THE FERRIE FILES
ITS return to the country in which the sport was invented having illustrated that rugby union has now established itself as a major player in the global event market, a first venture beyond its traditional heartlands will take things to another level again.
Until now it has only been staged in countries that were among the original International Rugby Board octet that ran the game when the inaugural tournament was staged, and were the only ones at that time capable of granting matches “Test” status and still had complete control when the sport went open in 1995.
This weekend it feels as if the first cycle in the evolutionary process from an amateur game to a professional one will be completed when the countries that conceived the idea of a World Cup and staged that inaugural one in 1987 meet in the final for the first time having, other than that anomaly of not having met in a final, dominated the competition so far by appearing, between them, in six of the seven previous finals.
At the same stage of its development, the eighth tournament held also in England in 1966, there were some interesting parallels to be drawn with where rugby union is now.
That year England became the fifth team to win the World Cup; Uruguay, Italy and Brazil all having won it twice while West Germany had won it once. It is arguably a cause for concern for what is unquestionably the world’s most inclusive team sport that there have now been a further 11 World Cups and yet, the number of different winners has only reached eight, all from either South America or Europe.
We can but wonder whether that pattern will be repeated in rugby union which already has three Continents on its winners list, Australasia, Africa and Europe, but it is surely only a matter of time for Argentina and France, albeit the window of opportunity may be closing for the Celtic nations.
In those terms, however, playing the next tournament in the country that, for a while at least, became everyone’s second team at this tournament now looks an inspired choice.
It is something of a cheap cliché but the Japanese reputation is not so much for innovation, but for taking ideas and perfecting them and rugby is a sport well suited to that process.
Highly technical it is about assembling the relevant components as effectively as possible and the rules of the international game mean that where natural resources are not immediately available they can, as Scotland has been so enthusiastically doing, be purchased elsewhere as long as the need to is identified three years in advance.
Since, as Scots, we look at Australia’s involvement in the final and wonder what might have been, so Eddie Jones and his Japanese team can look back at the World Cup scheduling and wonder what might have been had they not had to meet the two teams that qualified from Pool B in the space of five days.
It may be projecting too far, but given the speed with which they have moved from conceding 100 points to Scotland a decade ago, it may not be impossible that a first Asian World Cup could produce a first Asian winner.
Japan’s automatic qualification for their own tournament by finishing third in their pool also hopefully opens up opportunities for others in their region. I remember being invited to watch Japan play South Korea in an Asian Cup match while in Singapore in 1998 and, in spite of having been warned about the historic enmity that added an edge to the fixture, was astonished by the recklessly self-sacrificial commitment of both sides.
“We want the Japanese people to fall in love with rugby,” Brett Gosper, the chief executive of World Rugby said as the 2019 World Cup logo was unveiled.
Commercially driven as he is, he knows that if they do a powerful force will be unleashed that can, for good or ill, transform rugby’s capacity to grow quickly in markets that were previously unreachable.
AND ANOTHER THING . . .
RETURNING to the World Cup knockout stages was welcome for Scotland after 2011’s disappointment, but 17 years after our footballers last contested a major finals, comparison of the evolution of the two sports is sobering. Japan’s performance in Scotland’s pool was one thing, but the progress of entirely homegrown Georgians and Romanian teams was at least as ominous. By combining their voting power, the Celtic countries can protect themselves artificially for a little longer by keeping them out of Europe’s top competition but if World Rugby does its job ways will be found to give them the necessary exposure to be properly competitive at future global gatherings.
TO THE FUTURE: The official logo of Japan 2019