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FEATURE Plates, Bowls and Shields

Plates, Bowls and Shields
8 months ago

And then there were 12. Well, effectively, 11, given Australia are now the spare willy at the wedding. In a tournament of ignominies, the final insult for the Wobblies is being forced to twiddle their thumbs for seven days to see whether Fiji can eke out a losing-bonus point against Portugal, although given how skint the Islanders looked against a feisty, frisky Georgia, that’s by no means a given. Still, look on the bright side. At least we get another week of Show Trials and blood-letting in the Sydney Morning Herald, so drag up a chair and get out your knitting.  

But in terms of snagging ‘Bill’, we seem to be down to one of France, Italy, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, Scotland, Wales, Fiji, England, Argentina and Japan with – notionally – some kind of shoot-out in each of this weekend’s pool stages. But, seriously; Italy sticking it to France? Portugal scuppering Fiji or Japan overturning Argentina? Japan very, very possibly but, otherwise, we’re seriously stretching the elastic.  

Which just leaves Ireland and Scotland in Paris where the Irish are 1/5 with the turf accountants and the Scots 5/1. And that’s just to win the game. It takes no account of Scotland needing to be four match points clear to flop into the quarter finals; indeed, Ireland right now are 3/1 to lift the trophy while Scotland are 100/1, which screams volumes. Put it this way, when did you last see a bookmaker living in a cardboard box? 

So in the quarter finals – barring miracles, marvels, startling improbabilities or a tartan turn-up – we appear to be looking at France vs South Africa, Ireland vs New Zealand, Wales vs Argentina and England vs Fiji. The bottom two games – on current form – look like no-brainers. Wales seem far too efficient for an – oddly – disjointed Argentina and England’s defence against Fiji in Marseille in October will be unrecognisable from England’s defence against Fiji in Twickenham in August. Mind you, it’ll need to be.

Australia need to hang on for another week, just in case Fiji fluff their lines (Photo by Craig Mercer/Getty Images)

The Paris quarter finals could have almost tectonic implications. Certainly, you fear for the pitch since when elephants fight, it’s the grass which gets hurt. You also suspect that – privately – France and South Africa would’ve chosen to avoid each other while Ireland and New Zealand have both got the quarter final they’d have preferred. The wheels within the wheels are intriguing. 

France and South Africa? A nuclear exchange. There will be no winner just a survivor, which could well be England’s best hope if they meet whoever’s still standing in the semi-finals: shades of 2007. Ireland and New Zealand? In fairness, no one’s gotten rich betting against either side in the past year or so but do you sense Ireland have the hex here? You do? Me too.

Pablo Lemoine, bemoaned his side’s lack of exposure to Tier One teams in the last four years but that’s a broad spectrum given New Zealand stuck 90 on Italy.

But as the ‘A’-listers, the notables and the luminaries head towards the City of Lights and the playhouses of Paris, the walk-ons, the spear-carriers and the scene-stealers melt back into seaside repertory and a winter season in Scarborough. Namibia, Tonga, Romania, Georgia, Portugal, Samoa, Chile and Uruguay have all been artful and able to varying degrees and yet for all their verve and vitality – ‘were you not entertained?’ – watching them was, at times, conflicting. 

In their first three games in Pool ‘B’, for example, Romania scored eight points and conceded 242. Yes, they’ve got to swap shirts with Eben Etzebeth and Bundee Aki in front of packed houses in Bordeaux and Lille but when you, effectively, end up playing the body in Agatha Christie’s library, it’s hard to see how this is helping your artistic development. ‘Spirited’? ‘Gutsy’? Perhaps even – God preserve us – ‘plucky’? Spare me. Each is little more than condescension dressed as a compliment. 

It’s a tough one, isn’t it? Chile’s Head Coach, Pablo Lemoine, bemoaned his side’s lack of exposure to Tier One teams in the last four years but that’s a broad spectrum given New Zealand stuck 90 on Italy. Put it this way, I’m sure Pablo has a point but he’s going to need to be more specific. 

