From humble beginnings, the World Cup is growing ever larger and the standard of play getting ever better, but do players have as much fun, asks a man who played in the first three tournaments
The World Cup is bigger, the players are better, the money has shot up, but do today’s stars have as much fun, asks the former England hooker, who played in the first three tournaments
The Rugby Football Union voted against establishing a Rugby World Cup. It knew, as did everyone else, that the game was heading towards professionalism and it knew that such a tournament would provide impetus to the already inexorable drive to a fully open sport.
Nobody knew whether the inaugural tournament, held jointly in New Zealand and Australia in 1987, would be a success and while it might have captured the attention of the Kiwi public, in Australia it gleaned little more than mentions on the inside back pages. Being based in Sydney with England allowed me to witness the indifference of the media and public alike – it would be right to say that rugby’s first World Cup was a heavily qualified success.
What the tournament did establish was the four-year cycles of planning which now dominate the rugby calendar; everything from that point had in its background the fight for the Webb Ellis Cup.
It was the fact that the second World Cup was held in England, and England got to the final, that propelled the event on to the back and ultimately the front pages of the press; it went from the final to the first mention on the general news programmes. Rugby players, who hitherto had been known only to their committed fans started to feature in general sports columns and, in some cases, the gossip columns as well. Let’s not be demure about this, the rumours about England captain Will Carling and the late Princess Diana did the game no harm at all from a publicity angle.
What has happened since the 1991 World Cup is a steady but ineluctable increase in media interest, attendances, sponsorship and, importantly, the quality of rugby. There is no reason to suppose that the impending 2015 World Cup will not see all those aspects increase still further, though this depends to a large extent on England qualifying for the knockout stages of the tournament.
It is not just the advent of professionalism that has aided the increased profile of rugby, though that has been a factor. The
creation of 24 hour media and the internet have been huge aids in publicising the World Cup, highlighting its stars and villains. The ubiquity of camera phones and the ability to disseminate information worldwide at the push of a social media button has changed forever the relationship between participants and public. What was once a case of my word against yours over an incident is no longer so when said incident is captured digitally.
Today’s players will enjoy significant rewards for playing and succeeding in the World Cup. While still a fraction of their football counterparts, earning a six-figure sum for a six-week tournament is not insignificant. On the other hand they, particularly the England players, will have to understand that this comes with several caveats and some are not pleasant.
It may shock some but there will be media people tasked solely with finding out any dirty little details that might dwell in players’ past or present. To many this is unpatriotic but it is not even a question of that – for it to be unpatriotic would mean some thought was given to the notion in the first place. It is not; it is simply a way of increasing circulation against rivals.
For players, it is not just a question of avoiding unwanted headlines by incautious posts on social media. Their family, friends and people with tenuous associations will also be on the radar to provide details for the next scandal. Lest you think the above fanciful, you should know that the British Olympic Association programme ‘First Games Home Games’ addressed this point directly and the England camp have been similarly briefed about the potential pitfalls.
On the other side of the seemingly unremitting media and public attention equation is the glory and fame that awaits the victors. Such is the desire for success that any achievement of note will be widely broadcast among the team’s fans and public. A form of digital immortality beckons, together with the considerable satisfaction of being able to say that for the brief time you were on this planet you were the best in the world at something. Think on that and its import if you need any insight into what is offered.
The coming World Cup will be the biggest and possibly the best yet but I still think the players will not be able to have as much sheer fun as their predecessors.
What would the press today make of the incident in 1991 when Mike Teague nearly got his toe blown off by the accidental discharge of a gun on a shooting trip? What would they make of the less than sympathetic question of Dean Richards immediately thereafter ‘Did you get the b------?’ We know what they and the twitterati would make of it and of the Saturday night when Peter Winterbottom got so hammered he refused to leave his bedroom the following day because of the stick he knew he would get.
Maybe such things are necessarily precluded from professional rugby’s biggest competition. Perhaps the stakes and the prize are too great to accommodate frippery. If so, only accept the compensation if taking the whole lot seems adequate. Without that, the imposed strictures, denying so much, suddenly do not seem a price worth paying — if you had the choice.
What would the press today make of the incident in 1991 when Mike Teague nearly got his toe blown off on a shooting trip?
Way back when: Australia’s Tony Daly is tackled during the 1991 final versus England