In many ways the Rugby World Cup is still a transitional event. Each year Rugby Union gets further away from its traditional roots….as a sport played in English private schools, universities, by professional men such as lawyers and doctors and exported by the English to the colonies.
In its own lore, Rugby was invented at a private boarding school in Rugby, Warwickshire, when a young man lifted a ball during a football game and ran the length of the field to acore with the ball in his hands. All very mid-19th century (like Football-Soccer, Baseball and competitive sports). Thus the Webb-Ellis Trophy, to be awarded in six weeks time commemorates this event.
But there are other Rugby traditions, notably an amateur code, which preserved its poshness and exclusivity. Indeed when miners and ordinary folks started receiving expenses in the North of England, their Association was expelled and two rival codes emerged…Rugby Union remained amateur and 15 man and Rugby League went professional and 13 man.
Any good Rugby Union player who was tempted to go professional in League was banned for life from the amateur game. While the League game had a heartland in the North of England, Union was the establishment game and was played in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France in the northern hemisphere and New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in the southern hemisphere.
The Five Nations (effectively a European Championship) and occasional tours from the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks was effectively the Rugby Union season, supplemented by club games which were sparsely attended.
But in the 1980s the posh classes…Margaret Thatcher was running Britain…and posh people discovered that money was as important as class and it can be no councidence that Union players were tempted by commercialism and cash. Professionalism was born. The smaller rugby nations, Ireland, Scotland, Wales had worried it would destroy their domestic game but the careful structuring of better club rugby around Europe…rather than England…actually improved standards.
The northern Five Nations Championship was expanded to the “Six Nations” bringing in Italy. But at heart the Rugby World is still dominated by the Big Eight…with Italy, Argentina and some others capable of the odd surprise result.
Even in 2015,it is likely that the quarter finals will feature seven of the Top Eight. While the four pools of five teams will have some interesting and competitive matches, the seeding means that the real action will begin at the quarter final stage. And the priority in the early stage is for the big teams not to slip up and get the best draw possible in the next stage.
The competition started last night. England beat Fiji in Pool A. This is the Pool in which one of the Big Eight will go out.
Pool A: England. Australia. Wales. Fiji. Uruguay. …..the biggest game in the Pool stages is likely to be England versus Wales. Wales are certainly capable of beating England but with home town advantage and their posh and unlikable supporters, I feel England will get thru with Australia.
Pool B: South Africa. Scotland. Samoa. Japan. United States……South Africa should make it without any problem. Scotland, will be hoping for no surprises against the less traditional nations.
The Winners in Pool A will play the Runners Up in Pool B. The Winners in Pool B will play the Runners Up in Pool A.
Pool C: New Zealand. Argentina. Tonga. Georgia. Namibia….New Zealand certain to go thru. And Argentina most likely to make it. But Georgia have surprisingly just beaten Tonga.
Pool D: France. Ireland. Italy. Canada. Romania……Ireland have never got past the Quarter Finals in any World Cup and should make it to the Quarter Final stage again. The big game in the Pool is France versus Ireland. It should determine who wins the Pool. Winning the Pool means avoiding the Winners of Pool C (most likely New Zealand) in the Quarter Final stage.
Notwithstanding Georgia just beating Tonga, the World Cup seems more about merchandising and money. While the TV commentators are jubilant at a surprise, they and the sponsors and kit manufacturers dont really want major surprises that would reduce revenue from sales of sports gear, beer, pizza or make the TV viewers switch channels.
Seven of the Big Eight will make the Quarter Finals. And while it would be nice, if Wales and Ireland got to the Semi Final stage….lets wait and see.