All in all, it’s been the best opening week we could have asked for. Certainly, as Rugby World Cups go.
Full or near-full houses all round, a minor tremor in Gloucester where Georgia did Tonga up like a kipper, Japan’s potentially game-changing defeat of the Springboks in Brighton and a tectonic clash between New Zealand and Argentina in Wembley.
We’ll overlook Namibia’s engagement with the All Blacks last night for now.
Slivers of encouragement broke through elsewhere, too. Uruguay taking a 6-0 lead on Wales in Cardiff was as joyous as it was brief while Romania almost gave Phillip Saint-Andre heart failure on Wednesday evening thanks to a first-half in which they turned the French over eight times, stole a couple of lineouts and made a general nuisance of themselves.
At half-time in that game, former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick spoke on ITV about how we were witnessing hugely improved technical skills and tactical competencies from the so-called minnows in this tournament and that it was down to the missionary work of top coaches around the world and the money World Rugby is putting into the nations below the top tier.
He’s right. World Rugby have clearly upped their game in lending a hand up to the have-nots and yet the sport’s governing body persists in barring the door to true progress with a tournament structure and schedule that makes bridging the gap between pool fodder and knockout contenders close to impossible.
For far too long now, teams such as Samoa and Japan have been subjected to ridiculously short turnarounds between matches and the result of that was clearly apparent in Kingsholm on Wednesday evening when the Japanese trailed 12-10 shortly after the break and yet lost 45-10. Only four days had passed since their defeat of South Africa.
Samoa suffered horribly at the whim of the calendar four years ago in New Zealand when they had to face Wales four days after Namibia and South Africa just five days after taking on Fiji. Wales only beat them by seven points, South Africa by eight and all hell threatened to break loose after that loss to the Principality.
Coach Titimaea Tafau refused to blame the short turnaround for his side’s loss of a one-point lead in the final quarter against Wales, but lock Dan Leo admitted that the workload over the four days had caught up with them. Even Wales captain Sam Warburton provided supporting evidence by remarking that his players had noticed the dwindling energy levels of their opponents.
“They seemed to struggle at the end and when the whistle went they had their hands on their knees,” said Warburton, but it fell to Samoa centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu to really let rip with a hyper-emotional tweet in which he compared the treatment of the Pacific Islanders to slavery, the holocaust and apartheid.
“IRB, Stop exploiting my people,” read the original outburst. “Please, all we ask, is fairness. If they get a week, give us a week. Simple. #equ[al]ity #justice.” To which he added: “Ok, it’s obvious the IRB are unjust. Wales get 7 days, we get 3. Unfair treatment, like slavery, like the holocaust, like apartheid.” The choice of words was appallingly poor, but the frustration was understandable.
It’s true that, for the first time, tier one countries have been asked to contend with such small gaps between games in this latest competition, but that still doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t change the fact that those countries with less playing resources will be affected more by the ask than the likes of New Zealand or France, who can field two or three international-class XVs.
Think of Uruguay, who will have to face England in the last of their pool games having already faced Wales and Australia and then Fiji just four days earlier.
Uruguay have roughly the same number of registered players as Georgia who, in figures amassed at the time of the 2011 tournament, showed that the number of senior males players playing the game in the Eastern European country amounted to just 878. England, with 166,762 adult men playing, were shown to have the largest base in that same study.
That there is the very definition of chalk and cheese.
Add to that the fact that some nations, Ireland among them, will not have to endure the short turnaround at all and now they face on Sunday a Romania team with just three days between games to get their minds and their bodies back on track. Something as supposedly simple as a schedule should not boil down to the luck of the draw.
Japan coach Eddie Jones intimated after the loss to Scotland that the minimum period between Test matches should be six days. Doing that would stretch the tournament beyond the six weeks it currently takes and that is not going to happen in today’s crowded calendar. Which leaves just the one, painful solution: cut back on the number of teams, from 24 to 20.
That may seem counter-intuitive for a sport eager to expand, but think about it.
No more midweek games and no extra time needed to finish the tournament. There, job done. Those tier two teams who do make it — and many still would — would participate in the knowledge that another, significant obstacle had been removed from their path. Painful as it may seem, it sometimes needs a step back to take two forward.
Email: Brendan.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Rackob
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