Ball In Touch: Our rugby columnist Jeff Ball explains why Wales’ decision to tour the Pacific Islanders by 2017 is a big step in the right direction. Join us on Twitter @BallInTouch to continue the discussion about this and more
Going The Extra Mile
As I was browsing the IRB’s world rankings (as you do), the list of international rugby teams there suggests that rugby is indeed a global game. Half of the worlds countries apparently plays rugby, with 93 member unions being topped by New Zealand and bottomed by Finland, with the powerhouses of Luxembourg and Vanuatu not far off. No, I hadn’t heard of it either -Vanuatu is about 1,000 miles East of Australia with a population of about 250,000, the same as Derby (Thanks Wikipedia).
Anyway, I digress. The point I was trying to make is that with rugby being played in the four corners of the globe (hate that phrase – how can a globe have corners? Sorry, digressing again) then to someone from outside our cosy rugby world, they will no doubt be perplexed that the list of countries England, the country rugby was officially born in, has toured in since the ’98 ‘Tour of Hell’ reads as follows: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, USA, Argentina. And it must be noted that some of them are one trips, several are repeat visits and some are a flying stop-over in a multi-national trip.
Back to our non-rugby friend and the question would undoubtedly be “is that it?” Yes dear friend that is it, six countries in 14 years and no sight of Vanuatu or the like.
Those of us who follow our men in white know the answers of course. The cynical response is: “it all comes down to money”, the non-cynical: “the lower nations don’t represent enough of a challenge or have the resources to host a big side”. The actual answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but realistically it is because the big sides are a bit selfish.
So let’s stop being selfish and being idealistic for a moment. Surely as one of the leaders of the global game it is England’s responsibility to do what it can to grow and develop the game in places of untapped potential? We just have to look at how football is growing in Asia to see the opportunities.
We aren’t alone, all the big sides stick to the same well trodden tours, taking turns to visit each other for the Summer Tours or Autumn Internationals .It is the same faces playing each other again and again. And that is why the ultimate competition, the World Cup, is a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest. Everyone must qualify, except the big sides who just have to turn up on the day and despite there being a lot of teams to pick from, there are only a few realistically who can win it. And everyone hates the English.
It’s all a bit cosy and it is an attitude that is perpetuated in the four years between tournaments – the big boys won’t play with the little kids unless it is in their backyard with their ball. That’s why Wales’ decision to tour the Pacific Islands of Tonga, Samoa and Fiji are a big step that should be applauded and encouraged. Admittedly we may have to wait until 2017 for it to happen, the fact the WRFU has publicly stated its intentions is a step in the right direction and makes it unlikely they will go back on their word.
Every World Cup the ‘minnows’ tag comes out, as do the talks about having a two tier competition. This is regularly shot down but it is understandable why it is voiced – we operate in a two tier international game, with even your most dedicated rugby fan unable to name more than one or two of the big players of the likes of Russia or Portugal off the top of their head, despite both featuring in recent tournaments.
Some of you may be quick to point out Scotland will be playing Samoa in Samoa this June. But that is on the back of matches against Fiji and crucially Australia. The majority of the funds for this tour will come from the Australia game, the ability to make a profit from these big occasions being the reason governing bodies will send their teams halfway around the world.
The Wales trip is unique because there is no big money making game. According to Wales Rugby CEO Roger Lewis, they are willing to take the financial loss to do these tours. The intention is to grow the game and show respect to the Pacific Islanders.
The next World Cup is in England and the one after that is in Japan. After that, the likes of the USA are realistic candidates for 2023 and the chances of seeing the World Cup in one of the big traditional countries within the next twenty years is extremely low. Realistically it could be another 40 years before the William Webb Ellis trophy graces the pitch of Twickenham again.
Therefore, efforts like Wales’ must become more and more commonplace. I have written previously about England’s need to grow the game in other parts of England, and I still hold to that – one Six Nations or Barbarians game in the North a year would be a good start.
But it’s when we see the likes of England taking on Samoa, or even Japan in Samoa or Japan, that’s when we will really be able to say we mean business about growing the game. It is all very well talking the talk, but until other big sides climb down from the top table and entertain the smaller nations on their home turf, it is only then we will be able to say with pride that rugby truly is a global game.
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