Friday, September 09, 2011

The problem with the rugby world cup

As a fan of the game with the oval shaped ball, I should be rather more excited about the Rugby World Cup than I am. This is because it is a rather unsatisfactory tournament for one simple reason - there are too few games where the result is in doubt and likely to make a difference to who qualifies for the next round.

In soccer there is a sense that in any given match anything can happen. Algeria can hold England to a draw; the cup-holders can be eliminated without winning a game. Even the weaker teams who are unlikely to progress to the next round might have a say in who does qualify.

In rugby this doesn't happen - nearly every time the stronger team will win out, overpowering their opponents, and as teams are allowed to substitute nearly half their players during the course of a match, rugby's powers have ensured an even stronger bias in favour of the bigger rugby playing nations.

By my reckoning , of the 40 pool games only about six that could both be won by either team  and make a difference as to who qualifies. (Those involving Wales, Fiji and Samoa in Pool D and Scotland, England and Argentina in Pool B.)

Admittedly, the last Rugby World Cup did offer some surprises - Argentina's victory over France in the opening game, and their becoming the first country outside the traditional eight to reach the semi-finals and Wales's defeat at the hands of Fiji. Yet still the majority of games at the pool stage started as a foregone conclusion.

Rugby also has been poor at broadening its competitive base - Argentina still don't take part in a major international competition, as a result have not built on their success of four years ago and last month were reduced to playing one of their warm-up games against an English club side.

The tournament will open in a few hours with a game in which the only matter in doubt is whether Tonga will be able to restrict New Zealand to a margin of victory lower than 50 points (unlikely). So I shall wish the underdogs well (other than those playing Scotland or, in deference to my dear wife, Wales) but suspect I won't be watching all that many games.

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