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Latest Developments on the World Cup Front – Plan B?

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The news of the New Zealand Sevens squad switching to play 15s with their clubs throws a lot of Gilberts in the air.

The cancellation of all the World Series 7s tournaments and the postponement of the Olympics has left them unemployed. Their move will help them and NZR to boost the World Cup next year. No news there yet of a possible delay to that tournament; some of us can’t be so sure.

The CE of the Welsh Rugby Union, Martyn Phillips, saw the earliest likely date for community rugby to restart in Wales as October. If that estimate is anywhere near correct, then, by extension, the timetable for the RWC looks cramped in the extreme. (Against that, Pro-14 intend to stage their tournament in August and September. We must assume that the five constituent nations have all agreed to that decision.)

How could the complete schedule of women’s repechage matches be played out in a maximum of eleven months, when some continents of the world are still suffering the ravages of the pandemic?

When is Colombia likely to permit a contact sport like rugby to go full-on? Their rugby team is looking forward eagerly to meeting Kenya, with the hope of a first-ever entry to World Cup pool-stages. But the current statistics read: coronavirus cases: 57,046; deaths 1,864.

Colombia’s neighbouring nations are suffering untold numbers of fatalities. Brazil, for example, shows 960,00 cases and 46,665 deaths.

These distressing figures simply underline the obstacles that lie in the face of a quick resumption of play. We must hope that the organising committee already has a Plan B in place.

Of the two possible outcomes I suggested

a) to go ahead with the tournament with a (much) reduced number of participating nations; or

b) to delay it for a year, mirroring what has happened to the Tokyo Olympics

The first would be unacceptable. It would then be limited to the countries that had had the luck to rid themselves of the pandemic soonest.

The second would be unpalatable but sensible. It would remove the close proximity of the two biggest rugby events on the world stage, the Tokyo Olympic Sevens and the RWC. It isn’t a good idea to leave them seven weeks apart. The one would impinge on the other. It would mean depriving the RWC of many of its best players as they fail to transfer across to the other format in time.

Like most other women’s rugby competitions, the RWC has suffered from inequalities of playing standards and funding ever since its start in 1991. In 2017 Hong Kong were invited along because Kazakhstan couldn’t afford the trip. With the likelihood of the Black Ferns including their great 7s players, the 2021 version would be a home banker to end all home bankers. The Ferns are already the top-ranked nation in the world. If they added starry names like Sarah Hirini, Ruby Tui, Michaela Blyde, Kelly Brazier and Portia Woodman to their strength, then the bookmakers wouldn’t be willing to take odds.

England and France may shake their heads at this thought, but history tells us otherwise.

There has been no news yet of Great Britain following the NZ move to bring 7s players back into the 15s fold. Their position is quite different: Scott Forrest, the head coach, has the tricky job of bringing together representatives from three unions, sifting the talent, then putting the chosen squad through its paces. All those steps have been put on hold, so the players must go on practising their skills and upping their fitness by whatever means they can. With no fall-back programme available, they need the World Series to keep them in meaningful practice.

WR is intent on spreading the game as wide as possible. To that end it needs to ensure that this ninth version of the World Cup includes as many unfamiliar faces as possible. It should take place only when all the qualifiers have had the time, space, health and funding to enjoy the experience to the full.

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