Big fish in a small pond? Those minnows still have teeth

Tonga Celebrate (Toni Vilches,

Rob Douglas looks back at the story of the group stages and at some of the ‘upsets’ that have taken place.

Mid-way point: As the World Cup saunters into the knockout phases, the story of the competition to date is not New Zealand’s predictable infallibility against non-existent opposition. Neither is it the demise of the Northern Hemisphere sides, culminating in the unforgivable early exits of both Wales and Ireland. It is not even the return of the old school up and under, last seen as a reliable attacking weapon sometime before I was born.

No, the lasting images that will be taken away from the first four weeks are those involving the ‘lesser’ nations, either smashing hell out of one another in their own must win group stage matches, or displaying heroic pride against established first-rate opposition.

Against the odds: The IRB operates a multi-tier system which regulates the level of funding and investment a nation’s Union will receive, but this can be effectively summed up as the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. There are 95 registered Member Unions within the IRB and it is no surprise that the top dozen of these are the main focus of its attention, particularly in financial matters as they are the sides that generate the vast majority of the income from television and advertising and marketing interest. However, the widening gap in resources and money has not stopped the lower tier sides in this world cup producing some memorable performances.

Georgia coming tantalisingly close to turning Ireland over; Japan giving Fiji a real scare and then tying with Canada; even Portugal’s valour in their thrashing by the All Blacks thereby managing to do what Scotland couldn’t and cross the try line (indeed, score a point!). All of these raised bigger cheers than any elite nation has managed so far.

The South Sea Islands: Of course, the most blinding scandal of all concerns Samoa, Tonga Fiji. Perhaps some may argue that it is only fair to handicap these sides further than their tiny populations already do (Tonga consists of 112,000 people) given their unfair natural advantage in that they have been genetically designed to play rugby.

The travesties surrounding these South Sea sides is well documented, from the unrepentant (but economically welcome) Antipodean poaching that goes on to the chronic lack of financial support centrally distributed to them. The Fijian squad wished to travel to Nantes the night before their miraculous game against Wales but couldn’t afford the overnight hotel expense necessitating a pre-dawn departure on match day. The historical fixture with England was only televised in Tonga, a country undergoing serious domestic problems, due to the generosity of a wealthy Tongan businessman living in Germany along with the Chinese ambassador on the island. These teams have no right to achieve what they have, and it is no wonder they are the neutral’s favourites wherever they go, particularly as they play a brand of rugby characterised by natural enthusiasm and effervescent physicality. All hail Fiji who fully justify a place in the quarters, though they may find South Africa a slightly different beast to Wales come Sunday – one thing is for certain, the Springboks will not underestimate them.

Money talks: The injustice of commercial pressures does not stop with the teams lower down the pecking order. Argentina have climbed to fourth in the IRB rankings, yet they are repeatedly denied a place in one of the two major tournament’s outside of the world cup, either of which they would most certainly challenge for. The scheduling of their World Cup matches was as always a disgrace, having to face a pumped up Georgia team just four days after their exhausting triumph over France in the opening match simply because in terms of TV scheduling they are not considered a mainstream side. Their victory over the hosts was no surprise and no fluke: they had defeated France in four of their five meeting priors to this game and had only lost by a point in France on the other occasion. They won on Sunday not because Ireland had to play high-risk, try-chasing rugby but because they dominated the critical areas, winning both the battle of the breakdown and the kicking game through the peerless Hernandez and Contepomi. Argentina must be given the respect they deserve, and that does not mean letting them join the Six Nations to play their home matches in Madrid.

A bright future: The gulf in class that has grown again between the leading nations of the Northern and Southern Hemisphere has shown itself to be a canyon during this World Cup. However, the most revealing and also encouraging aspect has not been the top three or four sides pulling away from the pack, but the bottom eight or nine showing they deserve to be eating at the big boys’ table. The balance of power may be starting to shift slightly in world rugby, and that is to be nurtured: Japan should have been awarded the 2011 World Cup, that they weren’t is further proof of the IRB’s nepotism and favouritism. The pond may still be a small one, but it is starting to expand a little, and the little fish at the bottom of the food chain are just as hungry as those at the top.

10 thoughts on “Big fish in a small pond? Those minnows still have teeth

  1. It has indeed been fantastic and the fact that one of these shocks was at the expense of the Welsh has no bearing on my enjoyment at all. OK maybe a little!

    I’m going to go a bit against the grain here, but I think a 16 team RWC would have its benefits – hear me out on this one!

    The biggest problem now is that 5 is an odd number, so not all teams in a group can play on a weekend.
    Just by cutting one from each group we could then have 4 consecutive weekends of games (like we do now) but eliminate midweek games completely.

    The big boys need to play at weekends. Fact. Money talks, like you say Rob and although I would watch England midweek, not enough others would, so ratings would fall and sponsors would leave. It’s annoying, but this will never change.

    So why should the lesser nations play midweek? The RWC wouldn’t lose momentum – the midweek games aren’t that popular anyway, or else they wouldn’t be hidden away on ITV 2, 3 and 4.

