World Cups need more pools of death

The Rugby Paper - - European Champions Cup Final Verdict -

HERE are the cold hard facts. There is only one “pool of death” in the 2019 World Cup draw made in Ky­oto last week, and Eng­land are in it. Which means that for a se­cond tour­na­ment run­ning Eng­land are at risk of go­ing out in the pool stage.

The idea that light­ning can­not strike twice af­ter the 2015 de­ba­cle is wish­ful think­ing.

Even so, some com­men­ta­tors have taken the line that even though Eng­land have got a tough draw along­side two other top tier na­tions, France and Ar­gentina, they still have the time to make sure of their pres­ence in the knock-out stage through as­sid­u­ous prepa­ra­tion and plan­ning.

While that’s a good start, it’s also a given. We know al­ready that Ed­die Jones is un­likely to leave any stones un­turned in that re­gard, es­pe­cially given his in­side knowl­edge of Ja­pan.

How­ever, I’m sure that Stu­art Lan­caster also thought he had all the bases cov­ered un­til the ground un­der his feet caved in and Eng­land crashed to obliv­ion in the 2015 tour­na­ment, af­ter be­ing beaten at Twick­en­ham by Wales, and trounced by Aus­tralia.

Re­mem­ber the top se­cret ‘state-ofthe-art’ train­ing fa­cil­ity at Pen­ny­hill Park that Lan­caster wanted to keep from pry­ing eyes – but was then glee­fully oc­cu­pied by South Africa and oth­ers af­ter the host na­tion’s exit?

Or how about the mile-high alti­tude train­ing in Colorado that was meant to de­liver the fittest Eng­land team of all time, rar­ing to go as the tour­na­ment started? In­stead, Chris Rob­shaw’s crew went into their warm-up games de­void of en­ergy and drive – with a dis­mal dis­play against France in Paris plumb­ing the depths.

That Eng­land barely im­proved when the 2015 World Cup be­gan in earnest told us that the strength-and-con­di­tion­ing strat­egy had back­fired spec­tac­u­larly.

When it comes to World Cups it is ev­i­dent that some coaches are much bet­ter at get­ting their teams to peak than oth­ers, and it is com­fort­ing that Jones’ record with Ja­pan in 2015, South Africa in 2007, and Aus­tralia in 2003 sug­gests he is handy in this re­gard. Fur­ther­more, the idea that Jones is an out­stand­ing coach is backed up all the way by his track-record

How­ever, there is also a large por­tion of luck in­volved, es­pe­cially where in­juries and dis­ci­plinary bans to world­class play­ers are con­cerned, and the cal­i­bre of their re­place­ments.

It is this wildcard el­e­ment that can play havoc, es­pe­cially in World Cups, and the idea that Jones is in­fal­li­ble and will au­to­mat­i­cally steer Eng­land past France and Ar­gentina into the quar­ter-fi­nals is fan­tasy.

Two months ago Eng­land lost a land­mark new world record of wins and a Six Na­tions Grand Slam on the same af­ter­noon in Dublin against an Ire­land side that had been beaten by Wales and Scot­land. They lost it while barely fir­ing a shot, and a few weeks later Jones ad­mit­ted that he was “filthy” with him­self for get­ting se­lec­tion wrong.

That is not the stuff of cer­tainty, and we will have to wait un­til the au­tumn to see how Eng­land re­group af­ter the bold ex­per­i­ment in Ar­gentina and the Lions tour to New Zealand.

What we do not have to wait for is the knowl­edge that the World Cup is still nowhere near as com­pet­i­tive as it should be de­spite eight tour­na­ments hav­ing been held since its in­cep­tion 30 years ago.

World Rugby – or the IRB in their for­mer guise – have had a plan to in­crease the num­ber of truly com­pet­i­tive na­tions for as long as I can re­mem­ber.

Yet, in Ja­pan 2019 the quar­ter­fi­nal can­di­dates are as pre­dictable as ever. Eng­land may have drawn the short straw again in Pool C, with France and Ar­gentina com­pet­ing with them for two places in the last eight,

“World Rugby have had a plan to in­crease the num­ber of truly com­pet­i­tive na­tions for as long as I can re­mem­ber”

but out­side that pool it’s busi­ness as usual, with Scot­land and Ire­land favourites in Pool A, New Zealand and South Africa in Pool B and Aus­tralia and Wales in Pool D.

The only pos­si­ble up­set would be if hosts Ja­pan beat the Scots or Ir­ish in the same way they did South Africa in 2015.

In­stead of one ‘pool of death’ in Ja­pan there should be four of them.

It is a trav­esty that de­spite one plan af­ter another over the last 30 years to de­velop so-called tier 2 na­tions such as Ja­pan, USA, Canada, Ro­ma­nia, Ge­or­gia, Spain, Rus­sia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, into be­ing com­pet­i­tive with the ‘Big Eight’ in the Six Na­tions (Italy ex­cluded) and the Rugby Champi- on­ship (Ar­gentina ex­cluded), rugby union is no fur­ther down the road.

World Rugby would no doubt like to hail Ar­gentina as their suc­cess story, but it is hardly a con­clu­sive case his­tory be­cause the Pu­mas have been com­pet­i­tive against the best na­tions since the am­a­teur era.

Just ask Bill Beau­mont who toured there in 1981 with an Eng­land team that edged a fiercely con­tested se­ries.

That was com­pelling pre­cisely be­cause of that. How­ever, a World Cup in which tier 2 na­tions are merely gal­lant whip­ping boys, as they are likely to be again in Pools A, B and D in 2019, is no longer ac­cept­able in rugby union’s show­case tour­na­ment. We need more pools of death. Ur­gently.

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