Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A world in (Rugby) Union?

The Rugby World Cup has just begun, and the usual, predictable bleating about whether Rugby is really a "world game" has also begun, especially in Australia from Rugby League* fans and Football/soccer fans.

Of course, if one compares the RWC to the football equivalent there is no comparison. Football is the number one sport in probably the majority of countries around the world, across all the continents other than Australia, North America and (obviously) Antarctica. Even in countries where their national team is abysmal (like where I currently live, Malaysia for example) interest in the game is immense. There's no disputing that if there is one "world game" - despite how annoying it is to admit to the tiresome missionaries at SBS (Australian TV network)- it has to be football. This doesn't make the game better of course, but that's a whole different issue.

Rugby union, on the other hand, or just plain Rugby as it is known in most of the world, is also a 'world game' albeit on a much smaller scale. While it is a majority sport almost nowhere (NZ, Wales, and some Pacific Islands) it is known almost everywhere. Take Malaysia as an example, if you mention rugby everyone knows what it is, as many hi schools and all (I think) universities have a team. The name "All Blacks" is also well-known. Compare with Rugby League for instance, only those who have studied in Australia (and some in the UK and NZ) have the faintest idea what it is. Or even with cricket, which is seen as a colonial relic and only played by schools with British pedigrees.

Another argument trotted out is that the minor nations that play rugby are not competitive. Well, you only have to consider how well the USA played against England or Georgia against Ireland to dispel that myth. True, there are fewer upset results than in the Soccer world cup but lets be realistic: many of those upsets are attributable to the low scoring nature of football which allows a single mistake by an established side to become a victory for a minor one. In the history of RWC (since 1987), four teams have won it. For all football's claims, only 7 nations have won the tournament (played since 1930), one of which (Uruguay) never looks like doing so again. While occasionally another teams (South Korea in 98) can fluke their way through a few rounds, you'd be a mug to bet on any teams outside the 6 winning it.

In rugby, you have 8 teams which on their day are capable of beating the others (not in every wc but over time and without taking flukes into account like Norway beating Brazil a few years back in football). These are NZ, South Africa, Australia, England, France, Wales, Ireland, Argentina). The first five or these were considered before the tournament realistic hopes of winning it. From time to time Scotland, Samoa, Italy and Fiji can also beat any of these other teams except the first 3. Twelve competitive teams is considerably more than cricket, hockey or (snort) rugby league can dream about, without match fixing being involved anyway.

The point is not to ridicule other sports but simply to point out that a Rugby World Cup deserves the name - apart from the issue of competitive teams, people around the world ARE interested in the game. In Malaysia, which is a weak rugby nation in terms of its national team's prospects even by Asian standards, there's enough interest to put ALL games live on pay TV and some on Free to Air. Cricket, by contrast, was only available on pay per view. Rugby League - well unless you live in two states in Australia, the northern part of England or some parts of NZ, you've probably never heard of it. Rugby may not be the number one sport virtually anywhere, but its world championship has fans in places you wouldn't expect.

*For those who haven't heard of it, Rugby League is an offshoot of Rugby played by 13 player a side which arose in the days when Rugby was amateur. It's the number one winter sport in two states of Australia and also played in Papua New Guinea (a former Australian colony), NZ and parts of the UK. The rugby league world cup has been won by 2 countries (Aus and the UK) and Aus has won the last 6 tournament (last UK victory 35 years ago).