Stuart Barnes reveals his World Cup frustrations and explains how he would alter future tournaments.
Last Updated: 01/11/11 12:49pm
A final word on the World Cup.
Last Thursday I intended to explain my reservations regarding the competition but a combination of a virus that lowered my usual levels of determination to have my say (!) and Will Greenwood's seeming determination for any opinion different to the party line of the IRB not to be heard, rather stifled the debate at source. I have to hand it to Will; it is not often I am filibustered.
But here is a chance to nail my thesis - Luther like - to the electronic doors of the internet and introduce a measured discussion. Firstly, the tournament suffered because of insufficient games of quality at the pool stage. The shocks and high-intensity games were overrun by the formalities. That cannot be good for the game.
Yes, there were occasional scare stories like Scotland's near nightmare with Romania but the flip side was Romania then fielding a second team against England in order to prepare for their match with Georgia, which was regarded as the more important match.
The same occurred with both USA and Russia who - despite official claims that the smaller rugby nations deserve their four-yearly shot at the giants - chose to rest their best players in games they dismissed as unwinnable.
Where does that leave the claim that the tournament brings the best together? In reality, it does not. Making the elite play every four days every now and then is not the answer. They possess squads designed for just this eventuality. It merely appears more just.
Margins between the best and the rest closed but the polar caps will melt before the majority of competitors tackle the traditional nations with any hope of victory. I wish it was not so but it is.
No amount of wishful thinking will change this. The gap's closure has to be focussed upon between World Cups, not during them, although the sport's politicians see the tournament as a great stage for empty platitudes.
The gaps between the first and second weekend was interminable as game after processional game took place with the smaller teams sacrificing their opportunity to throw their best men at the best teams. They were more interested in securing a high-enough pool place to qualify for the next tournament. Hence Romania ensured their match with England would be no contest as they prepared for the Georgia game that had something tangible at stake.
They became so obsessed with qualification for 2015 they forgot what the point of qualification was...or did they? Maybe John Kirwan was right to leave Japan's best players out against New Zealand because they could not win but they needed to be fresh for other games. The reality is that for some teams the World Cup is a matter of strategic selection and one or two games maximum. This cannot be right.
Nor is it good for the game that France can lose to Tonga having already been beaten and know they have a winnable quarter-final in front of them. This is the other side of a tournament with the competition spread too thin. How much better would it be for the big and small nations if every match counted?
Which brings me to my thesis: a divided competition (recognising the fact that few teams play to win the World Cup) with an elite dozen teams and a second tier dozen based upon a combination of world rankings and qualification games 12 months before the tournament.
Structurally, the tedium of the one-sided midweek games gives way to the potential of a whole series of Canada versus Japan type games played during the midweek while the weekend is reserved for the elite fixtures. There would be more participants and more competitive rugby, although the IRB would have to come clean and stop pretending there is any purpose to Namibia competing as if it could win the Webb Ellis trophy.
Each division would see all sides playing five games with the top two from each tier advancing to semi-finals. One round of sudden death is lost, but games at the group stage become sudden-death much earlier.
Imagine, based upon a seeding system of 1,4,5,8,9 and 12 in one pool and 2,3,6,7,10 and 11 in the other (this is an example for debate. not a rigid suggestion).
The Elite competition would have New Zealand as top seed in one pool, joined by South Africa, England, Wales, Tonga and Italy. The other pool would comprise Australia, France, Ireland, Argentina, Scotland and Samoa. The winners of one pool meet the runners-up in the other. Winning this tournament would be truly daunting.
There would be no easy games against the lesser teams and few impossible challenges for these sides, which makes the event so much more worthwhile in my eyes. Strip away this silly veneer of 'rights' to meet the best (which many of these sides rejected) and suddenly teams like Canada, Georgia and Japan are fighting with the Romanians and Americans to win a trophy which they will NEVER otherwise achieve.
The second tier pools line up Canada, Fiji, USA, Portugal, Russia and Spain and, in the other half, Georgia, Japan, Romania, Namibia, Uruguay and Chile. There would be so many more well-matched contests and so many more teams in with a shot of a trophy. But this is apparently regressive. It is if you believe the game is growing at a startling pace. If you approach the matter with eyes wide open, however, you might just have a better six weeks of rugby in every sense.
P.S. There would be potential for teams to move between the tiers and that would make the interim period one of less stability and more excitement. Is that not what the IRB wants? One year before the competition the 11th and 12th ranked teams would have - say - a tournament with the 13th and 14th ranked, allowing teams (two is my suggestion) the chance to rise and fall. It does mean the IRB ranking system needs a bit of a rethink but that's not impossible.
This is only a broad alternative suggestion and is up here for considered debate. I'd be intrigued to hear your views on this subject.
Until next week,Stuart
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Hi Stuart, given Shane Williams's decision to retire from international rugby at the end of this year, I just wondered where he stands in your estimation when it comes to the best wingers of the last two decades?
STUART REPLIES: Shane is one of the Welsh greats....the fact that he snubbed the preconceived wisdom of the age and stayed (relatively) small and kept scoring tries of wonderful originality for Wales, the Lions and the Ospreys makes him a hero for those who think there is more to rugby than a gym and a spreadsheet of statistics.
Stuart, still smarting after defeat to Saracens. Simple one for you, my friend. Did the video referee call Brad Barritt's try correctly? I've got my doubts...
STUART REPLIES: Taylor, I too have my doubts but had there been no TMO my first response was try so I'll go with Geoff Warren who is one of the best TMO's in the world..