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Why it's good if the Rugby World Cup is less important

Jacob Stockdale scores for Ireland in their 24-15 Six Nations win against England on March 17. Ireland has won the competition four times. Photo/Getty Images

International competition stands to get a shot in the arm if the Rugby World Cup is downplayed.

There are fears that a proposed revamp of international rugby will reduce the significance of the quadrennial World Cup. Let’s hope they’re well founded.

Rugby’s at risk of following football’s example whereby the World Cup is practically the be-all and end-all of international competition: no sooner is a World Cup out of the way than attention turns to the next one.

When the future becomes all-important, the present is reduced to irrelevance. The push for change is being led by World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot, a former captain of Argentina, who believes the international game faces “ruin” unless there’s meaningful competition year in, year out.

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Top-tier international competition has four components: the Six Nations tournament involving the UK’s four home unions, France and Italy; the supposed Southern Hemisphere equivalent, the Rugby Championship, which concluded last weekend; the June window when the European teams travel south; and the Southern Hemisphere countries’ “end-of-year tours” of Europe.

Of these, only the Six Nations really works. Its compact geographical footprint ensures that teams playing away from home are well supported, thereby adding to the occasion and the atmosphere. Although those observing from afar – New Zealanders, for instance – can be sniffy about the standard of rugby, the tournament does provide glorious uncertainty. There was a concern England and France, with their player numbers and financial muscle, would reduce it to a duopoly, but through a combination of self-imposed handicaps and the improvement of the so-called “Celtic” nations, that hasn’t happened. Italy, which entered the tournament in 2000, is the weak link, but a six-horse race can afford one also-ran.

Although this year’s Rugby  Championship ended on a high, with pulsating final-round encounters in Pretoria and Salta, the tournament is a dud. Its predecessor, the similarly Heath Robinson Tri-Nations, was devised in a hurry in 1995 when rugby transitioned to professionalism with all the care and deliberation of a drunk walking into a lamp post.

The distances involved preclude away-game support: rather than a heaving, chanting mass of visiting fans, there are barely enough flag-waving expatriates for the cameras to linger on during breaks in play. And whereas the Six Nations has a long and rich tradition – its origins go back to 1883 – the Rugby Championship has gone from novelty to bore in less than a decade. A deadening sameness has set in: the All Blacks come first, Argentina comes last and games between Australia and South Africa fade from the memory before the weekend’s out.

Agustin Pichot. Photo/Getty Images

The numbers speak for themselves. Since the Southern Hemisphere tournament began in 2012, the All Blacks have won all six of their games four times and Argentina none of their six three times. All up, the All Blacks have won 35 and drawn one of their 39 games; the Argentinians just five of theirs.

Apart from British and Irish Lions tours, which take place every four years and have a magic all their own, the June and November internationals are seldom memorable. The visitors are at the end of their season and their physical and mental tethers. Even the All Blacks, driven by a fear of failure instilled by 100-plus years of high expectations, have recently tended to stagger rather than stride to the finish line.

When European teams come here in June, you can almost put the house on the series unfolding as follows: they’ll be more or less competitive in one test, game but outgunned in another and missing in action in the third. The air of inevitability accompanying the exercise encourages coaches to leave key players at home and toss a bunch of novices in at the deep end – all in the name of building for the World Cup.

Pichot wants to replace the June and November internationals with a competition involving the world’s top-12 teams split into four groups of three, with a different country hosting each group and the hemispheres taking turn and turnabout. Add a promotion-relegation component to invest every game with significance and it appeals as a way to make international rugby compelling and profitable every year, as opposed to once every four years.

Fixing the Rugby Championship is another matter. As things stand, one feels the four participants could do a lot worse than revert to good, old-fashioned three-test tours complete with midweek games.

This article was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.