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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.