Rugby as a global sport has failed

Rugby has failed because it has not broadened its appeal beyond its roots. And that’s a pity. But it is hard to look at the current Rugby World Cup and not wonder where the sport is going. It is heartening to see Argentina and Fiji make it through to the quarter finals, but since the first world cup in 1987, the sport has not broadened its base sufficiently. The early round results are still as embarrassingly one-sided as ever before. Except now, the southern hemisphere teams are also thrashing the home countries as well as the minnows (witness South Africa 36 – England 0). It seems to me that any sport which is dominated by a handful of countries in such a dramatic way, shows no signs of becoming truely global. To see evidence of this, lets compare the top four finishers of every world cup since 1987 to the football world cups since 1990:

Rugby World Cup 1987 to 2003, in order of finish, 1st to 4th
1987: New Zealand, France, Wales, Australia
1991: Australia, England, New Zealand, Scotland
1995: South Africa, New Zealand, France, England
1999: Australia, France, South Africa, New Zealand
2003: England, Australia, New Zealand, France

In other words, a total of seven countries have ever made it to a semi-final at all. New Zealand are the undisputed Kings of Rugby, the famous All Blacks, the Brazil of rugby. Yet they are a country of four million people. Oddly enough, New Zealand have only won it once, which is surprising. That has at least made the result far from inevitable each time. But the overall argument is still valid – that it is being contested between a very small group of countries. Contrast that with the soccer world cup over the last 5 tournaments:

1990: West Germany, Argentina, Italy, England
1994: Brazil, Italy, Sweden, Bulgaria
1998: France, Brazil, Croatia, Netherlands
2002: Brazil, Germany, Turkey, Korea Republic
2006: Italy, France, Germany, Portugal

13 different countries this time, almost twice as many.

Right now, there seems to be a group of three uncontested elites in rugby – South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand – followed by the “second tier” of France, Argentina, and maybe England. But the third tier is growing fast, with Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Italy definitely there, with Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga making it because of their current success. And then there’s the rest: countries like Portugal, Canada, Japan, Romania and the USA. These last set of countries are being thoroughly out-played and out-classed here. And I am not advocating that they don’t deserve to be at the world cup, quite the opposite. I am advocating that they be made better, over time.

What is needed are more countries playing higher-level rugby; a more competitive and balanced world cup; and an active promotion of the game for the good of all weaker countries rather than to suit the elite.

Proposals:

  1. We need one more powerful rugby team to join the elite, to freshen it up. Firstly, promote Argentina to the hilt. Let them enter the six nations tournament, or the tri-nations event. Use them as a springboard for rugby in South America.
  2. The “home countries” of the traditional Five Nations (Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, and France) are all capable of becoming part of that elite, under the right conditions. After all, New Zealand has a population almost exactly the same as Ireland’s. They all share the traditions and love for rugby, and both England and France have managed to reach a World Cup final at least once and England have won it too. They need to raise their game to match the current elites head to head.
  3. We need the Island nations (Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga) to be given a better chance. Financially, the richer countries need to dip their hands in their pockets to allow them to compete internationally more often. And they need structures in place to give their players international exposure. It might make them credible second-tier countries over a longer time period.
  4. Give Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga back all the players now playing for the All Blacks. Ban players from those countries from ever playing for New Zealand or Australia ever again, but do make it easy for them to continue to make a living from rugby in those countries.
  5. Scrap national club rugby in Europe and concentrate instead on an expanded European league. Promote players from outside the traditional powers – such as Portugal, Romania, and Spain – to be able to build up their experience. 
  6. Make the next Rugby World Cup only available on terrestial TV. The current situation, where casual fans miss most of the games, does nothing to promote the game for young kids.
  7. The next World Cup needs to be restructured to a different format. Too many meaningless games were happening in this one. I propose: Start with 8 groups of 3 teams playing two games each, to produce three tiers of teams: First, Second, Third. These then play knock-out games to a finish in their respective tiers. This way, all teams get at least one more game, against another opponent in their respective tiers, but all games become more balanced and competitive earlier in the competition. At the end, you’d have a winner of the first tier (world champions), a second-tier winner, and so on down. Lots of rugby, but more games between equal opponents too.

I think if something like the above were to happen, then rugby could have a larger pool of elite countries and a much bigger pool of second-tier countries. Rugby could be more entertaining to watch and would attract more players. All it needs is some imagination and some selfless behaviour from the top-tier countries to make it happen.

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11 Comments

  1. October 5, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    Regarding point 2, France have never won a World Cup, not in Rugby anyway.
    I agree the rugby has been mostly disappointing so far, but there have been some great games so far from teams not expected to produce much on this arena. (Japan v Fiji for example had to be the most exciting finish to a game in the tournament…)
    I can see the advantage of a tiered system but I don’t think it should go beyond two tiers.
    Maybe 4 teams in round 1 playing three matches and then the top two go through to a knockout for the main trophy, and the bottom two play for a shield. (Rowing has something similar, where they have a Class B final.) This would require either 16 or 32 teams though, to make the numbers work.
    This way, everyone still plays a minimum of 4 games, but the Class B teams will have a real chance at progressing towards some silver ware.
    Any more than two tiers would dilute the fun and excitement of surprise results. The success of each tournament is judged by the turn out of spectators and I doubt you would get full stadiums to watch a tier 3 match. Neutrals in the crowd naturally tend to support the underdog, but if both teams are underdogs, well, no one turns up.

