by Frank Schnittger
Thu Sep 24th, 2015 at 01:28:21 PM EST
OK, so I know that Eurotrib.com isn't exactly a hotbed of sports fans, never mind professional rugby fans. But who amongst us is perfect? I've long been an armchair rugby supporter even though my own experience of the game is decidedly limited and mixed. So for the very afew readers here with a passing interest in rugby, what follows is my take on the Rugby World Cup which has just gotten under way.
- Although World Rugby Limited (the Governing Body) like to claim the Rugby World Cup is the third biggest sporting event that ever takes place on this planet, rugby still has relatively limited appeal. Only four countries (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England) have ever won the quadrennial World Cup in its 28 year history, and there are, at most, 7 or 8 countries with any realistic prospect of winning the Cup, and anything other than a New Zealand win this time around would be an upset.
- The fact that a "second tier" nation (Japan) has actually beaten one of the major powers (South Africa) in this years tournament is, already, one of the greatest shocks of World Cup history. Of course the playing schedule, designed to suit the "tier 1 nations", then immediately pitted the Japanese against an improving Scottish team with only three rest days in between. Not surprisingly, Japan then lost to a team much less accomplished than South Africa. Rugby is a much more physical game than soccer, and it simply isn't possible to peak for two games in a row within 5 days. Professional boxers, by way of comparison, often only have 2 or 3 fights in a year.
- If you want to predict the relative standard of each rugby playing nation, the following table is instructive:
New Zealand outperforms based on its player numbers because it is the no. 1 sport in New Zealand, and practically defines New Zealand's identity, whereas, say, in Ireland, Rugby is only the no. 3 or 4 sport, behind Gaelic football, Soccer, and Hurling.
4. The other key determinant of playing standard is whether a country can support or participate in a professional club league. New Zealand, South Africa, France and England have their own fully professional indigenous leagues whereas the Celtic Nations, Italy and Australia have a share in multi-national professional leagues.
5. Overall, however, there are only a few hundred fully professional players in even the leading nations, with the vast bulk of the players being amateurs. And even the top professional players only earn in a year what a top soccer player can earn in a week. Players in many nations like the Pacific islands or eastern Europe have to migrate to New Zealand, Australia, France or England to earn a living, and often end up playing international rugby for their adopted country. The advent of professionalism in the 1990's has therefore only served to accentuate the divide between the leading and second tier nations.
So who is going to win this year's tournament? If you can't contain your excitement, please follow me below the divide...
New Zealand have been the top team since the dawn of professionalism in the 1990's, but despite this, have only won the Cup twice, along with South Africa and Australia, with England winning once, in 2003. These countries remain the top contenders, with England having home advantage on this occasion.
France have been in contention several times, and were unfortunate to lose in the final the last time around. However their record under their current manager, Phillipe Saint-Andre has been appalling and many people fancy Ireland to beat them in the current group stage. (Ireland have won the last two 6 Nation European Championships in a row, albeit narrowly, under the astute tactical direction of their recently naturalised New Zealand born coach, Joe Schmidt). The French record at world cups is much superior to Ireland's, however, so their meeting on October 11th. will be one of the crunch matches of the tournament. The loser will probably go on to play New Zealand and face elimination by them at the quarter final stage of the tournament.
England, Australia, Wales, and Fiji are all in Group A, labelled the group of death, and only two of them can proceed to the quarter-finals. The first three are relatively evenly matched, but I would fancy England, with home advantage, and Australia, perhaps the most improved team, to advance to the next stage. This Saturday's England vs. Wales encounter will be seismic, and pivotal in deciding the outcome.
The most likely quarter-final matches would then pit:
England vs. South Africa
Australia vs. Scotland
France vs. New Zealand
Ireland vs. Argentina
On current form, I would then expect the semi-finals to be contested by:
England vs. Ireland
Australia vs. New Zealand.
However sport is nothing if not unpredictable, and any number of other permutations are possible. For what it's worth, I would expect the above matches to result in a New Zealand vs. Ireland final, with New Zealand winning comfortably. But who knows? After Japan beat South Africa, anything is possible, and rugby is a game generally won by whoever wants it more and is prepared to fight the hardest.
However before you put money on Ireland, consider the following: To win, Ireland have to win four key matches each with an approximately 50:50 chance of success. That translates into a roughly 1 in 16 chance of winning! Much the same can be said for the other contenders bar New Zealand, still, on current form, clearly the best team, and perhaps England, if refereeing bias is added to natural home advantage.
One of the flaws of rugby (compared to other sports) is that the laws are extremely complex and very open to interpretation by a referee who may be influenced by his surroundings. It is the one flaw which may prevent rugby from ever challenging soccer as the world game, because the spirit it is played in is generally far superior to soccer.
For all the brutal collisions, there is generally little play-acting or simulation by players, and TV scrutiny has eliminated most of the deliberate foul play. There are concerns about performance enhancing drug abuse, but generally the level of sportsmanship is still high, which is why I follow the game in preference to soccer.
But each to his own, I suppose. Have a look at some of the games. Perhaps you will enjoy them. It's quite a mixture of brutal power and skill. But even at it's worst, it is preferable to war - which it can sometimes resemble!