It has been a better start to a Rugby World Cup than anyone could have hoped for. That may sound a dubious claim if you only watched England’s first game, but World Cups demand a broader perspective. Romania, Namibia, Japan — anyone who saw the so-called minnows give everything against Scotland, Fiji and France could not fail to walk away with hearts warmed and a little bit of Bucharest, Windhoek and Sendai in their souls.
Wales’s agonising near miss (why on earth was James Hook’s kick not referred to the television match official?) against South Africa further underlined the prevailing theme — the underdogs have muscled up and are not being subdued with the same ease they used to be.
In France in 2007 New Zealand ran up a century of points against Portugal and thrashed Romania 87-8. The Japanese were skewered 72-18 by Wales and Namibia lost 87-10 to the host nation. There may yet be a blow-out or two — brace yourself for Russia vs Australia and Namibia vs South Africa — but the narrowing gap is clearly visible.
This is important for any number of reasons. Non-contests are bad news for everyone, crushing the spirit of the losing sides and boring the pants off the armchair viewers.
They also undermine the notion of rugby union as a truly global game. How global is it if, as has happened in rugby league, you have to summon barely competitive teams simply to make up the numbers? If you can be sure of a genuine battle when, say, the United States play Ireland, it lends the tournament far more substance.
It also challenges the received wisdom that only tier-one countries can teach us anything about rugby. After the early stages of RWC 2011 we can already conclude that Romania drive a maul better than some of their Six Nations cousins and that Japan’s passing skills are technically superior to England’s.
The Namibian fly-half, Theuns Kotze, kicked almost as many drop-goals inside five minutes as Hook has landed in 54 Tests for Wales. Fiji’s Vereniki Goneva scored more tries in 80 minutes than Max Evans has managed in his 21 appearances for Scotland.
Above all else there is the difference in attitude. Fully professional players may spend longer in the gym but the desire of their semi-pro or amateur cousins is equally strong, if not stronger. As New Zealand’s back-row forward Victor Vito put it, the smaller teams “grow another arm and another leg in World Cups”.
Romania, who have the former All Black Steve McDowell helping them with their scrummaging and conditioning, are just one example. Their captain, Marius Tincu, confirms the rare opportunity to feature on the big stage is a powerful motivation. “We did not have anything to lose. We qualified for the World Cup out of nowhere so we used it to our advantage. We enjoyed ourselves,” he said, after his Mighty Oaks had given Scotland a major fright in Invercargill.
England, who face Georgia this weekend followed by Romania on September 24, have been suitably forewarned.
“The thing about these so-called second-tier teams is that, from four years ago, they are a lot more athletic, a lot quicker and a bit smarter as well,” said England’s defence coach, Mike Ford. “In the World Cup these teams raise themselves massively. We watched Argentina’s warm-up game against Wales but they were nothing like you saw on Saturday night because they played at 20% above their normal intensity. This is what the World Cup does to you.
“Looking at some of the results and performances thus far, you can see it’s happening already.”
England’s captain, Lewis Moody, goes one step further. “It’s clear from what I’ve seen of the tournament so far that one of the big sides will lose to one of the developing nations. Over the next two matches, when we play Georgia and Romania, we have to make sure it isn’t us.”
Samoa, who have already beaten Australia this year, are the most obvious threat to the elite, although Georgia pushed Scotland hard on Wednesday before losing 15-6.
The only caveat is the fixture list which forces some smaller nations to play twice in a few days while the fat cats recover at their leisure. Television needs its prime-time weekend drawcards, condemning the likes of Georgia to play two games in four days on two occasions. Until that inequality is ironed out — and don’t hold your breath — the playing field will continue to be uneven. —