Did you know that the discovery of Viagra was nothing more than dumb luck? Apparently so. Formulated and clinically tested back in the eighties to increase the blood flow to the heart, it instead pumped it straight to the underpants, a miserable turn of events for those with angina but rather better news for anyone who was a shareholder in Pfizer or a pole short of a tent. Put simply, it was a cock up in more ways than one.
Put more elegantly, of course, we’re talking serendipity, which would be strictly defined as ‘a fortuity or inadvertence precipitating a beneficial development which was neither premeditated nor anticipated.’ This is why dictionaries are the size of breeze blocks. Better, perhaps, to picture a Belgian tourist driving to see the sights of Swindon and running out of petrol in Oxford. There; you’ve got it exactly.
But why, I hear you ask, is any of this remotely relevant to the coming World Cup? The Greatest Rugby Show On Earth – surely – will be a Barbie-sized bonanza all by itself; the hottest teams in the world in a tournament that’s befuddling every bookmaker and, what’s more, being staged in a country with an état de l’art rail network and no fewer than two hundred and forty-six different cheeses. What need of unpremeditated fortuities?
To which the short answer would have been ‘none whatsoever’ until, of course, the tournament was seeded and sown three years before it kicked off, a decision which, given the va et vient of the international rugby cycle, has – ahem – not aged well. So, in case you’ve been living under a rock, this is what we’re kicking off with next month, world rankings correct as at time of writing.
Pool A: New Zealand (2), France (3), Italy (13), Uruguay (17), Namibia (21)
Pool B: South Africa (4), Ireland (1), Scotland (5), Tonga (15), Romania (19)
Pool C: Wales (10), Australia (8), Fiji (9), Georgia (11), Portugal (16)
Pool D: England (6), Japan (14), Argentina (7), Samoa (12), Chile (22)
There are several – lesser – anomalies to note here, not least Wales, Australia, Fiji and Georgia being drawn in the same pool at successive World Cups; indeed, Wales and Fiji have now been lumped together for five tournaments in a row, which prompts the question: ‘Does it still count as a holiday if, every year, you end up spending the same fortnight on the same caravan site in Frinton-on-Sea?’ I’m not sure. Ask Italy who’ve now been drawn with New Zealand seven times in ten World Cups or Namibia, three out of the last three as an All Black appetiser and still counting.
But, clearly, the elephant in the room – the one eating the curtains and pissing on the Persian rug like a fire hose — is the fact that we have the best five teams in the world not just in two pools but in the same half of the draw, which means that – hey, ho – three of Ireland, New Zealand, France, South Africa and Scotland have more chance of weaving a rainbow than they do of making the semi finals. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, we appear to have wound an albatross around our own neck.
Scotland where the draw has sentenced the fifth ranked team in the world to seven weeks’ hard labour in The Gulag Archipelago, this while the noisy neighbours from over the wall – world ranked six – are on a square-rigged schooner off the Maldives with a crate of pale ale and the Balinese Goddess of Plenty.
Not surprisingly, the critical reaction has been – how can we put this delicately – testy. World Rugby – sensibly, albeit gingerly – has conceded that the pools are perhaps ‘not as balanced as they could be’ but this isn’t buttering too many parsnips in, for example, Scotland where the draw has sentenced the fifth ranked team in the world to seven weeks’ hard labour in The Gulag Archipelago, this while the noisy neighbours from over the wall – world ranked six – are on a square-rigged schooner off the Maldives with a crate of pale ale and the Balinese Goddess of Plenty. Throw in the fact that these are the same buggers who forgot to back-date the poll tax rebate and, quite rightly, you’ve got the basis of a hefty, tartan grievance.
Luck of the draw? Well, it’s an argument but not one I’d care to share for overly long with (a) anyone wearing a kilt and carrying a claymore or (b) anyone else heading to the World Cup dressed in green. All in all, it’s a bit ticklish, so thank heavens for serendipity.
Where to start? Well, perhaps by unpacking all this a little and revisiting the draw based strictly – as many claim they’d have preferred – on today’s world rankings. That being the case we’d now be contemplating a tournament which’d look something like this:
Pool A: Ireland (1), Scotland (5), Fiji (9), Italy (13), Uruguay (17)
Pool B: New Zealand (2), England (6), Wales (10), Japan (14), Romania (19)
Pool C: France (3), Argentina (7), Georgia (11), Tonga (15), Namibia (21)
Pool D: South Africa (4), Australia (8), Samoa(12), Portugal (16), Chile (22)
Several obvious plus points here: Scotland are no longer left kissing a camel, Wales and Fiji have finally been surgically separated and both Italy and Namibia get a well-earned break from Beauden Barrett. And overall, this does have a more equitable look about it; what Montesquieu might refer to as a ‘Separation of Powers’, an eminently fair, manifestly square, no-quibble format that would ruthlessly preserve the integrity of the tournament …
… and bore the leggings off a village idiot.