  2. shazgood said,

    October 5, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    I corrected my report – of course, France never won a World Cup in Rugby! Yet…
    As for tiers, I take your point about spectators and turnout. But if Japan vs. Fiji was an exciting game, surely it was because it was an evenly-matched game and between two teams prepared to put skill ahead of a grind. They’d both be in a lower tier. But I’d rather watch Portugal vs. USA in a competitive game, where you don’t know who’s going to win, than see New Zealand run 100 points past some minnow.
    Soccer is different: even weak teams can put up a strong showing and hope for a draw against a good team. But in rugby, the good teams just totally outclass the weaker teams.

  3. Billy The Kid said,

    October 7, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Well the great thing about sport is that it shows in this case that your talking total bollox!

    England beat Austrailia
    France beat New Zealand

    Rugby is no where nearly as popular as many othe r sports and of course it is not global in the way soccer is but it is an unfair and extreme example, given that soccer is the most popular game on the planet.

    Compare say American football and see how dull that is as an international thing.

    Fact is that it is International enough for the boys in blue to have so much National Pride as to beat a team that on paper is far better. passion and heart/guts sometimes do win out.

    The event is one of the most exciting you could imagine thanks to the English and the French. NO THANKS TO THE Pathetic IRISH – which BTW is my own tribe.

    VIVE LA FRANCE!

    vive la anglais

  4. shazgood said,

    October 8, 2007 at 12:30 am

    Okay, the weekend results show that….I was talking total bollox. Ahem. The only way to explain it is that France have a voodoo over New Zealand and England have one over the Aussies. How else can you explain their wins, which btw were both very much deserved. I am so glad I am not a betting man!

    But the Fijians were fantastic too, and the Argies are a continuing story of triumph over the odds. This world cup suddenly exloded out of the gates and not too soon too.

  5. Billy The Kid said,

    October 8, 2007 at 4:10 am

    National Pride ???

    Heart

    And that certain ……. end with a q

  6. Billy The Kid said,

    October 8, 2007 at 4:13 am

    Every Expert gotit totally wrong too so it be hard to find anyone who was not talking bollox on Friday

    Amusingly Ron Atkinson told G Hook he thought there could be some surprises at the weekend in the rugby – and he was on the show to talk about the premiership!

    I am just raging I didnt not put a few quid on France

  7. shazgood said,

    October 8, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    From today’s Irish Independent:
    http://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/rugby-world-cup-2007/comment/arrogant-antipodeans-have-had–this-coming-1117364.html

    “And they were at it again in the build-up to Saturday’s clash. First we had ARU chief John O’Neill’s ridiculous rant that they “all hate England” before players Lote Tuqiri (who should be playing for Fiji anyway) and Hugh McMenamin compounded O’Neill’s stupidity by further dismissing ‘the Pommies’.

    New Zealanders, in general, are a decent bunch but, when it comes to rugby, can be insufferably arrogant.

    Then there is their administrators. The horse-trading that went on (in which the Irish were culpable) before the 2011 RWC was awarded to New Zealand instead of Japan was shameful.

    We’ve had Aaron Mauger say Argentina should not be allowed into the Tri Nations and the Pacific Islanders are constantly thwarted in their attempts to join that competition and the Super 14.

    Why? Because they are rich source of talent (almost a third of the All Blacks squad were eligible for Tonga, Samoa or Fiji). True, many grew up in New Zealand but, if the island nations were afforded proper status, chances are the likes Joe Rocokoko, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Rodney So’oialo would play for their countries of origin.

    So, back in your box boys. It has been a depressing few weeks for Irish rugby but Saturday cheered us up enormously. “

  8. October 22, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    I think rugby is becoming more popular within the countrys its popular in. I know it is in England anyways. People are watching it now as much as they are football. Well maybe not that much!

  9. dazza said,

    October 28, 2008 at 12:43 am

    c’mon mate stop talking crap ! i’d rather watch the allblacks thrash portugal by 60 points than england and spain run up and down the paddock for 2 bloody hours! only to get a nil all draw geezzze mate snorring boring ! go back to sleep jacko !

  10. dazza said,

    October 28, 2008 at 12:46 am

    just because more people in the world like to watch paint dry does’nt mean its exciting ! the most exciting thing about soccer is watching the fans pummel each other . .i dont blame them ! borringgggggggg !

  11. Frederick said,

    May 6, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    You guys are so lucky to be living in a country where rugby is big. The TV stations in my hometown do not even carry rugby-related programmes, not even the RWC or the Six Nations. I bet, here in my country, there are more people who know about that town in England than there are people who do its athletic namesake.

    You proposals sound very to the point, and exhilarating also. Argentina and the Pacific islands definitely have potential, if more conducive things are done. I hope someone who runs the scene will get hold of this. In the Northern Hemisphere, rugby has been primarily a European sport so far. It can be much more.


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