Rugby Must Become Global to Compare with FIFA World Cup

Jeff CheshireAnalyst IIJuly 14, 2014

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 03:  The All Blacks practice the lineout during a New Zealand All Blacks IRB Rugby World Cup 2011 training session at Trusts Stadium on September 3, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Phil Walter/Getty Images

For a rugby fan it is hard not to get a little bit excited by watching the FIFA World Cup. Not only is it a huge sports event that provides all sorts of drama and excitement, but it is a reminder that rugby's edition of the World Cup is merely one year away.

Yet, while the Rugby World Cup continues to grow, it still pales drastically in comparison to its big brother.

It is not a question of one sport being better than the other. Both are great games with their own appeal and different individuals are drawn to one, both or neither depending on their own personal preferences.

The main reason the FIFA World Cup surpasses the Rugby World Cup is in the global pull the game of football has. Teams from all corners of the globe can come and be competitive.

It is hard to imagine there being too many sports-following nations where the FIFA World Cup was not followed with interest, even those without a team present. On the other side of the coin, it is not hard to imagine the Rugby World Cup going largely unnoticed in many nations, even those fielding teams at the tournament.

While it remains the centrepiece of rugby in the modern era, there simply is not enough depth in world rugby to produce a World Cup like football can. Of the past seven World Cups, there have only been five different countries make the final: New Zealand, Australia, France, South Africa and England. Odds are it will be two of those five who make it again next year.

South Africa and England are two of only five teams to have made a Rugby World Cup Final.
South Africa and England are two of only five teams to have made a Rugby World Cup Final.Gallo Images/Getty Images

Outside of these five you have the likes of Ireland, Wales, Argentina, Scotland and Samoa, all of whom can act as spoiler teams to the big five. But none have yet shown the consistency to convince that they are capable of going the whole way to be a genuine threat to winning the tournament.

After this there is generally one other who may act as spoiler team, but who this is tends to vary from tournament to tournament. Fiji, Tonga and Canada have all played this role in the past, and Italy could probably be grouped with them too.

Beyond this, though, there is little else. There is improvement, of course, but to suggest that a team of the quality of Georgia, Romania or Namibia will genuinely compete with the All Blacks or the Springboks would be optimistic to the point of foolishness.

It makes the tournament predictable, especially in the early stages. Qualifying is a given for three-quarters of the participants, while progressing to the quarter-finals is also a given for many. It is only here where the real tournament begins, by which time the majority of the games have already been played.

In comparison, the FIFA World Cup offers excitement the whole way through. The nature of football makes an upset win or draw more likely, but the facts remain that the gap between the top teams and the bottom teams at their World Cup is nowhere near that of the Rugby World Cup.

Indeed just making the FIFA World Cup is a tough task in itself, particularly in Europe. Denmark, Ukraine, Slovenia and Czech Republic were all among the non-qualifiers for the 2014 tournament. Along with these you had the likes of Uruguay, Mexico, France and Portugal, who needed to go through play-off games and second-round qualification processes to make it.

France had a hard route getting to the FIFA World Cup, but made it through to the last eight.
France had a hard route getting to the FIFA World Cup, but made it through to the last eight.Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

These countries are hardly slouches in the world of football. But it shows the depth present at this World Cup and just how good a competition it is.

Compare this with the Rugby World Cup. You have the likes of Namibia, Fiji and Romania filling in the most recent of the bottom-qualifying positions, while the best of those yet to qualify are Uruguay, Spain and Russia. Hardly world beaters, and it is hard to imagine any of those final three teams keeping a side like the All Blacks to less than 80 points.

At the other end of the spectrum, consider the winners. In 2010, Spain were the best team throughout the tournament and won the trophy. Four years later they failed to get out of their group. Now try to imagine the All Blacks not getting out their group at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. This implies them losing to either Tonga, Namibia or Georgia, which is just not going to happen. Again, this shows rugby's extreme lack of depth in comparison to that offered in world football.

Defending champions Spain failed to get out of the group stage in 2014.
Defending champions Spain failed to get out of the group stage in 2014.Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

So what is the answer?

Of course, rugby has not had the same aspirations to go global until the past 25 years. This means that it is still in its early stages, and as we have seen, it is going to be a very slow process.

The gap between the top nations and the next tier is undoubtedly massive. But that does not mean that it cannot be closed. Italy and Argentina represent the two success stories of the professional era, both teams have emerged as genuinely capable of competing with the best in the world.

It was a painful transition, though. Both went through phases of having to play opposition vastly more experienced than themselves and often looked to be trying to lose by as little as possible, rather than actually winning.

