IRB Chief: We had to make World Cup schedule fair
AFTER 28 years and seven tournaments of frustrating inequality, the 2015 rugby World Cup will be played on an almost level playing field after organisers came up with a schedule that gives the sport's lesser lights a fighting chance.
It had long been a running sore that the tier two nations have been forced to operate on minimal rest, whereas the game's aristocrats, already stronger, richer and better-prepared, were usually given a week or more to recover.
In New Zealand in 2011 the likes of Samoa, Canada, Namibia, Georgia and the United States often had only three or four days between matches. Japan were forced to play all four pool games in 17 days, reflecting the situation in most of the previous tournaments.
In 2011 after Samoa had only four days' rest before their 17-10 defeat by Wales, who had had a week, centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu famously described his country's treatment as "like slavery, like the holocaust, like apartheid".
While that was an extreme reaction, everyone involved in the game recognised the unfair nature of the schedule and the organisers have finally produced a fairer programme.
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"We just wanted to make sure there was no disparity in the rest-day balance between tier one and tier two nations," International Rugby Board chief executive Brett Gosper told Reuters.
"There is a minimum rest period of three days, five of those for tier two teams, and this is where the balance is this year, five for tier one.
"Everyone was clear and on board about it, including the tier one unions, who wanted it to happen. There was no dissent, it was just a matter of trying to get the balance, alongside the other factors such as TV. The schedule is always something of a Rubik's cube but that parity was one of the principles laid down from the start."
The IRB, while recognising the inequality of the schedules, have long argued that maximising income, which then enables them to bankroll the tier two nations, was more important than helping them out at the World Cup.
That meant the likes of England, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa would generally play only at weekends to maximise TV exposure while their lesser rivals would usually play at weekends and again in midweek.
With rugby being such a physically gruelling game, and with many of those nations short of depth in their squads, it meant that encouraging early performances that hinted at a possible tilt in the balance of power were soon replaced by one-sided wins.
"We saw in the last World Cup how competitive some of the tier two teams were in the early rounds, with small losing margins, but by the end when the recovery times had shortened they were getting well beaten," said Gosper.
"Nobody wants that, the game needs more competitive countries and we're hoping that this time they will be. They won't have that excuse this time anyway."
Although the schedule has, on paper, made things a little more equal, the tier one teams now facing short turnarounds have all got them ahead of their easier fixtures.
New Zealand open their defence against Argentina at Wembley on Sept. 20 and though they are duty against four days later at the Olympic stadium, their opponents are "Africa 1", likely to be Namibia, who leaked over 80 points to Wales and South Africa in the last tournament.
South Africa's short turnaround comes ahead of their game against "Americas 2", probably Canada.
Ian Ritchie, CEO of the Rugby Football Union (RFU), said England had been fully supportive of the fairer schedule.
"I think everyone was in agreement that what happened four years ago wasn't really right and that was reflected by us and most other stakeholders in the post-tournament review process," he said.
"I think Debbie Jevans and her team have done a great job in producing a schedule that gives fans all over the country the chance to see games and also gives every team a fairer turnaround."
England, who open the tournament against "Oceania 1", probably Fiji, at Twickenham on Sept. 18, have a week between all their games, including the blockbusters of the pool stage against Wales, on Sept. 28, and Australia, on Oct. 3.