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.