They won’t tell you, but World Rugby have one major concern about this World Cup. Curious to relate that this, the most competitive tournament rugby has seen, with at least six credible contenders, could also see some hideous blow-outs to take us back to the bad old days of 142-0, 145-17 and 36-0.
The disparity between the best teams and the worst is what is keeping World Rugby awake at night, which makes their recent suggestion, on the back of a couple of World Cups with quite respectable showings by the minnows, to expand to 24 teams all the more unfathomable. The trouble with World Rugby, though, as with so many governing bodies, is the number of moving parts.
First, there’s the executive, a relatively small number of officers whose job is to spread rugby’s gospel, a mission they pursue, bar the odd goonish slip along the way, with a noble vigour. These are the ones who don’t like what they have seen over the past four years in the shifting dynamics between rugby’s shamelessly proclaimed ‘Tiers’.
Then there are those shadowy figures who lurk in the background and, annoyingly, wield all the power. They have votes and pockets and secret handshakes and the like. They mostly defer to other unions and are preoccupied with self-interest.
There are those in ‘Tier1’ who are anxious about the way the economics is going, if not yet the disparity in playing standards, between them and the most affluent. They were particularly keen recently to institute a world league, whereby they might cling to the coattails of the affluent, thus conferring themselves ever further from those in ‘Tier2’.
Then there are those in the inner, inner circle. We might call them the Six Nations. They didn’t go for the world league because they could make even more money by closing rank against everyone else. And so the dynamics are set. They do not bode well if your concern is to develop the game beyond the usual suspects. Hence back to those worried executives in World Rugby.
Which places quite the onus on Japan, not just over the next few weeks, but the years. After an encouraging decade or so, in which professionalism allowed the lesser lights of the World Cup to become more competitive, the next stage has been to string them out again, as the top teams, fuelled by next-level professionalism, vie ever more furiously with each other on and off the field.
The only thing that can stop this dynamic (and soon even the best will start to string each other out according to the money) is for new centres of gravity to emerge. This World Cup is crucial to that end. The first time it has been granted to a nation outside the usual, the first time it has been staged in the world’s most populous continent.
Japan aren’t going to win it, but they, along with USA, could help grow it. World Rugby’s executive are watching – through parted fingers.
Michael Aylwin is the author of Unholy Union: When Rugby Collided with the Modern World https://amzn.to/2mqlrzg