Thursday 21 November 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Unbalanced nature of World Cup exposes hypocrisy of rugby's claim to global appeal'

Shannon Frizzel. Photo: Getty
Shannon Frizzel. Photo: Getty
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Isn't the Rugby World Cup fierce disappointing all the same?

After three and a half weeks spent trundling through largely predictable group games, the expectation was that last weekend's quarter-finals would mark the start of the serious business. Instead there were three blowouts and a fourth game which, while close, was no one's idea of a classic.

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The tournament has been killed by a lack of momentum. There's something saggy about the whole thing. The build-up to Ireland's match against the All Blacks lacked the sense of excitement you might have expected.

This was partly to do with Ireland's fitful form in 2019, but also with the feeling that ever since the match against Japan, Joe Schmidt's team had essentially been killing time. So had most of the quarter-finalists, whose qualification was more or less inevitable before they landed in Japan.

The exception was the host nation, whose wins over Ireland and Scotland provided the group stage with its only high points. There was something undeniably exhilarating about these victories, yet they were also a bit oversold out of the desperation to show that the first three weeks had not entirely been a waste of time.

South Africa's clinical demolition of the Japanese restored a sense of reality. Japan were terrific up to that but does their performance mark the arrival of a new tier one nation? Or does it owe a lot to a combination of Irish complacency, Scottish weakness and home advantage?

We shall see, but it may be asking a lot for Japan to reach the same heights in four years. Past wins - by Fiji and Samoa over Wales and Tonga over France - turned out to have little long-term significance for those countries. Their failure to progress is the biggest problem facing World Rugby right now, even if it's not being treated as such.

Consider the plight of Fiji. Four Fijian-qualified players appeared for Australia in this World Cup, two for France and one each for the All Blacks and England. Not just any players either. Fiji could have fielded a three-quarter line containing Sevu Reece, Marika Koroibete, Samu Kerevi and Virimi Vakatawa.

The systematic stripping of the best players from Fiji has gone on for a long time and as long as it's convenient for the major nations we won't be seeing any major resources being ploughed into the game on the island. Yet what a difference it would make were World Rugby to bring in a rule that players who qualify for Fiji, Tonga and Samoa must play for those countries.

All the talk of the Japanese fairytale tends to obscure the fact that their squad contained five Tongans while there are also a couple of Tongans in both the Australia and New Zealand teams. Shannon Frizzel, currently providing wing-forward cover for the All Blacks, played with Tonga right up to under 20 level.

The perpetually unbalanced nature of the group stages shows the emptiness of rugby's claim to be a game with genuine global appeal. The USA and Canada have been in the tournament since its inception and this year were winless with an average losing margin of almost 40 points. It's unlikely Nambia, Russia or Uruguay are ever going to be anything more than cannon fodder.

Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, on the other hand, have the potential to be much more than that. When it comes to producing players they're already punching above their weight. Fiji's population is midway between that of Dublin and Antrim, Samoa's is almost exactly the same as that of Meath and Tonga's slightly less than that of Waterford.

Yet, incredibly, 20 per cent of the world's professional rugby players are of Pacific Island descent. Tonga (population 104,000) has also reached the semi-finals of the Rugby League World Cup while there are over 50 Samoan players in the NFL. These are remarkable sporting nations.

World Rugby asks them to exist on crumbs. Argentina have been brought into the Rugby Championship while clubs from Argentina and Japan play in Super Rugby when a combined Fiji-Samoa-Tonga team would surely have done much better. And when a World League was discussed recently, even the USA were mooted as participants with hardly a word about Fiji.

The prospect of American and Argentinian and Japanese TV advertising money allures the rugby authorities. The concerns of three rich in talent but financially poor countries . . . not so much.

Even All Blacks coach Steve Hansen admits the absence of Tests against tier-one opposition is unfair to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. But England haven't toured the Pacific Islands in 28 years and admit that's because there's not enough money in it. Ireland haven't been there since 2003, although they've toured Japan and Argentina twice each in the interim and found time to visit the USA and Canada too.

When it comes down to it, the Corinthian ideal isn't any more present in rugby than it is in soccer. But at least in soccer they're not hypocrites about it.

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