Sunday 20 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Enjoy the World Cup because it's under threat on number of fronts'

A general view at the Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Osaka. Photo: Reuters
A general view at the Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Osaka. Photo: Reuters

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

On the eve of the Rugby World Cup's big kick-off in Tokyo, World Rugby held a launch press conference which featured five middle-aged men who had helped put the tournament together over the past decade.

Of the quintet, only the governing body's chairman Bill Beaumont is a household name, and for people under the age of 45 he's better known for his stint captaining a team on 'A Question of Sport' than his stint leading England in the 1970s and early '80s.

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The opening addresses were lengthy and upbeat, focusing on visitor numbers and the long-term benefit for the sport in Japan, but once the floor was open for questions, the tone quickly shifted.

The growing creep of private money was addressed, while the roaring gap between the Tier One and Tier Two nations was raised. In the wake of Aphiwe Dyianti's failed drugs test, doping was another topic for discussion and player welfare and refereeing were also brought up. The blazers on the top table dealt with the queries as best they could, but as events on the field of play in the first week gave evidence to the problems in the sport, there is reason to wonder if the World Cup is too big to fail.

That might seem a bizarre thought watching the action unfold, but the risks to the tournament are very real.

First, there is the reality that a private equity firm is slowly taking control of the most powerful bloc in European rugby.

Investment firm CVC Capital has taken a majority stake in Premiership Rugby, is close to a large minority stake in the Guinness PRO14 and most importantly a 15 per cent chunk of the Six Nations' commercial rights.

With all of the thrilling on-field action, it's easy to ignore the boardroom manoeuvres, but fans and stakeholders could do with considering what it is that this firm is after and whose interests it serves.

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World Rugby lost the big battle on the Nations League, a tournament that would have fundamentally undermined their own World Cup, but CVC could be eyeing some sort of global competition of its own and, given money talks to the extent that it does, it might not find too much resistance.

It could be the World Cup, but not as we know it. Already, CVC appears set to get Six Nations relegation on the table, according to reports in France, which brings us to the plight of the second-tier countries.

The lesser lights are once again trying to catch-up to a bullet train. The biggest shock of the tournament so far came when 19th-ranked Uruguay took down 10th-ranked Fiji on Wednesday and, with three weeks still to go before the knockout action, there are only six pool games involving top sides that look like being contests.

As lesser teams tire, the scorelines will become more one-sided.

The closed shop nature of the Tier One competitions, scheduling of the World Cup in club season and the residency laws are among the reasons why it's so tough to bridge the divide, and the rich are only getting richer and more professional.

Of course, we might have had more shocks if the referees were doing their jobs in the opening week.

The World Cup opens up rugby to a wider audience and indications before the tournament were that there would be a zero-tolerance approach to head-high shots. Referees have largely ignored that maxim, opting to hide behind citing commissioners.

Fiji should have been playing against a 14-man Australia for 50 minutes, but Reece Hodge's high shot on Peceli Yato went unpunished. The Wallaby's subsequent ban does nothing for the Islanders whose tournament is now in ruins.

Likewise Russia, who have never won a World Cup match and would dearly love to do so, who were denied the opportunity to play against a Samoa side reduced to 13-men for more than 40 minutes when Romain Poite issued yellow cards instead to Ray Lee-Lo and Motu Matu'u. A hearing found they both should have seen red.

The first red of the tournament was shown to USA back-row John Quill, but he must wonder about Piers Francis's high shot in the first minute. How different would things have been if the Eagles had played against 14 men for 79 minutes?

Those decisions hang over the weekend's action, with coaches growing increasingly vocal in their frustration. All of that pales in significance to arguably the greatest threat to the World Cup and all global tournaments, a risk factor that never came up in that opening press conference despite the looming weather warnings.

Uruguay's win was even more special, given the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium was built as part of the city's defence against extreme weather events after the city was levelled by a tsunami in 2011.

The climate crisis is consistently on the front pages here and one wonders how sustainable these events that require the mass movement of people by air travel will be in the future.

Perhaps that's the biggest long-term concern, one that will eventually occupy all sporting bodies, but for now World Rugby has much to consider.

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