    At the moment, the minnows have to take up all of the slack by playing midweek, so as if playing NZ, SA, Aus etc wasn’t hard enough, they have to do it knackered and/or injured!

    Granted, this would exclude more smaller nations, but we could have a second tier tournament, for teams that just failed to qualify, or a ‘plate’ tournament which the teams eliminated from the groups go in to.

    The latter is what was suggested by England when they bid for the 2007 tournament, but they were lambasted for being ‘elitist’ for suggesting a plate tournament.

    16 teams would mean that there were fewer minnows, but those that played would have a better chance.
    I just feel that there is only so much that a team like Portugal can learn from being hammered out of sight by NZ. They’d learn more in the short term from playing teams nearer their level.

    Longer term though, they’d still have the RWC to progress to. I’d sooner see 8 minnows, all on a level playing field than have 12 of them, but all shafted by bad scheduling.

    It’s taken the Pacific Islanders years of hard work against the odds to get where they are, but this process could be sped up by having fewer games and better recovery times.

    Of course, this whole ‘odd number’ scenario is the same in the Tri Nations – if they’d only let Argentina in, there could be two games to watch every weekend and the tournament wouldn’t take any longer to play and teams wouldn’t have any ‘dead’ weeks without a game.

    But they won’t, and they call us elitist!

  2. D’oh! No sooner did I post the above than I realised that there would be 3 consecutive weekends in the group stages, not 4, but I still think the tournament would be better for having 16 teams.

  3. I’m inclined to agree Rob, and Rob. Take out the likes of the USA, Romania, Portugal, Namibia…and you have cut down on the number of needless ‘contests’ that create an embarrassing edge to the RWC format. At least the 3,000 teams that take part in the Football equivalent have a chance of a lucky goal here and there to gain them some semblance of a chance, but in rugby there is too big a gulf between the top teams and the minnows.

    I’m not condoning a general amputation of all but the top tier, as the lesser Second Tier teams have done themselves proud this RWC and shouted their talent out to the world, but cutting out the 100-point margins in games and giving ALL players an equal rest time before games can surely only be a good thing.

    Having said that, as an addicted fan I still take immense pleasure in the mid-week thrills that only a Romania-Portugal contest can provide.

  4. And there, but for a rugby-hating wife go I! As it is though I have to cherry pick my games in order to stay married, so my midweek viewing has been minimal. It could be worse though, she could take an interest and ask me loads of questions or worse still ask to come to a game with me!

  5. You’re right that not a lot cannot be gained from suffering 100 point hammerings, except that for the Portuguese players this was probably the highlight of their sporting lives and gives them exposure to stadiums/television audiences that a second-tier comp or plate equivalent never would.

    The mid-week games are great for fans, keep you ticking over til the wknd action – and a chance for Martin Bayfield to show his banter.

    Definitely keep the 20 teams for me, a few of their players may even get noticed enough to turn professional – Takudzwa Ngwenya for instance!

  6. I’d go with 20 teams. The day rugby surrenders everything to TV scheduling is the day it is not much better than football. It should be about the development of the game and making it truly global and for that to happen the emerging nations should be retained. I don’t think you can begrudge them their time in the spotlight once every 4 years.
    There are also strong signs that they are improving and hopefully will continue to do so.

    The flipside of the weekend scheduling is for those who play rugby every weekend – I have missed 1 of England’s pool games and will miss the quarter final because I’m playing. Livid. Midweek evening games suit me down to the ground. However as I said, these matters should not be driven entirely by what the TV stations want.

    You should have got a pre-nuptial agreement that your marriage is frozen during the rugby world cup and will recommence once all celebrations/sulking has finished.

  7. Why should the world cup have gone to Japan rather then New Zealand? New Zealand will never hold the world cup again, we simply do not have enough people nor infrastructure to warrant it coming back to this land.

    New Zealander’s are passionate about rugby and yet you would deprive us of our final chance of ever getting a chance to hold the world cup here again, not because you truly believe in the game developing, but because you are afraid that New Zealand might not choke while playing at home.

    You’re afraid of New Zealand winning the world cup.

    Japan was not a good choice, if you want to see Rugby develop, the world cup should be held in Argentina, as they are riding high and if they got close to winning a Rugby would cup the game would receive a massive boost in that region of the world.

  8. Why would 2011 be New Zealand’s last chance? You would have co-hosted the 2003 show if your Union hadn’t rivalled the English one for being run by “50 old farts”.

    I’m glad at least you recognise the AB’s have got a choking tendency – I assure you I’m not afraid of your boys winning the world cup, it will have only taken them 20 years to replicate the feat.

    Agree the Argies should host a tournament, also think Japan would have put on a great spectacle and hopefully will soon.

  9. Think that’s a bit of a siege mentality you’ve got going there. The decision has nothing to do with not wanting to see a particular team win the World Cup. It is about the global good of the game as a whole, something which is anathema to the NZRFU. I don’t know anyone who would object strongly to seing NZ win the tournament but the main thing is see some awesome rugby and get as many people as possible interested.

    Having been on tour there last year I’d like to see Canada given a crack at it. Although the sport isn’t big there, those who like their rugby are as passionate about it as anyone.

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