Sport Rugby

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Bringing it all back home may backfire on mercurial hosts

Another dramatic World Cup exit for New Zealand might be the only way this tournament will be memorable, writes Eddie Butler

The Rugby World Cup has completed a full turn and is set to begin its second cycle. After three tournaments in the southern hemisphere and three in the northern, we are back where we started in 1987, in New Zealand.

A World Cup in New Zealand was never going to generate the kind of money that the International Rugby Board had learned to love, but vast profit long ago ceased to be a realistic goal anywhere. And there is no better place to rediscover the worth of some indefinable essence of sport ahead of more tangible reward than New Zealand. Or so they might say in the setting for Lord of the Rings.

It was here that the World Cup adventure was launched in 1987 and it is here that it will find a beautiful refuge from the ills of the world.

If only. There is another New Zealand, chippy and prickly and ever ready to give the establishment a good poke. This is the New Zealand that launched the Rugby World Cup in the first place and which may well resurface in the course of the next two months.

Back in 1985 things were very different. There were eight members of the IRB, and Ireland and Scotland were resolutely resistant to any change to the ways of amateur rugby. England and Wales, it was taken for granted, felt the same way. That gave the old guard a fighting chance to resist the other half of the rugby world, comprising Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and France, where sedition was afoot.

Now, the early-to-mid 1980s were still a decade away from the television deregulation that would allow Rupert Murdoch's Sky (the southern version) to rewrite the way rugby was played in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. The Super 10 competition, launched in 1993, would pave the way for open professionalism.

But in the 80s the rattle of coin could already be heard, financial stirrings that threatened amateurism. South Africa, unable to play but still a voting member of the IRB, had threatened to launch an internal professional circus in 1982, in the wake of their disastrous "flour-bomb" tour to New Zealand in 1981. The Springboks had walked into and played under a hail of protest.

Furthermore, an Australian called David Lord sent emissaries to Britain -- I remember the meetings well -- to rally players for a pro circuit in 1983. Nothing came of these but something had to be done to quell the obvious restlessness. In 1984 France proposed a Rugby World Cup, and in 1985 the IRB commissioned Australia and New Zealand to conduct a feasibility study.

There was still a vote to be taken and for the World Cup to happen somebody on the resolutely amateur side had to shift. South Africa were not counted among that number. Danie Craven, the Richelieu of Stellenbosch, had seen the possibility of the tournament coming South Africa's way once they were reintegrated into international competition, and was on the side of NZ and Australia. His vision was rewarded in 1995.

France, too, voted in favour, through their very own cardinal of rugby, Albert Ferrasse, who died in July this year. It was, after all, their idea in the first place and the only thing Albert of Agen wanted -- and got -- was the inclusion of countries from the second tier, la Federation Internationale de Rugby Amateur, of which Ferrasse was M le president.

France hosted the meeting at which the vote would be taken, at their SNCF railway headquarters, 34 Rue du Commandant Mouchotte in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. But before they met for formal business, the board members were taken by TGV to lunch on the banks of the Rhone. What a touch of class. By the time of the vote, England and Wales were all for World Cup rugby.

The inaugural competition was by invitation only. Remarkably, Samoa (Western Samoa as they were then) did not receive one. Russia, who will be playing in NZ the second time round, did receive an invitation, but turned it down because they objected to the ongoing presence of South Africa on the IRB board. What a principled stance by the ancien Soviet regime. South Africa voted but did not play. Instead, they invited the New Zealand Cavaliers to tour in 1986, a nakedly commercial mission that rekindled all the IRB's uneasiness. Not only were the Cavaliers sanction-busting and contravening the laws of rugby by taking payment, they were also engaged in one of the most violent series of all time. The image of the game took a hammering before the new showpiece.

The New Zealand tourists were banned for two months and while they were absent, their replacements, dubbed the 'Baby Blacks', beat France at Lancaster Park, Christchurch. The ban served, New Zealand then toured France in the autumn of 1986 and played the second Test -- they won the first 19-7 in Toulouse -- in Nantes. This second Test made anything in South Africa look like shadow boxing. France assaulted the All Blacks by all known means of unarmed combat. The No 8, Wayne 'Buck' Shelford, not the softest mortal on the planet, had his scrotum torn open and lost several teeth. I don't think he noticed the missing gnashers. France won 16-3.

New Zealand's response was to rebuild for the World Cup. In doing so, they over-engineered themselves and became one of the greatest teams of all time. Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, Grant Fox, Shelford and John Kirwan were just five of the side that swept all before them, even France, whom they beat 29-9 in the final. And of that group, Jones rose highest, the God-fearing wing forward who would not play on Sundays, but who made up for it on all other days, combining the work of all positions, bar the front row, into his set of skills.

Jones and his team set the World Cup bar almost impossibly high. It was hardly their fault that they became an act that could scarcely be followed, but at some point of the knock-out stages -- twice to France, twice to Australia and once, in the 1995 final, to South Africa -- ever since then the All Blacks have contrived to lose.

They have never exited with a whimper, bar perhaps the 1991 defeat of a superannuated outfit by the eventual winners, Australia. Every other defeat was an occasion of scarcely credible drama. From a forward pass by France in Cardiff in 2007, unseen by the referee Wayne Barnes, to allegations of food poisoning by an unseen kitchen hand in Johannesburg in 1995, New Zealand have been robbed by cruel and painful misfortune.

And since they are perennially the world's most accomplished team and sometimes cannot help but remind everyone of this, each defeat has been accompanied by total disbelief at home and a slight snigger everywhere else. If the World Cup is to underline sport's ability to entertain and surprise ahead of its potential to make a buck or three, New Zealand may have to lose again. They start as favourites again and they must be the victims of an ambush if this World Cup is to be memorable.

It is hard to be cruel on New Zealand, but since this is how they have always played the game and this is precisely how they worked things so that they could have two World Cups in their own back yard, perhaps we should go easy on the pity. Perhaps we should remember that it is the most glorious country on earth and the most welcoming, until the whistle blows to start a game of rugby. And my, are we about to hear some whistles.

Observer

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