Nicolas Martins, Portugal
Portugal have set pulses racing with their devil may care attitude and won many friends in France (Photo by Julian Finney – /Getty Images)

Samoa, too, came into the 2023 World Cup having played just eleven Test matches since the 2019 World Cup – no fault of their own but not exactly a sure-fire recipe for togetherness or competitiveness – while Namibia, a team that’s largely semi-professional, were in the same pool as France and New Zealand and – surprise, surprise – twice had their derrières handed to them on a plate.

Look, work is clearly in hand. World Rugby has its boots on the ground across the oval globe running a multi-million dollar high-performance programme designed to ‘level the playing field’ and narrow the gap. Investment has gone – is going – into legal, medical and insurance funding, franchise programmes, sports science and coaching consultants; Victor Matfield, for example, is with Portugal; Craig White is with Chile. Watch the likes of those two teams and tell me they’re not progressing.

What we could certainly use here is a Plate, a Bowl and a Shield. It’d add colourful layers to the cake and ensure every storyline in the tournament gets to reach some kind of fitting denouement.

But there are no Fairy Godmothers here. What’s required – in the broadest terms – is yet more funding and high-performance strategies; a transparent, competitive playing structure that rewards results and, most importantly of all, a willingness from the Tier One teams to reach down and offer a helping hand up the ladder to Tier Two. We could perhaps start with inviting Fiji and Japan into an expanded Rugby Championship. It worked wonders for Argentina.

And in terms of the World Cup? Is the mooted 24 teams a smart idea, the more so in the current format? Frankly, 20 feels like plenty. But what we could certainly use here is a Plate, a Bowl and a Shield, specifically three knock-out competitions running parallel to the last eight of the Cup. It’d add colourful layers to the cake; what’s more, it’d raise a bucket more revenue and ensure every storyline in the tournament gets to reach some kind of fitting denouement.

It’s a simple enough process and, obviously, a straight steal from Sevens. So at the end of the pool stages, there’d be a play-off between the third placed teams in each pool (The Plate), the fourth-placed teams (The Bowl) and the fifth-placed teams (the Shield); effectively, six semi-finals scheduled around the Cup quarter final weekend and three finals around the Cup semi final weekend leaving the Cup Final – where it deserves to be – in splendid isolation. 

New Zealand v Ireland
New Zealand and Ireland are expected to duke it out in Paris but is there any way of keeping the interest of emerging nations later in the tournament? (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

So, for example on current standings, you might have Plate semi-finals between Italy/Scotland and Australia/Japan; Bowl semi finals between, say, Uruguay/Tonga and Georgia/Samoa and – and this is where I’m licking my lips – Shield semi finals between Namibia/Romania and Portugal/Chile, all with finals to follow; Scotland/Australia? Uruguay/Georgia? Namibia/Portugal? Whoever it is, bring it all on.  

Look, for the smaller teams it’s a maximum of just two extra games, both of which, you’d imagine, they’d relish; it adds to the intrigue of the competition and more than that, it gives everyone in the tournament – and I mean everyone – a realistic shot at walking away with some tin. To me, it’s a no-brainer. Next time, maybe? Let’s do it.


chris 256 days ago

Only concern would be how to generate the interest for a Portugal /Namibia game at the next tournament. Australia are not exactly enamoured with Union today - playing such a game with no crowd would feel demoralising. France has been colourful and vibrant - I worry Oz will be less enthusiastic

mjp89 257 days ago

It's a fine idea, and the Bowl winner could be rewarded with the prize of automatic qualification to the next RWC. But what do the Shield and Plate winners get besides a Mickey Mouse trophy?

Drew 257 days ago

A fantastic idea

Twistie4108 257 days ago

I think its a good idea as well have a financial incentive (more money for players and club,youth development) and automatic or easier qualification for next world cup depending on what you win.

Celyn 257 days ago

Great! You could play plate/bowl etc in other cities/towns that have not been used predominately for world cup games, for example play some games in Bayonne, or even Strasbourg, near neighbouring countries to try and attract more fans (Spain/Germany).

BigUgly 258 days ago

What is there not to like about it? it's a win-win for everybody, you would have to be stupid not to.

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