Michael McCarthy: Minnows rise up as rugby's gap closes
Investment in second-tier nations bearing fruit at World Cup
Published 07/10/2015 | 02:30
It's hard to get my head around everything that's happened in the Rugby World Cup so far. For Ireland, the tournament only got going last Sunday, and we only really get going in Cardiff this weekend.
For seemingly everyone else though, it's been all drama so far.
Rugby, being a sport of huge gaps between the haves and have nots, generally produces pretty mundane group stages.
We tend to get one group where qualification is in the balance, and maybe another two where first place isn't decided in advance.
It's often a interminable four-week process to trim the fat who can't compete with game's elite anyway.
This year, though, it's been electric from the start.
The existence of a genuine Group of Death certainly hasn't done any harm. It's a shambolic system that put England, Wales and Australia in the same group but it's helped in the much needed front-loading of big games in the tournament.
And Japan's win over South Africa will go down as one of the greatest World Cup moments of all time. It's brilliance was that it was deserved. It wasn't a fluke.
It was the biggest example of something more systematic. There has been a real closing of the gap between the game's top tier and the minnows.
Georgia, USA, Romania, Canada, Fiji have also had great moments in the first three weeks.
At the time of writing, there have been six 40-plus point beatings in the tournament. In the 20-team format, the average per tournament is almost 13.
And even some of those beatings don't tell the whole story. Namibia were 75-point underdogs against New Zealand. The All Blacks never came anywhere close to that figure.
There's still a long way to go to make rugby an egalitarian utopia across the world, but World Rugby certainly deserve some credit for this recent trend.
Giving the World Cup to Japan forced the 2019 hosts to put the structures in place to make this turnaround possible. In 2011, they were beaten 83-7 by the All Blacks.
Likewise, investment in the Pacific and European 'Nations Cups' as well as direct help to 'Tier Two' nations has been nearly €70m in the last three years.
Centres of excellence, high performance units, and better coaching have all been the by-products.
It might not be quite an equal footing, but it's encouraging to see the gap closing, and a game often accused of being an elitist closed shop doing what it can to bring new nations into the fold.