What sold rugby to the world
Even the Germans tuned in to watch champions New Zealand play
THE greatest Rugby World Cup ever staged was the unanimous view of those who attended, participated or officiated in the global showpiece event that was concluded with the tournament’s best- ever Final at Twickenham last weekend, and it wasn’t just hype.
Just in terms of numbers, there really is no argument – more than 2.5 million people went to the stadiums, which saw record attendances for a single match being broken several times over but was topped in the end by the Ireland v Romania game at Wembley. In addition to that, more than 1.5million people visited the fan zones in the host cities.
Of course that all translates into a whack of money that is still being counted, and which will be hopefully spread to the grassroots of the game, and in particular to those developing countries that during the pool phases showed what can be achieved when finances get injected into the infrastructure.
But there was much more to this World Cup than just the numbers and unless you intend to write a book about it, the best way to encapsulate the success story, and to outline what can be learned from this World Cup – not least by South Africa – is to deal with the aspects that together made up the fantastic whole. 1.The style of rugby played THERE were reports of non-rugby strongholds like Germany really being captivated by this World Cup, and a big reason for that would have been rooted in the style of rugby that was employed by most teams.
There were exceptions, and to a neutral the quarter-final between South Africa and Wales must have been like watching paint dry, but the playoff games, which are supposed to be the showpiece events, were generally far more entertaining than they’ve been in the past.
The good teams, and by that we refer to mainly to the champions, New Zealand, were the ones that had several strings to their bow and could play more than one way. They employed a tactical game to beat South Africa when it rained in the semi-final, but there was no denying their skilful passing game when they piled it onto Australia shortly before halftime in the final.
Wallaby coach Michael Cheika admitted after his team’s narrow escape against Scotland in the quarter-final that he perhaps should have closed up shop and played more percentage tactics at stages of the game, but then added that the style of rugby his team employs is what their supporters expect.
Apart from Japan, who became everyone’s favourite team after their epic win over the Springboks and went on to win three of their four games playing entertaining rugby, the biggest movers in terms of growing their game were Argentina, who now play with width they weren’t inclined towards, nor capable of, previously.
The Pumas perhaps overdid it in the semi-final, where the Wallabies punished their mistakes, but if they learn from that, and don’t fall into the trap of neglecting their traditional strength in their quest to grow, they are going to be a formidable force in Japan in 2019. 2.The conditions ALLIED to the above was the conditions that most of the matches were played in. Beforehand, coaches were justifying percentage tactics by pointing to the probability of the matches being played in wet weather and on heavy surfaces, but the conditions that most of the tournament was played in were, by British standards, more late summer than early autumn. It led to the quick tempo, Southern Hemisphere style prevailing.
Is that a reason to re-open the argument in favour of a global season which would entail the Northern Hemisphere switching to summer rugby?
You bet it does. The demise of England led to speculation that the interest would fall off later in the event, but it didn’t happen and part of the reason for that was because of the entertainment value.
If the World Cup had been played in December and January, when the rain and sometimes snow and sleet makes the rolling maul the staple of most teams, there wouldn’t have been as many rugby converts from places like Germany.
The firm soccer pitches encountered in the pool phases were always going to promote a faster game, but the traditional rugby venues hadn’t seen enough rain to change that in the knockout stages.
The bottom line – if you really want to sell the game, the type of rugby played at this tournament does it, and if that means you fit the season to suit the entertainment imperative, then that is what should be done. Already clubs like Saracens have introduced artificial surfaces to fit that objective. 3. The coaching FORMER England player and current commentator Stuart Barnes put it best in his column that summed up the tournament in The Sunday Times – this was a World Cup where brains overcame brawn.
South Africa did get quite far on brawn, but that wily fox Eddie Jones completely out- thought Heyneke Meyer at the start of the tournament, Warren Gatland did the same, even though he got defeated in the quarter-final. At some stage the collective South African rugby penny has to drop if the Bok game is ever going to grow.
Yes, kicking is important, and the All Blacks do it a lot. But have you seen how New Zealand do it in comparison to South Africa? Foreign influence in the coaching staff was seen to help Wales, Scotland, Japan and a host of minnow nations in this World Cup, and it can do for South Africa. 4. The improvement of the minnows THIS is related to the above point. Coaching acumen from New Zealand in particular is being tapped by the smaller nations, and with dramatic results. It is probably true that the All Blacks never went
Highs and lows
High: It didn’t matter that it was the Boks who were the victims – Japan’s win was deserved and was when the message sent out was that this was going to be a special Cup. Low: It wasn’t great to see the host nation get knocked out; it meant the round-ball game started to hog the newspapers more than it would otherwise have, but little beat the low of reading people who should have known better slating Craig Joubert for what was an understand-able mistake in the quarterfinal round. Best atmosphere: The Millennium Stadium for Ireland v France. The fanatical support enjoyed by Ireland made up for the absence of England. Most absorbing game: The second half of the Australia v Wales pool game, when Australia defended their line with 13 men. Wales beating England wasn’t far behind. Best quality game: The final itself. Most watchable team: Argentina Most idiotic decision: Chris Robshaw’s kicking for the touchline when a kick for posts would have squared the game against Wales. Bravest decision: When the Japanese captain did the same thing against the Boks – the difference being that the game ending in a draw would not have helped Japan’s quest for a place in the playoffs, whereas for England it would have. The disappearing act: Were France and Italy actually at the World Cup? full tilt in the pool stages, but it is still to the credit of the smaller nations that there were no blowouts like there were in previous World Cups. The 64 points the Boks scored against a second-string USA team was the joint most, along with Argentina against Namibia, scored in any one game in the tournament. 5. Worthy finalists and champions THERE are some South Africans, including the national coach, who subscribe to the myth that there is just two points separating the All Blacks from the Boks because that was what the scoreboard said after the semi-final.
Anyone who was there will testify that the Boks were dominated as much, if not more, on the field of play by New Zealand in the semifinal as the Wallabies were in the final. When Australia were just four behind with 12 minutes to play, they looked like they could win just because we knew they were capable of scoring tries.
The Aussies, and to an extent Argentina, are the coming teams in world rugby, but the Kiwis, as their record over four years will testify, are the undisputed kings. But for goodness sake someone catch them…
WHERE’S THE BALL? There were no tries but Australia’s 15-6 win over Wales was absorbing.