Source: World Rugby

How does next year’s World Cup look from this distance?

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Now rugby has come to a complete halt, we have the chance to look forward – with guarded optimism.

The great unknown is of course the progress of coronavirus. How soon will it leave us? Will it disappear at roughly the same time right across the world?
Every prospective test player has had her eye of RWC 2021 from a long way back. Now expectations have had to be put on hold.

The most recent staging-post took place in February at Eden Park Auckland, when the dates and venues were announced. The Chair of the RWC 2021 Organising Committee, Dame Julie Christie, and Sir Bill Beaumont, Chair of World Rugby, spoke with optimism about the coming event. But some attenders were underwhelmed by speeches that lasted an hour.

Latest: New Zealand Rugby has just announced (11 May) the resumption of play in the Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament in June. Let’s hope all the safety obstacles are cleared to bring that to pass.

Changes

Several format changes have been made: the tournament has been retitled to remove gender designation; hence ‘RWC 2021’, not ‘WRWC 2021’ Yet even this attempt at removing discrimination against women’s rugby has found its critics. More than one ex-international would have preferred retaining the old title.
The traditional classification matches (for world ranking places) will be replaced by quarter-finals.

The tournament length has been extended (dates 18 September to 16 October 2021) and the number of players per squad increased. Both these steps come none too soon. The 2017 version lasted 18 days; the next one will be eleven days longer. Yet even this much needed adjustment comes at a cost: WR has not yet explained how the players (the vast majority amateurs) can be expected to take at least a month off work. Both before and after the tournament they will hardly be in a position to concentrate 100% on their everyday job. Beforehand minds will be elsewhere; afterwards bodies will need healing.

Each squad will number 30, an increase of two on last time. Beneficial as this is for all concerned, it still favours the strongest nations competing: their large player-pools will ensure their benches outrank their opponents in skill and experience.

Other aspects remain unaltered. First and foremost only twelve nations will compete. WR has rejected calls for that number to be increased to 16 (or even 20). The fear is that this makes the RWC look like a closed shop, open to a few regular guests. In 2002 16 nations competed, completing the entire tournament in 13 days! Likewise in 2006, only this time 18 days were authorized.

This must be the last World Cup to involve only twelve nations.

At least one commentator with an inside eye, Rupert Cox, has doubted whether New Zealand will be able to match Ireland’s attendances at the pool games. It will help if matches are spread around the clock. In the 2017 pool stages the main stadium, the Bowl at University College Dublin, filled up only for the third of the three games played in sequence – the one involving the home team. This led to dismay from people who failed to obtain tickets because they heard the ground was sold out. The opening game between England and Spain was sparsely attended.

We must hope that New Zealand fans will prove more willing and able to watch all the games on offer. For them there is at least a novelty value in seeing teams who have never before visited their country. With a much smaller population on hand it will need a real push from the organizers to ensure the attendance figures in Ireland, around 38,000, are overtaken.

Qualification

Qualification patterns have been refined with the object of opening participation to more parts of the world. This positive step too has its downside: high-ranking nations will be excluded at an early stage, because standards vary so widely from continent to continent.

Most disturbing of all: only one of Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Spain will fly to New Zealand. Nations ranking some way below them will be there. We can concoct our own list of favourite players who are bound to be absent, once that elimination process is complete.

This time round the top seven at the WRWC 2017 go through automatically: NZ, England, France, USA, Canada, Australia and Wales. South Africa have qualified from Africa. The last four places will go to nations from either South America, Africa, Asia, Europe or Oceania. Note that South Africa lost at home last October 2-0 to Scotland.

The Women’s Strategy Plan 2011-16 looked forward as far as the WRWC of 2018 (in fact it had to be brought forward to 2017). That plan has now been supplanted by an even more ambitious 2017-2025 version. Many of the targets they set have been reached, but not all. Large areas of the world have not yet attained the levels hoped for, so South America and Africa for example still don’t figure as prominently as had been hoped. It would be encouraging to see a nation like Colombia making it through to the final stages. Recently they beat Brazil 23-19 in a World Cup Eliminator at home.

Money Matters

Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on the finances of the rugby world. I reported earlier on USA Rugby’s plight: they have gone into administration. In 2019 two senior Eagles, Kristine Sommer and Alicia Washington, set up a fund-raiser, XV Foundation, to support players who would otherwise have to pay for camps and tours themselves. ‘Adopt an Eagle’ is the watchword. One significant target is to offer stipends to supplement lost wages. That signals the heart of the problem: how the amateur player can still take part at representative level.

It’s an uphill struggle. The chances of less affluent nations managing to afford a month-long trip to New Zealand must at present seem in doubt.

World Rugby has made an £80m emergency fund available to all needy unions. But when that tidy sum of money is shared out around so many, you have to wonder how much each might receive. The most affluent of all the unions, the RFU, is itself in a bad way, having to furlough staff and cutting back on its operations. Every missing home international match means a loss of millions of pounds.

So how far will the World Cup be subsidized from the top? It is an expensive operation in which volunteers play a leading role.

At the conclusion of the Irish World Cup three years ago I wrote: ‘WR needs to examine what proportion of the total expenses it feels the host nation should bear, and how far it should bear the brunt itself.’

Sadly that question may be even more crucial for 2021. It would be nice to think that the television companies that have bought the rights to the competition were required to offer a much higher price for the privilege than last time.

People in Charge

Sir Bill Beaumont, as the re-elected Chair of World Rugby, has stressed the importance he attaches to the well-being of women’s rugby. He has so much on his plate at the moment that we must hope that that undertaking doesn’t get left on the back-burner. It would be nice to see more than one lone woman on the WR Committee. At least Katie Sadleir, General Manager of Women’s Rugby, doesn’t let grass grow under her feet.

Likely Outcomes to RWC 2021

We are still a long way off seeing the prizes shared out more widely.

Only eight nations have figured in a total of sixteen semi-final matches; only three have gone on to win the trophy. Loud voices are heard demanding a radical shake-up. If women’s rugby is to prosper worldwide, they argue, more nations must be allowed to take part in the great event, not just the qualifying stages. It seems a long while since teams like Germany, Kazakhstan, Russia and Sweden appeared.

Semi-finalists 1991-2017

1991 USA England France New Zealand
1994 England USA Wales France
1998 NZ USA England Canada
2002 NZ England France Canada
2006 NZ England France Canada
2010 NZ England Australia France
2014 England Canada France Ireland
2017 NZ England France USA

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