Tony Ward: Rugby still struggling to touch Irish hearts and minds
Published 25/10/2011 | 05:00
When it was announced that New Zealand were to be awarded this World Cup back in November 2005, almost everybody knew it was the morally wrong decision. However, we also knew that the New Zealanders, as a rugby-loving people, would embrace the competition with every fibre of their being.
RWC 2011 should have gone to Japan. Instead, we have to wait another eight years, until the 2019 competition in the Land of the Rising Sun, for the spreading of the rugby gospel to begin in earnest.
Thirty-two years on from the inaugural event, the union code will finally be moving to exciting new territories.
Having toured Japan with Ireland in 2005, I can tell you the 'Brave Blossoms' would have been just as well prepared as New Zealand to host the 2011 World Cup -- if not better.
However, the Kiwis richly deserve their long-overdue triumph.
Much like Australia 2003 -- the best-run tournament so far -- New Zealand 2011 was what the organisers had promised it would be: "A stadium of four million people".
In a recent piece, I suggested we were at a disadvantage in terms of resources when measured against other leading nations, specifically New Zealand, South Africa and Wales. Statistically, I was taken to task by a concerned reader who pointed out that (according to IRB figures) "it is a claim amongst Irish rugby pundits not backed by evidence".
He said that whatever about South Africa (up there with England and France in the numbers game), Ireland has a similar number of registered senior players to New Zealand (circa 25,000) and more than Wales.
That may well be the case, but in terms of all-consuming passion -- which was central to the point I was trying to make -- there is no comparison between Ireland and either New Zealand or Wales.
What Gaelic games is to this country, rugby is to the Kiwis and Welsh. It is in their DNA, part of what they are, part of the national psyche. To understand it, you need to experience it.
The only comparison I can draw in this country is with Limerick, where it was my privilege for the best part of a decade to live the Treaty city's rugby passion. Rugby on Shannonside is the game of the people.
In Ireland, professionalism has brought a new fan base, but we still fail to come remotely close to Wales and New Zealand in terms of deep-rooted passion.
My roots are working-class Dublin, far removed from the D4 perception of rugby still perpetuated by sections of the media.
I am delighted at the game's increasing popularity here, but there is still a mighty long road ahead before we dare bracket ourselves alongside the Welsh or Kiwis.
For all the excitement engendered by the pool win over the Wallabies, I didn't see any visible World Cup hype in terms of the flags and bunting so associated with major soccer tournaments -- never mind inter-county or parish success in Gaelic football or hurling.
Rugby, for all its recent progress, is still not touching the hearts and minds of sporting folk everywhere in Ireland. In New Zealand and Wales it does, and has done since time immemorial.
It is not an excuse for underperformance -- which our quarter-final effort was -- but rugby remains our fourth-ranked field sport.
We need this context when assessing RWC 2011. England in 2015 will deliver financially, but the emotional impact on the hosts' population will be nowhere near the same. New Zealand as a nation made this a great World Cup, fittingly crowned by All Black success.
It had its faults, not least in terms of scheduling; structured as ever by the fat cats for the fat cats, of which we were unashamedly one. Apparently, we (the IRFU) like the rest of the new 'Quad' (including Argentina) and Six Nations are prepared to play midweek matches in 2015. How generous and sporting of us!
The general trend was for much heavier defeats and a widening in the gap between the 'haves and have-nots' as the unfair fixture schedule gradually took its toll. Many of the emerging nations performed well in the opening pool games. The case for a plate competition (to run parallel with the knockout phase of the main event) for those eliminated at the Pool stage is extremely strong and should be explored in greater detail ahead of England 2015.
Beyond New Zealand, it was the Welsh who left the greatest mark and yet for all the scintillating rugby they played, it is almost escaping notice that they lost three times.
The embarrassment of the tournament was undoubtedly England. So long as Chris Ashton continues that excruciatingly arrogant swallow dive without being checked, the longer they will remain the team everyone loves to hate and is desperate to beat.
Their behaviour in New Zealand would have been unacceptable in an amateur age. In this era, it simply defies logic.
As for Australia coach Robbie Deans' statement that "the Rugby World Cup must not shun the established hosts" -- it just leaves you breathless.
Seven finals so far, held in Auckland (twice), Johannesburg, Cardiff, Sydney, Paris and London (with another to come in Twickenham in four years' time) and the Wallabies' New Zealand-born coach is actually worried about "regularly taking it away from established rugby nations."
Sometimes you really do have to despair.
My team of the tournament
15 Israel Dagg (New Zealand)
14 Cory Jane (New Zealand)
13 Ma'a Nonu (New Zealand)
12 Jamie Roberts (Wales)
11 George North (Wales)
10 Dan Carter (New Zealand)
9 Mike Phillips (Wales)
1 Tony Woodcock (New Zealand)
2 Keven Mealamu (New Zealand)
3 Nicolas Mas (France)
4 Brad Thorn (New Zealand)
5 Luke Charteris (Wales)
6 Jerome Kaino (New Zealand)
7 Richie McCaw (New Zealand)
8 Imanol Harinordoquy (France)
Bismarck du Plessis (South Africa), Cian Healy (Ireland), Lionel Nallet (France), Sam Warburton (Wales), Dimitri Yachvili (France), Rhys Priestland (Wales), Aurelien Rougerie (France).
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