Perhaps this is simply the way it has to be done, though. We have seen Argentina begin to make ground on the world stage, particularly at home and with their memorable 2007 World Cup campaign. They are now a team capable of playing their own game of rugby and will turn up to win, in contrast to the attitude they seemed to bring at times in the late 1990s.

Argentina's appearance in the 2007 Rugby World Cup semi-final shows how far they have come.
Argentina's appearance in the 2007 Rugby World Cup semi-final shows how far they have come.David Rogers/Getty Images

Italy lag a few years behind and have shown themselves capable of playing a running game in recent times. They could be the next to make a name on the world stage and advance past the pool stages of the tournament.

The problem is, these are only two extra countries. In 2011, we saw that the others had indeed taken great strides, as the pool games at the World Cup did not have the overall one-sided nature of previous World Cups. Georgia and Romania were both capable of giving the top teams a run for their money with strong forward packs and committed defence. Likewise, Canada and Japan both played some good rugby, as did the USA and Tonga. 

They were still a way off actually beating the top teams, though. While they could compete for periods, eventually the better teams wore them down and inevitably the defences leaked tries.

This is the key for them going forward, maintaining consistency and getting more exposure to a higher level of competition. In this they will be able to adjust to the speed, physicality and instinct required to play at the top level.

The same applies to the developing countries at the level below this. No doubt there is talent in these countries, as was seen most recently in the African qualification tournament for Rugby World Cup 2015. This talent is raw, though, and needs to be fostered in a way which makes rugby players out of good athletes.

Zimbabwe take on Kenya in their recent World Cup qualifying fixture.
Zimbabwe take on Kenya in their recent World Cup qualifying fixture.David Rogers/Getty Images

It is one thing having the athletic attributes, the game smarts and the skills to play the game. The key to being competitive with the best in the world is to be able to use these without having to think too hard, you have to have good rugby instincts. At the top level gaps close up that much quicker, the contact is that much more physical and there are just less chances, so you have to cash in when they come along.

These are the things that are noticeable when a lesser team plays a better team. They will defend hard for a long period but miss an easy tackle, and that will be punished. Likewise, they may possess the ability to exploit gaps and take good options on attack against teams at their level, but find they struggle when having to make decisions a split-second faster.

The only way to allow them to adjust to this is to give them the chance to experience it. It must be done gradually, though, as pitting a developing nation up against the All Blacks is going to result in a large scoreline, which will not do any good for either team.

They need exposure at both their own level, as well as a level slightly above theirs. It would also help to get exposure to a variety of game styles, so they can learn how to play against each one, while also taking bits and pieces from each to apply to their own game.

Touring top rugby nations could be a way to do this, if it is financially viable. By doing this they would be able to match up with opponents at their level, while also gaining some of the experience and knowledge these countries have to offer.

The Cook Islands recently did it, travelling to New Zealand to play Thames Valley, a Heartland Championship team. It was a close game and would have done the Cook Islands plenty of good. From this we can see how far there is to go, though, as the Heartland Championship is multiple steps below Super Rugby.

Thames Valley were a good matchup for the Cook Islands on their trip to New Zealand.
Thames Valley were a good matchup for the Cook Islands on their trip to New Zealand.Marty Melville/Getty Images

They had the right idea, and playing these sorts of games will help these teams. Even a five- or six-game tour could be hugely beneficial. This could include games against teams at their own level and one or two against teams the next level up, to give them an idea of where they need to be.

Likewise, teams and coaches from top rugby nations could, and should, tour these developing rugby nations to give them more exposure to their style of play. 

Sevens coming into the Olympics will also be a massive boost and will suit the nations who have a rawer talent base, as Sevens is far less structured and more about fitness, skill and athletic ability. However, whether this translates into the 15-man game growing remains to be seen.

Realistically, rugby will never be on the same level as football in a global sense. But that does not mean it should not try to increase its exposure in the less travelled avenues of Africa, Asia, South America and parts of Europe.

In Italy and Argentina, we have seen two teams emerge from being also-rans in world rugby, to teams who can be competitive with anyone. Why could the next of these not come in Georgia, USA, Canada or Japan? Thinking more long term, there are any number of nations who could become a power in world rugby.

But it has to start small, predominantly through by getting people from these nations to identify with the game of rugby and then progressing to expose them to a better game.

Understandably, the IRB will look to grow the game in the potentially lucrative markets, notably North America and Japan. But this should not be done at the expense of other nations, whose presence at the World Cup would make it a far more attractive event than it currently is.

It is going to be a long road, and steps have already been taken. They need to continue in this way, and if rugby can even approach the worldwide popularity of football, it would make for a truly great event.