For all the excitement surrounding Martin Johnson’s first game in charge of England and his new look line-up, it was a game which I believe should never have been played.
Rugby’s treatment of the so-called ‘second tier’ nations remains an ugly blot on the sport’s landscape and unfortunately games like Saturday’s serves purely to legitimise the maltreatment of these teams.
Which teams did you most enjoy watching at the last World Cup? I don’t think I am alone in selecting Fiji and Tonga and it certainly was not just because I love seeing an underdog sticking it to the established order. They ooze talent and ability and play with a joy, ebullience and enthusiasm which drags even the most uninterested, restrained supporter to the edge of his corporate armchair. Fiji gave eventual champions South Africa a far better game than anyone else in the competition.
So why are they only given a chance to play at the top level for their actual countries once every 4 years? Why are they combined and treated as some form of novelty act, given little funding and preparation time and used merely as a warm up by better prepared teams and cynical unions who know they will haul in the crowds and be a nice little earner?
It is beyond patronising and in any other walk of life there would be absolute outcry. At a time when the world generally frowns upon elitism, rugby union runs the most closed shop imaginable. The rich continue to be utterly self-serving, getting richer and richer while the rest are barely treated as citizens at all, let alone even second-class ones.
The major unions talk about growing the world game and attracting new interest and the best they can come up with is New Zealand playing Australia for the 4th (yes 4th) time in a season in Hong Kong. And this after another protracted Tri-Nations series where everyone played each other 3 times.
In a fixture list where New Zealand and Australia can find time to play each other 4 times, can there really be no room in the fixture list for Tonga, Fiji and Samoa to be awarded matches in their own right? Is the elite end of the game really that much of a closed shop? How well do the likes of these 3 and Argentina have to play in order to be given the respect and fixtures they deserve and have earned?
Is it fear that drives the big 8/9 into refusing to give what is due? The Home Nations know that these teams can regularly give them a serious game and that there’s the potential to be embarrassed. The Antipodeans know that if these countries become forces, then the conveyor belt of South Sea talent feeding their own national teams may dry up (and don’t try to pretend it doesn’t happen).
Furthermore, even if, try as they might, the elite cannot find it in themselves to give the individual islands proper fixtures and will only play a conglomerate, they could at least do it on a level playing field. For all the wranglings over player release over the years between the major unions and the clubs, what about the players playing for the lesser nations? Why should they not be released to train for a decent amount of time with their national team? Is it fear once again that if these boys are allowed to actually build up an understanding they could run us off the park?
In football, all clubs are obliged to release players to their countries for competitive internationals for the same amount of time. Rugby does not extend this courtesy to its perceived lesser citizens. One of the saddest rugby stories of recent years was when Trevor Leota was unable to travel to the 2003 World Cup because he couldn’t afford the time away from his employers, London Wasps. One of the world’s most popular players was robbed of the chance to play in the sport’s showpiece.
The Pacific Islanders were pretty poor on Saturday but is it any wonder when every step of the way these proud rugby nations find obstacles littering their path? And how must the players and people of these rugby-mad nations feel when, on examining those obstacles, they find the fingerprints of those who run the global game all over them? For 3 nations who give so much to the global game, they receive almost nothing in return, not even the opportunity to run out at Twickenham, Stadium Australia, the Stade de France or wherever, representing their own country.
Rugby’s elitism needs addressing quickly. Maybe we can find in rugby an ideal place for the application of the ideas of Karl Marx. Maybe he was talking about rugby all along. An end to the oppression of rugby’s lower orders and a redistribution of power and wealth is needed to stop our comrades in the South Pacific from being treated quite so shabbily.