With the flawed, lopsided, oops-a-daisy hymn-sheet we’re singing from right now, we actually end up with something serendipitously wonderful.
I’m sorry but where’s the jeopardy? Look, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Ireland, New Zealand, France, South Africa – are so significantly better than everyone else that, in this draw, they’d bulldoze the pool stages and drive a steamroller through the quarter finals, all of which means you’d be waiting for Death, Famine, War and Conquest to meet up in the final four before you finally had a game you’d be watching from behind the sofa. Granted, the last fortnight would be apocalyptic once you finally got there but that’s one hell of a lot of delayed gratification.
However, with the flawed, lopsided, oops-a-daisy hymn-sheet we’re singing from right now, we actually end up with something serendipitously wonderful. For a start, the tournament leaps out of the blocks on the ‘b’ of the bang; none of your Japan and Russia in the suburbs of Chofu – no disrespect to 2019 – but, instead, France versus New Zealand in the moonlight of Paris. Yes, of course, the black and the blue will both saunter to the knock-out stage so it ain’t exactly a match laden with menaces or consequences but are you seriously going to skip it and wallpaper the spare room for the evening? No, I thought not. It’s the kind of game that could ignite the entire tournament for the full seven weeks.
But if that’s too fluffy or inconsequential an offering on the opening weekend, you could always head to Marseille for South Africa against Scotland, or at least you could if it weren’t already sold out. It’s unusual, I grant you, for the knock-out stages of any competition to start 48 hours in but then this is the beauty of said serendipity because whoever comes second in this one will be in grave danger of being forced to shave their heads and leave town.
Suppose we end up with France/South Africa, Ireland/New Zealand, Argentina/Wales and England/Australia. Or, if you prefer, France/Ireland, South Africa/New Zealand, England/Wales and Argentina/Australia. Where exactly are you placing your bets on any one of those games?
Plus, we get the slugfest that is Pool C – Wales, Australia, Fiji and Georgia – a four-week long, bugger-me-not-you-again, bar-room brawl that’ll be swinging punches from Nice to Nantes. (If you’re following this particular circus on the ground, then pack yourself a slide rule, a cold compress and a wet towel.) And should one of these four teams find a muse to match the moment – Lord, if you’re listening, make it Fiji – the bottom half of the draw might just be even more eye-catching than the top.
The quarter finals? The cold sweats are starting already. Suppose we end up with France/South Africa, Ireland/New Zealand, Argentina/Wales and England/Australia. Or, if you prefer, France/Ireland, South Africa/New Zealand, England/Wales and Argentina/Australia. Where exactly are you placing your bets on any one of those games? It’s like being asked to choose between Will Jordan’s future or Christian Cullen’s legacy.
The semi finals, I grant you, may not be quite so nip and tuck but, then again, we could probably use a week lying down in a dark room to recuperate from the quarters. Mind you, England in 2019 proved that what appears to be inevitable in a semi final can sometimes turn out to be a little more ‘evitable’ than you might expect. You have been warned.
Who will win it? I don’t have the first clue and nor would I trust anyone who said they did, which is precisely what makes it all so wildly exhilarating.
Look, no one’s wilfully trying to paint lipstick on a turkey or spin the precipitancy of holding the draw for a tournament three years before it starts. Yes, there are incongruities, inequities and rough edges but, crucially, that’s what provides the sense of jeopardy that’ll leave all of us shovelling in the popcorn from start to finish. Or as the wonderfully, matter-of-fact James Lowe cheerfully put it in that wonderfully, matter-of-fact James Lowe way of his, you’ve got to beat the best somewhere along the line if you want to win it, so it might just as well be sooner rather than later.
Who will win it? I don’t have the first clue and nor would I trust anyone who said they did, which is precisely what makes it all so wildly exhilarating. But certainly no one should be requiring a stiff supply of Viagra to get the blood pumping over the next couple of months; unless, of course, you’re planning on supporting England.