By Peter Jackson
At the FIFA World Cup last week, the No.1 seeds were knocked off their planetary pedestal by a country ranked 56 rungs beneath them. Regrettably, what South Korea did to Germany could never be replicated at the rugby version in Japan next year.
The very notion of rugby’s perennial No.1 team, New Zealand, being tripped up by the 57th, Sweden, is too preposterous for words. Even if World Rugby were to copy football and increase the number of finalists, the Swedes would still have no realistic hope of getting there.
Suppose, by some miracle, that one day they do run into the All Blacks. Rugby’s fundamental reliance on physical power guarantees that a fourth-rate country like Sweden would be pulverised on an embarrassing scale.
Three decades have come and gone since rugby’s first World Cup and in all that time only one country, Argentina, have emerged to threaten the old order, alas all too briefly. Semi-finalists in two of the last three tournaments, they are regressing at an alarming rate.
Three successive home defeats to Wales and Scotland prompted one expert to condemn the Pumas as ‘pathetic.’ Among Europe’s second tier, Georgia stand alone, the only continental outsider capable of rattling a Six Nations’ cage or two.
When it comes to giving the big teams a game, the rest are nowhere. Germany’s rise has been undone by the internal row behind the withdrawal of their billionaire backer Hans-Peter Wild which leaves them hopelessly equipped to reach a first World Cup.
Samoa may have disgraced themselves before their Prime Minister in losing to Tonga but they were still good enough to make the first leg of their qualifier against Germany a no-contest. There have been far too many mismatches and still they keep coming.
It could be argued that Holland are still recovering from what happened to them 20 years ago. Over-exposed and under-powered, they stumbled into a ludicrous World Cup qualifier against England at Huddersfield, conceded 18 tries and lost 110-0.
Martin Johnson, captaining England for the first time, gave a typically blunt verdict on the non-event: “It all felt pretty pointless.’’
Sir Clive Woodward, or plain Clive as he was back then, voiced concern before the match about player-safety. “In my view it is actually dangerous that such unequal contests should take place,’’ he said. “Such encounters should be avoided in the future. It was a terrible mismatch.’’
The Dutch have not been heard of since, at least not on the global stage. For all the noble efforts of Marc Visser and his two sons, not least the trail blazed by Tim across England and Scotland, they are a long way from adorning a World Cup with their famous orange jerseys any time soon.
Ravaged by financial problems, the Netherlander Rugby Board at least had the satisfaction of a second place finish behind Portugal this year. Despite that modest success, attendances are counted in the hundreds rather than thousands.
We like to think of rugby as a global game except that it isn’t. A truly global game offers a whole host of serious contenders as recent events all over Russia have shown. The beauty about football’s World Cup lies in its unpredictability, due in no small way to the rise of African nations like Senegal and Nigeria.
Springboks apart, rugby on the same continent appears as deserted as the Kalahari by contrast. As my colleague Brendan Gallagher pointed out in these pages last week, the game beyond South Africa has gone backwards.
Giant-killings at Rugby World Cups happen once in a blue moon, or maybe not even that often. Over the course of eight such tournaments, only eight countries have got as far as the semi-finals: New Zealand (7 times), Australia (6), France (6), England (4), South Africa (4), Wales (2), Argentina (2) and Scotland, once.
Over the same number of football World Cups, twice as many countries have made it to the last four: Argentina, Belguim, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Uruguay.
From this distance, there would appear to be fewer potential winners of next year’s World Cup in Japan than ever. New Zealand and Ireland for sure as the top two with Wales, all the better for a long overdue rejuvenation, heading the rest.