Wednesday 13 November 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Bullet train now a slow chugger after utterly predictable storm'

Little can be done to halt natural disasters but World Rugby's are all man-made

Workers prepare for Typhoon Hagibis in Yokohama next to a sign informing people that England’s World Cup clash against France had been cancelled. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Workers prepare for Typhoon Hagibis in Yokohama next to a sign informing people that England’s World Cup clash against France had been cancelled. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

We understand readily if you were checking weather updates last week. In France. If not, we've done them for you. Choosing Wednesday as a handy stopping point in Paris it was 16 degrees and showery. Marseille (19 and sunny) Lyon (18 and sunny), Lille (13 and sunny). We didn't bother with Bordeaux, Saint Etienne, Nice, Nantes and Toulouse. But we're fairly sure none were hunkering down in expectation of a typhoon. And neither had any of them been wrapped in a wet blanket of humidity over the last few weeks.

By now you'll have remembered that France is the host country for the next World Cup. Yes, such is our capacity to abuse the planet that half of Europe might be under water by then, or the air quality might be so bad that you can't venture outside without an oxygen tank on your back, but we live in hope. Maybe common sense will have won out by then and the grand rehabilitation programme of mother nature will be well underway. As will RWC France 2023.

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You may remember that common sense was something of a theme when World Rugby announced in 2017 that Ireland and South Africa were poor runners-up to France as potential hosts for that tournament. As in, you need big stadiums with roofs and connectivity and all the bells and whistles associated with major sporting events. In our naivety we figured that because New Zealand in 2011 had been a mile off the pace on the first criterion then we could be half a mile off and still be seen in lights.

Whatever, the feeling among those who laboured long and hard over the Irish bid was like a punter who, on a sunny day joined the walk-up crowd to the big match, only to be told at the turnstiles it was a ticket-only affair. Lads, if you'd put that bit in the advert we wouldn't have bothered leaving home.

So World Cups would only be for those hosts who could throw a party where everyone could get in and out safely in large numbers, have a drink and something to eat, get a signal on their phone - and the gig would turn a nice profit.

Funny thing, two summers ago when we were covering the first Test between Ireland and Japan in Shizuoka it was hard to get your head around the woeful connectivity at the match venue. This was not the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was Japan: a tech giant, a member of G7, a land where they could get more technology into a toilet seat than eir can get into a national network. And the signal was piddling. It will be fine for the World Cup we were told. Would you believe it, the situation was repeated at the same venue when Japan and Ireland reconvened last month. Eh, how?

World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper. Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images
World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper. Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Never mind, boosted by that win over Ireland the television audience for the subsequent Japan win over Samoa was a record, with a peak share of 46.1 per cent on the free-to-air Nippon Television. That's a fat chunk of the country tuned in to their national team. Games have been fully attended, overseas supporters are taken with the terrific atmosphere at those matches as much as the incredible help and courtesy shown by Japanese folks across the country. No-one can visit that part of the world and come away unimpressed by the people. So you could feel for them last week as chaos settled over their tournament.

The reality is that this first foray off rugby's beaten track has come at a price, some of it foreseen. If England had delivered over the odds, a bonanza which according to World Rugby allowed them to increase by 38 per cent their investment in the game over the subsequent four years, then Japan was running on a different track. Of course there was the guarantee of £96m, but the expected overall profit was budgeted at £110/£120m, at least £40m less than 2015. Not so sure where that's at now.

This was attributed to the fact that Japan is an expensive place to do business, and because World Rugby had to invest in the television product, i.e. they couldn't risk leaving it with a host broadcaster who didn't have the experience of handling the biggest tournament in the game. It's about the brand. And that cost them heaps.

On top of the standard costs of satellite links and back-up generators, several planeloads of technical gear had to be flown in to Japan. The estimate for putting together match coverage for your average afternoon in Lansdowne Road would be between €70-100k. Allowing for the odd cancellation, as you do, that would be circa €4.5m for this World Cup.

So if the World Cup is about providing the financial nourishment for all the hungry mouths around the rugby table, you need a good story to explain why there isn't as much on the plate now as there had been in the last World Cup cycle. And the answer to that would be that it's also about growing the game, and the commercial opportunities that would flow from that. Asia will come alive after this tournament and such will be the explosion in numbers that a whole new market will open up. Well, that was the talk. It's worth remembering that improving the lot of Tier 2 nations is best achieved by giving them games against Tier 1, and doing it in between tournaments more than at them.

It didn't help that it took Japan a long time to warm to the idea that a World Cup was coming their way. So it might take a while for the new recruits to the game to be suited and booted. We were struck by the level of unease in World Rugby in autumn 2017 at the slow train chugging towards the World Cup when they had been expecting the bullet version.

We came across this ourselves on Ireland's tour there earlier that year. Interviewing local rugby administrators in Tokyo one day, they were as detached from facts and figures about the game in the country at that point as they were about how it stood to benefit when the World Cup arrived. And, more importantly, beyond. World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper had seen the awarding of the tournament to Japan as a "powerful game-changer for sporting and social change in Asia". At the time, everyone agreed.

It's a different picture now. In a game where some of the hits are likened to car-crash impacts, rugby has been dumped in the ditch, arse over tip, wheels spinning. The integrity of the tournament has been shredded by being told this World Cup model was "robust" - the word World Rugby used consistently to describe its contingency plan - only to discover it's as strong and durable as a paper bag left out too long in the humidity of Kobe Stadium.

It would have been more accurate to say that if they were hit with a typhoon in the super class then all bets were off: first there wasn't a workable plan to move games to safe parts of the country, perhaps a day later; and second it seems everyone had to agree to such a move - which they didn't. The Kiwis, reportedly, had no interest in losing a day's recovery ahead of the quarter-final.

Instead, we have noses out of joint all over the place at a punt that has stalled. And bringing the World Cup to Japan was a gamble. Recently we were corrected when suggesting to someone that Ireland's two-Test spin to Japan in 2017 would stand them in really good stead at this World Cup. It had been very hot and sticky for both games but the tourists coped manfully with the conditions, somehow outworking their hosts comprehensively in the first Test. Then it was pointed out to us more recently that June and September/October are different classes of difficult. Its measure came in the battle experienced by so many in the basics of catch/pass. And then the ante was raised by the super typhoon.

World Rugby are acutely aware of their diminishing control over the game, so the prospect of moving the tournament away from its current stormy point in the calendar was a non-runner. It's set in stone, a spokesman told us last week. Which might be a comment on the organisation itself.

Bizarrely, the need for flexibility was something even FIFA managed with the football World Cup in Qatar in 2022. Yes, it is shameful to bring it there in the first place, but shifting it to November/December proves the sporting calendar can be changed, even in a world where clubs rather than countries call the shots.

Just over a year ago RWC tournament director Alan Gilpin wasn't hiding from the downside of having the tournament in a country plagued by natural disasters. Which is why, seemingly, they had spent so much time on contingency.

"It's a complex piece and something we would do for every tournament," he said at the time. "But this one has a heightened sense of realism to it. We have to take it seriously."

Four months later he was saying that bad weather was something you could plan for, which is a bit like us pointing out there's no such thing as a dodgy day outdoors in Ireland, only inappropriate dress. "You've just got to make sure you've worked through all the permutations," Gilpin added.

Seems like they never really got started. So, with a lighter wallet and battered brand, let's fast forward to France then.

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