The underlying narrative behind the decision to stage the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan is that it is an opportunity to give a huge impetus to the game in a country where it is — relatively speaking — a marginal presence.
You would want to be of an exceptionally charitable (or gullible) disposition to believe in that talk.
This idea of spreading rugby beyond a hardcore of the six countries who comprise the Six Nations (France, England, Wales, Scotland, Italy, and Ireland) and the four countries who form the Rugby Championship (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Argentina) is something that often benefits from superb lip service.
It is talked about in the same way that people talk about the ambitions of spreading hurling beyond the boundaries of such counties that have dominated the All-Ireland Championship since Queen Victoria was in the middle of her reign over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
And no observer with even a superficial understanding of the history of hurling would indulge that as an anything other than unsupported rhetoric.
No matter where the Rugby World Cup is played, the organisers say all the right things about their commitment to growing the game.
For example, back in 2009 when England were bidding to host the 2015 World Cup, the then chief executive of the English Rugby Football Union, Francis Baron, promised: “At the heart of our bid are passion, love, and commitment to the game and its ideals. Our desire is to broaden rugby’s horizons by reaching out and embracing new audiences. The tournament would serve as a catalyst to drive participation, awareness, and opportunities supporting the development of the game nationally, in Europe, and across the globe.
Such fine words.
But it is by actions and not by words that the priorities of sporting organisations reveal themselves.
And so it is that the history of the development of rugby union on a global scale is one where the weak are routinely treated with contempt by the strong.
The nature of this contempt has shifted a little since the onset of professionalism in the middle of the 1990s focused the minds of administrators on the financial demands of making their own particular country competitive.
Such demands have prioritised the need to make money in the short term over any genuine effort to commit to developing the game in what might be termed ‘second-tier’ rugby-playing nation-states.
But it would appear, too, that the condescension of the old amateur era has not exactly disappeared either.
Tony Collins, the leading global authority on the history of rugby union and rugby league, has detailed the treatment of ‘second-tier’ countries with great precision. It is a treatment that is endemic and which has laid bare the extent to which the rhetoric of spreading the game is profoundly hollow.
Take the manner in which teams from the South Pacific have habitually been treated by their powerful neighbours — and by the extreme reticence of teams from the Six Nations to play them in full test matches.
In Tonga, for example, the game of rugby was introduced in the second half of the 19th century by missionaries and schoolteachers from England.
The headmaster of Tonga’s main boarding school played rugby after its was introduced by James Moulton, a clergyman.
The attempts to develop a Tongan national team were initially restricted to encounters after the First World War with representative sides from Fiji.
These matches were ferociously contested and one was even abandoned in 1928 after a notorious free-for-all in the second half.
The game was by then central to Tongan sporting culture. It was supported by the Tongan royal family, with Prince Tugi (later crowned as King) serving as president of the Tongan Rugby Football Union, after its foundation in 1923.
The problem was who to play. Until the 1960s, the only games played by Tonga were against Fiji and Samoa.
Even when they got to tour New Zealand in 1969, there was no official test match — rather the Tongans played a series of provincial sides.
Was this because the Tongans were simply not up to it?
Well, the first time they played a ‘top-tier’ nation was in 1973 when they were invited to play Australia in Sydney and Brisbane. The invitation was to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tongan Rugby Football Union.
The Sydney match went as expected with the Australians easing to a 30-12 victory. But the following week brought a whole new story. Despite missing four kicks at goal in the second half and generally dominating the play, the Tongans still won by 16-11, scoring four tries in the process. This was a right and proper kicking from a ‘Second Tier’ nation to one of their supposed betters.
Crucially, it was a moment that suggested a new beginning. Even more crucially, it was a suggestion that never materialises into something more tangible.
What happened next is described by Collins: “The promise of 1973 never materialised. The lack of a structured international season meant that the Tongans, like the other South Pacific nations, could not develop and measure themselves against the leading rugby nations. The increasing power of television money meant that internationals were always arranged with one eye on television ratings — and with a population of barely 100,000 Tonga was of little interest to TV schedulers and advertisers.”
Emigration also changed the way rugby worked for Tonga. By 2004, somewhere around 50% of all Tongans lived abroad.
Among these, as Collins explained, were rugby players: “The increasing professionalism of rugby union in the 1980s led to many talented Pacific Island rugby players emigrating to make the most of their skills. Scholarships were offered to Tongan schoolboys by elite rugby-playing schools in New Zealand, resulting in a talent drain of young players from the islands. Many commentators sympathetic to Tonga and the other islands have accused New Zealand rugby union in particular of cherry-picking the best talent and tying young players to New Zealand instead of their homeland.”
What is also interesting to watch is how in Tongan expat communities in Sydney and Auckland, Rugby League has thrived.
Indeed, the decision of second-generation Tongans to declare for the country of their heritage brought the creation of a team good enough to reach the semi-final of the Rugby League World Cup. This was made possible by some fascinating recasting of the eligibility laws by Rugby League’s administrators (of which more will be discussed on some other day).
Tonga's Sipi Tau v @lospumas was fierce!September 28, 2019
Meanwhile, some 60 Tongans have made it to play American Football in the NFL.
As for the national rugby union team, it is not that Tonga have not been able to be competitive in the new millennium.
They have enjoyed magnificent victories such as the 19-14 victory over France in the 2011 World Cup — a competition in which France eventually finished as runners-up. But other test matches have also brought humiliating defeating — including a 102-0 loss to the All Blacks.
These are results that are the product — in significant measure — of a global system that renders a country vulnerable, rather than supporting it, a system that strips resources rather than provides them.
And it is important to be clear about this: the treatment of Tonga is all of a piece with the treatment of Samoa and Fiji in the South Pacific.
And if you move to Europe, the manner in which the minnows of the game are considered is of the same order.
For example, look at the way the Georgians are treated. And the Romanians. And the Germans. And on and on.
The idea that there are broader “rugby ideals” which are about “reaching out and embracing new audiences” is laughable when viewed in the context of what actually happens.
It is one thing to play a Rugby World Cup in a rich country and claim that it is a means of spreading the game — all the while ensuring that your own position and your own income are not unduly hindered.
It is altogether another to commit to a long-term structure that will facilitate growth in a way that is unhindered by vested interests.
Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.