A false dawn
September 16, 2011
The United States' Todd Clever and Roland Suniula celebrate their victory over Russia in New Plymouth © Getty Images
It was fun while it lasted but the party appears to be over for the so-called minnows of world rugby.
The Rugby World Cup's supposed supporting cast grabbed more than their fair share of the headlines in the opening week of the competition thanks to a series of battling performances that tournament officials would have only dreamt about in the build up to the big kick off. The likes of Romania, Japan, the United States and Georgia may have failed in their bid to claim a stunning upset but they did much to suggest that this will be the most even Rugby World Cup ever.
However, reality has a tendency to bite back and New Zealand's annihilation of a brave but limited Japan is set to be the first of a series of one-sided clashes that will underscore the gulf in class that continues to hinder the development of the game.
As notable and encouraging the displays of the Tier 2 and Tier 3 nations so far at this World Cup, it is foolish to think they have the strength in depth and the experiences to maintain that level of commitment and performance throughout the competition - especially when the scheduling does them no favours whatsoever.
Russia made an impressive World Cup debut against the United States on Wednesday but their reward in another two games in the next 10 days. Samoa also caught the eye in despatching Namibia in their tournament bow but will have had just three days rest before they go head-to-head with Wales in a crunch Pool D clash. Elsewhere, the USA must tackle Australia and Italy within a crazy five-day window while Georgia will barely have time for an ice bath in the wake of their opener against Scotland before tackling England.
"It is something that we will talk to World Cup organisers about," commented Georgia coach Richie Dixon this week but surely this point should have been addressed months or even years ago. Other sides are more philosophical about their plight and are just pleased to be here but that should not excuse the hand they have been dealt.
The match schedule was released by World Cup officials two and a half years ago but sides like Russia and Georgia didn't qualify for the tournament until a year later. And Romania only booked their place at the top table 11 months ago. When dealing with that kind of protracted qualification process, how can these countries lobby for anything favourable? The International Rugby Board may well trumpet the millions being pumped into the game but they are effectively giving with one hand and taking with the other by putting such a strain on the limited resources of these teams.
If anything, the top sides should be the ones forced to deal with such a severe turnaround as their players are used to such demands and have the ability to shoulder such a workload. Instead, they are afforded the comparative luxury of a week between their games with the TV broadcasters able to leverage their significant investment to ensure the big names play in the most optimum window in terms of commercial value.
Rugby World Cup Ltd need to address this long-standing issue as it is undermining the good work being done elsewhere to develop the game. A four-year £48m investment was unveiled in the wake of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, funded by the commercial success of the tournament, that followed an unprecedented three-year £30m programme aimed at supporting high performance initiatives that was launched in 2006.
A total of 22 countries, including the USA, Canada, Romania, Japan, Fiji and Samoa, were to benefit from the significant injection that had to be used to develop the game and not pay players. As a result facilities were re-vamped and coaching talent acquired with the likes of former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan (USA) and ex-All Black Kieran Crowley (Canada) just two of those tempted to take a hands on role in the development of the game.
While the plan is clearly delivering to a certain degree there is plenty of more work to be done with the next pressing issue the Test match calendar. The developing nations are starved of Tier 1 opposition with the World Cup offering their only chance to gauge themselves against the best in the business. That lack of exposure will no doubt limit their development but there is hope.
Last year the IRB announced a 10-year playing schedule that promised a return to traditional tours. The new schedule, which begins in 2012, will see the northern hemisphere teams tour the southern hemisphere on a rotational basis and will be encouraged to arrange midweek games against representative or club sides. But more importantly for those keen to see the game grow, the schedule heralds a return to tours to the Pacific Islands, North America and Japan, as well as the implementation of an integrated Tier 2 fixture list.
The IRB should be applauded for their forward-thinking in an area where they have previously dragged their heels. Argentina will not make their Tri-Nations bow until next year but let us be grateful that at least that day is now on the horizon.
The re-vamped schedule was a huge step in the right direction and although the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England may not bear significant fruit as a result it should help silence the doomsayers who insist the developing nations are not worthy of a place the sport's showpiece event. The real goal and the ultimate guide as to whether rugby is on the right track will come at the 2019 tournament in Japan. Until that day the minnows are destined to remain just that.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.