THE FERRIE FILES
ONLY once in the seven previous World Cups has a European side claimed the Webb Ellis Trophy, but despite the fact they are hosts, the team in question, England, now face a struggle just to reach the knockout stages of the current one.
Given the level of interest so far, it would be bad for the tournament, as for any major competition, to see the home nation eliminated early.
It would also be a first, because no host World Cup has ever been without a host nation at the semi-final stage.
In 1987 both New Zealand and Australia got that far, with the All Blacks winning the tournament; in 1991 we had that Scotland-England semi-final; in 1995 the Springboks went the distance at their first attempt; in 1999, with the old five nations sharing the duties in their final year before becoming six, France got in among the Southern Hemisphere big three, shocking the All Blacks in the semis; in 2003 Australia lost the extra-time final to England; in 2007 France avoided the potential embarrassment of exiting their own tournament on foreign soil by shocking the All Blacks once more in a quarter-final in Cardiff; and in 2011 the All Blacks again prevailed in Auckland.
In fairness, even immediately after their defeat by Wales at the weekend, which meant they now face a do-or-die encounter with current Southern Hemisphere champions Australia, the bookies have not yet lost faith in England, continuing to make them second favourites. While it is a truism to say they are rarely wrong, however, that says more about betting patterns than it necessarily does about expert views and the prospect of so many loyal Englishmen having continued to back the team even after the mistakes made against Wales may do their team no favours when they return to Twickenham. Partisanship is one element, but the prospect of Englishmen losing their money to foreign visitors is quite another.
Which brings us to the question of immigration and just how beneficial it could prove to be for these World Cup organisers should England fail to get through. For all that there have been upsets, it looks like the traditional contenders will be there or thereabouts come the knockout stages, with the Southern Hemisphere big three and three of the Home Unions likely to fill three-quarters of the quarter-final slots, with France and Argentina also well positioned.
Even the most rabid of right wingers are unlikely to complain about the prospect of increased queues at Calais generated by free-spending French rugby supporters, while there is no shortage of Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, Scots or Welsh in England.
However Sunday’s evidence was that if any team is positioned to take over as surrogate hosts it must be the once reviled Irish.
Many can still recall the objectionable signs “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” on premises in London and the tension generated by ‘the troubles’ prolonged an uneasy relationship between Irish immigrants and English authorities. There was, though, not the slightest sign of anyone clad in green being the least bit unwelcome at the hostelries surrounding English sport’s most famous venue on Sunday.
The Wembley Arch was lit green in their honour as a record World Cup crowd assembled for one of the tournament’s least competitive matches. It was an impressive show of support by those with Irish connections and offered an indication of what might be expected if, having traditionally disappointed at World Cups, they can reach the semi-finals for the first time.
If England go out on Saturday, how curious it will be, then, in these referendum-dominated times, that the standard bearers for home hopes may become the European champions who normally play their home games in the capital of a country that opted out of being part of the UK a century ago.
AND ANOTHER THING . . .
IS the glass half empty or is it half full? Ireland and Scotland are the only two teams in the World Cup to have accrued full points from their opening matches, but Ireland and Scotland are the only two of international rugby’s original big eight to have played the bottom two seeds in their pools.
The way supporters react to the situation is almost like a social experiment in being Celtic. As Scots anxiously assess just how good the Samoans were in defeat to the Springboks and whether the two time champions are now anywhere close to getting back to their formidable best, in Ireland there is only confidence of progress and of topping Pool D as they prepare to take on Six Nations rivals France and Italy in their remaining games.
HOME FROM HOME: The Irish support have made Wembley their own