I’ve always enjoyed Rugby Union World Cups, probably more so than their football counterparts.
In the absence of soap operas regarding fallouts, training ground spats, and clashes of personality, the game itself is given room to take precedence with both committed and casual spectators.
While the build-up to matches involving the UK Nations in particular is covered by television, this is only done to a level that stops well short of saturation point.
It’s a highly welcome breath of fresh air when set against the constant, in-yer-face hype that accompanies the major tournaments in international football. The occasional flat and disappointing spectacle is that bit easier to forgive when television executives have not been plying you with the message that an encounter between two middle-ranking nations is set up to be an affair that will be talked about for decades afterwards.
Nor do rugby pundits make a habit of posthumously re-writing history, by attempting to convince the viewer that a sporting powerhouse’s one-sided demolition of a relative minnow, or a dull, tryless grind-fest were somehow ‘epic’ (as football presenters frequently attempt to with tame goalless draws). As a viewer, please let me watch the game, take in the commentary of a man who used to excel at it and then make up my own mind as to whether or not it is worth remembering.
All that said, this is not to say that the showpiece tournament of the 15-man game has not had its share of historical problems. The biggest single issue has been that of chronically lop-sided mismatches in the pool stages of the competition.
The first World Cup to feature fully-professional players in 1995 saw a widening of the gap between the top tier nations and those who lagged behind, most brutally demonstrated by the All Blacks’ 145-17 annihilation of Japan. They scored a phenomenal 21 tries in a single match, converting 20 of them, with second-choice kicker Simon Mulhane bagging a world record 45 points).
Every subsequent competition has seen at least one side notch a three-figure score against opposition that was clearly overwhelmed and out of its depth, with Australia’s 142-0 massacre of Namibia in 2003 the highest recorded margin of victory to date.
This is bad for the sport on a number of levels. Mismatches of this magnitude sell rugby well short of its true potential on the one occasion when it enjoys something resembling worldwide television coverage (the equivalent competition in rugby league has suffered from this problem to an even greater degree).
Moreover, nations clearly ill-equipped to at least put up a vaguely competitive effort against the game’s elite do not benefit from the experience of being utterly destroyed on a massive stage. Yet the privilege of playing at a tournament they worked hard to qualify for is not something you would wish to take away from the players involved.
Watching some of the weekend’s action (albeit at distinctly nocturnal hours in some cases) has convinced this bunny that the current World Cup has the potential to be easily the best ever. The real surprise was the failure of a genuine surprise result to emerge, with all completed matches (eventually) going to form.
Scotland, victim of multiple World Cup nightmares in another sport, were 13 minutes away from total disaster against Romania, once the emerging nation of world rugby in the 1980s, but perceived prior to the tournament as a side in terminal decline (Scotland indeed hammered the same opposition 42-0 as recently as the last World Cup).
I’m sure some of you will have had better things to do at 4-30am on Saturday than watch a game between Fiji and Namibia, but the events that had just taken place in Invercargill kept this bunny’s curiosity sufficiently alive to take it in.
Namibia have historically been the definition of World Cup cannon fodder, yet to win a finals match in eleven attempts going in. Though they stretched that unwelcome run to twelve, this was an encounter well worth watching that hinted at genuine improvement.
In the 80 minutes, Fiji blew hot and cold in the way that might typify them as a team, while the rank outsiders gave things a real go, scoring two tries in a closely-fought second half.
As I mentioned the Fijians, here are some of the best moments of perhaps the utlimate modern player from the island – explosive and undeniably gifted, but a frustrating and wasted talent lost to lifestyle choices, Rupeni Caucaunibuca.
It has been refreshing to get through the first series of matches and see not one result that might prompt a reaction along the lines of “what exactly was the point of that?”.