Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2007, 12:00am

The English have become, by necessity, prisoners of the past and creatures of memory. I know this for a fact. Four years ago I wrote a column in this newspaper about the Rugby World Cup. To this day, I still meet Englishmen who remember the column, which is rather flattering for a humble scribe.

What I would find a lot more flattering, however, is if they actually remembered what I wrote, as opposed to what they think I wrote. So with the World Cup upon us in France, this is probably as good a time as any to recall those words and see if they are still applicable today.

As I wrote back then, I have nothing against the game of rugby. There is integrity in rugby that is lacking in so many other sports these days. Even though professionalism is starting to permeate the game, rugby players will never come close to the rarefied income bracket that soccer, basketball and baseball players inhabit.

While they make far less money than their sporting peers, the brutal nature of their game almost ensures them a series of crippling injuries that they may never recover from. They are brave and hearty souls. The best rugby players in the world play because they love the game, and how can you not respect that in this day and age?

Any problem I do have with rugby is with the World Cup, and more specifically with the people who administer the competition, the International Rugby Board (IRB).

They pay lip service to the notion of growing the sport. In the first week of competition, Canada, a decent rugby country, were steamrolled by Wales. World powers New Zealand decapitated Italy, a semi-ambitious side, and South Africa trounced Samoa, while Scotland did the same to Portugal.

Granted, Argentina's tight victory over hosts France was a great way to start the tournament and England allowed the Americans to stay within 18 points, but other than that it was business as usual in the early rounds, meaning Christians versus lions.

But of all the games played so far, none set rugby back more than Australia beating Japan 91-3. According to rugby pundits, the Japanese will improve as the tournament goes on and they did play decidedly better in their second match when they lost to Fiji 35-31. But you don't close an 88-point gap in a couple of weeks. In fact, you don't close it in a couple of decades.

Four years ago when I bemoaned the spate of massacres in the early rounds, I was told in a rather dismissive way that the only way to improve was by playing superior opposition. Well let's see, 20 years ago Japan opened the first Rugby World Cup ever against Australia and lost 42-23. This is progress?

The reason it is so disheartening is that Japan is the perfect litmus test for the international growth and aspirations of rugby. Japan has a professional rugby league, the only one in Asia, and the game enjoys great popularity at the university level.

While it will never be as big as baseball or soccer, it would seem there is a burgeoning rugby culture in Japan. The problem is it is not being properly accommodated. When the IRB passed on Japan and awarded the 2011 World Cup to New Zealand, they basically kicked into touch a generation of Japanese and Asian rugby.

By having the World Cup in Asia, the profile of rugby would have increased dramatically and presented young athletes around the region with a viable sporting option.

The Japanese team would be forced to scour the country to actively enlist some of the best athletes and ensure that the hosts would not be embarrassed at home. It would have taken time and resources, no doubt. But they would have been happily allocated.

Now there are rumours that Japan may be the host in 2015. Maybe.

What that means is that another four or five years will pass before the country focuses on rugby. Another generation will have been steered towards other sports. After all, who wants to play on a team who lose by 88 points? Life is embarrassing enough.

Can you grow your sport without having a presence in the world's most populous, and soon to be most prosperous, continent?

Well, Formula One certainly doesn't think so. Eight years ago they had one race in Asia and by this time next year there will be four with more certain to come.

The NBA is also all over the place here as well, playing regular-season games in Japan and exhibitions in China and Macau. And of course none of Europe's super soccer teams miss a chance to tour Asia and considerably fatten up their wallets either.

In Asia, rugby sevens, which purists tell me is an abomination of the game, is far more popular than the 15s version and looks like it will stay that way for a while.

Four years ago I wrote that any sort of renaissance rugby was enjoying was largely driven by England's World Cup victory.

They were a country with a ravenous and influential media that was desperate for any kind of international sporting success. They had a World Cup title now and they were going to make damn sure the rest of the world knew about it. That's not a knock, it's just an observation.

Australia or New Zealand winning this time around won't do much to grow the game, but maybe that's really not the goal for the IRB. While Argentina's emergence is exciting, all the mismatches so far merely confirm that the status quo still rules rugby and likely will for the foreseeable future.


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Tim Noonan

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