read the faces of the Portugese players in their recent 108-13 “hammering” by the All Blacks in Lyon.
True the 108-13 result, at face value, is a valueless exercise, and not worthy of the title “test match”. But if you believe what the Portugese were saying, that single game will sustain the whole of Portugese rugby for the next four years, and act as a spur to greater things for them.
The try Os Lobos scored against the team they idolise was worth much more than the 7-points it put onto the scoreboard. They now know they can dare to run out onto the field against the very best in the World and dare to score tries against them. Back down at their current level of development, that knowledge is pure gold, and they could only have acquired it at a World Cup.
So I’m definitely in favour of including the so-called minnow nations at the World Cup, and would love to see them involved in the latter stages of the event as well, rather than being shipped off home after the pool-play phase.
Various options for changing the World Cup format have been mooted, but my preferred option would be to keep the current pool format, which still allows minnows to play the big guns, and add in a Plate competition in the playoff stages to run alongside the main Rugby World Cup itself.
This would follow the format of the Sevens Series, where the non-qualified teams go on to contest a separate knockout competition for the Rugby World Plate. As well as giving them more rugby, it would fill out an otherwise fairly empty and flat part of the tournament, which suffers from a drastic thinning out of teams as the quarter-finals, semi and final are played. So instead of empty weeks, waiting for teams to recover for the next stage, we could interleave the mid-week Plate playoffs. This scheme would also have the effect of generating more incentive in the pools, since the 3rd and 4th placings become significant.
Whether this kind of option is even a possibility for the 2011 Rugby World Cup being held here in New Zealand is an interesting point, as such a change in format would require quite a lot of extra planning for venues and logistics.
But whether or not that step is taken , I hope that the IRB doesn’t listen to the calls for the tournament to be reduced back to 16 teams.
The only way to spread the gospel of rugby to the World, is to encourage as many players as possible out there to play it.
Providing them with an achievable goal of playing the likes of the All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup is a powerful way of doing just that.