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I like the lopsided nature of this Rugby World Cup

By Daniel Gallan
Siya Kolisi (captain) of the Springboks during the South African national rugby team arrival media conference at OR Tambo International Airport on November 05, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

It’s not often those with their hands on the levers of power pay heed to the baying rabble and their noisy quibbles. Especially in rugby, where new laws, alterations to the tackle height and the dissolution of beloved clubs point to a sport by times at odds with those who cherish and support it.

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But on this rare occasion, the cries of the people have been heard. Viva democracy!

Following on from the grouping of Ireland, South Africa and Scotland – the number one, four and five ranked teams in the world – in a single pool at this year’s Rugby World Cup, and that they’re on the same side of the draw as France and New Zealand – two and three according to the governing body’s metrics – World Rugby’s chiefs have decided to delay the draw for the next global showpiece event in Australia in 2027.

This decision has not been made in a vacuum. Two years ago, the prospect of only two of the above teams reaching the semi-final wouldn’t have necessarily been a disaster. In 2020 Wales and England were among the four top ranked teams. France and Ireland were works in progress. Scotland were still reeling from a group stage exit in Japan in 2019.

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But a lot has changed and two years is a long time in rugby. Paul Grayson, who lifted the famous golden chalice in 2003 with England, lambasted the lopsided nature of the draw in a column for the Mirror newspaper.

Grayson called out what he viewed as “a complete nonsense” and argued that it “does nothing for the sport’s credibility”. He continued: “Show me another sport that does it this way. Did Wimbledon make the draw for this year’s championships in 2020? Of course not. Last year’s football World Cup? Nope, that was just seven months before kick-off in Qatar.”

The two points Grayson makes have merit but here I’m going to disagree, respectfully, with a man who has an MBE and 32 Test caps.

Please believe me I’m not being contrarian just for the bants when I say I quite like how imbalanced the World Cup looks. Please be sure to remind me of this when the Springboks have to run through a gauntlet of Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and France just to reach the final, only to be beaten by an England team that’s cantered to the championship game in second gear. Maybe then I’ll eat my words, but for now, hear me out.

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One of my main bugbears of top male tennis over the last decade or so is how predictable it all is. Since 2008, when Novak Djokovic won his first grand slam, any fool who didn’t know his forehand from his forehead could confidently predict that one of the ‘Big Three’ would reach the final. The safe money was on two of them contesting the final. If we’re using tennis as an example of a sport that serves up unpredictable winners then we’re stretching the meaning of that term.

The comparison with Qatar and last year’s World Cup also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. FIFA could have announced the draw on the day of the first match and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the travel and accommodation plans for fans arriving in the tiny country.

It’s a little different in France. As any of you who’ve already started booking flights and hotels will know, France 2023 has already proved to be a logistical conundrum. That is not a criticism of the local organising team, the French rugby federation or World Rugby. It’s just a consequence of the size of France and the economic times we’re living in.

The tournament – rightly, for player welfare – is stretched across seven weeks. England fans will have to zig-zag from London to Marseille to Nice to Lille and then to Marseille and Paris if they reach the semi-finals.

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Advanced warning allows fans to make adequate preparations. Two years might be a long time in rugby but that time can pass very quickly when you’ve got a life beyond being a sports fan. Especially when you’re trying to save up for what promises to be a brilliant, but drawn out, party.

Besides, who doesn’t love a bit of the unexpected? Eddie Jones has a real shot of taking Australia to a final. Imagine that! Could Warren Gatland take advantage of a favourable draw and steer Wales, a casserole of a rugby team made up of green vegetables and old meat, to within 80 minutes of a first ever title? He might just. And what of the heavyweights over in pools A and B? If any of them emerge from that meat grinder and lift the trophy in the French capital they would have a strong claim to have conquered the toughest obstacle course in rugby. Would that make them the best ever champions in World Cup history?

Sport thrives on its narratives. We don’t need our tournaments to crown the objectively best team in the world. This is not a seasonal league table. The Springboks were far from the best team in Japan four years ago. They had a relatively easy run to victory in 2007. Only the most diehard fan would argue that they were a better rugby side than the All Blacks in 1995. Does any of that matter? Go ask a Springboks fan and you’ll get a resounding response.

This will be the last World Cup that throws up such an uneven affair. And though I expect most of you will be glad to read that sentence, I’ll miss this crooked structure for all its idiosyncrasies and quirks.

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4 Comments
C
Chris 461 days ago

That Springbok team of 1995 will always be the stuff of legend. The 2007 team went on to whitewash the AB’s in 2009 with Carter, McCaw and all those guys. The 2019 team showed a lot of heart again to beat a much fancied England team against all odds. Sour grapes much?

F
Flankly 461 days ago

"The Springboks were far from the best team".

There is no "best team", other than what the scoreboard says on the day. There are no points for artistic interpretation, or best hairstyle. You play the cards you're dealt, and you win or lose.

N
Nickers 462 days ago

It's not even possible to book flights, hotels, rental card, trains etc. .. more than 12 months in advance so this is not a strong argument.

15 months out from the first match would be the perfect time. Allows 3 months for fans to get organised before the ability to book everything actually opens up.

It's a travesty that 3 of the top 5 times will definitely not be in the semi finals. Under a system more like Wimbledon lower ranked teams would have the opportunity to progress through the tournament - by beating other teams. As it should be. As it is some very weak teams are going to be gifted QF and SF games, at the expense of the quality of rugby and enjoyment for the fans.

France putting 60 points on Wales in a semi final of a world cup when a team like Scotland who nearly beat them this year might not even get out of their pool does nothing for the credibility of the game.

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