Deciding the shape of rugby to come

Last updated 00:00 07/10/2007

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Greg Ford examines what the rugby world may look like when the next world cup rolls around in 2011.

It was on, and then off. A few days later it was on again, definitely. Then, the "final" word came through, it's off. Always was.

In the murky old world of rugby politics a secret, dark, thoroughly nutty, sort of place the meeting to decide how many teams would play at the next world cup in New Zealand was kicked to touch.

The vexatious issue was supposed to be addressed this week when the game's top politicians the International Rugby Board council meet. Jock Hobbs and Chris Moller will represent New Zealand and were due to vote alongside 24 others on whether 20 or 16 teams would play in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Retiring IRB chairman Syd Millar had told anyone prepared to listen the tournament would be pared back from 20 to 16.

But then came the flip-flop and the vote is off until November at the earliest. That's when the game's key stakeholders unions, clubs, sponsors will thrash out a series of troublesome issues, including the make-up of the next world cup.

The demand for top-class rugby has never been higher. But the seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres are out of sync in philosophy and structure. And that's put the squeeze on when and where these games can be held. Conflict has also been created over who gets what share of the revenue.

THE GAME'S crown, the world cup, has created as many problems as it has solved.

When and where should it be played? The current September-October window suits the southern hemisphere, the northerners prefer June-July.

And how does rugby remain relevant in the intervening years or are we stuck in an unbreakable four-year cycle of meaningless games between pinnacle events? And how many teams should play in these showpieces?

To an extent the IRB is happy deal with these sorts of problems, which mostly stem from growing pains.

Take for example, comments made by Canadian coach Ric Suggitt after his team bowed out of the cup.

For years the IRB copped plenty of criticism for not paying enough attention to Pacific Island rugby. Now, Suggitt was looking at the resources being poured into Samoa, Tonga and Fiji with envy.

"We have not played enough games and everyone has been saying that," Suggitt said. "You look at Tonga and the series they play against Fiji, Samoa, Japan, the Baby Blacks, Australia A and B, how nice that is and then they have their own internal competition.

"We need to do this. We need an elite season that gives our players 20 to 25 games a year so we can gauge our growth and development."

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But the game's problems are so tightly knotted, and there are so many competing interests, that it may be asking too much for all the problems to be solved next month.

Top of Hobbs' list will be trying to establish an agreement on how many teams should compete in the next cup. If it is pared back to 16 then New Zealand has a greater chance of making the tournament a financial success.

It costs about $100,000 to host a rugby team for a week. Cutting four teams would trim about $1.6m. But that would run the risk of teams like Samoa, Canada, Japan or Georgia missing out. The IRB has invested too heavily in these developing areas for that to happen.

PRESSURE WILL come to bear on Hobbs and his colleagues from South Africa and Australia to include Argentina in the Tri Nations.

The Pumas are ranked No5 in the world but, until recently, they were almost bankrupt. An IRB special grant dug them out of that hole.

And while the Pumas are the success story of this world cup, they rarely come together as a test team. In the four years between the 2003 world cup and this one, they played just 22 tests. The All Blacks played 43.

Then there's Japan, which for decades has been seen as the next big thing yet they still founder in no-man's land.

Japan is a financial powerhouse but the rugby potential has never been unlocked.

Tests against the Cherry Blossoms remain unviable from a competitive standpoint but the Japan coach, former All Blacks star John Kirwan, says lack of meaningful competition has thwarted progress.

At IRB level progress will also be slow. Consensus is rarely reached in such negotiations. But IRB sources are confident the stakes are high enough that some countries are now prepared to make sacrifices for the greater good.

For a change, the cost of doing nothing is too high.

- Sunday Star Times

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