Rugby World Cup 2011: The Most Successful World Cup Ever?
Rugby World Cup has now entered the knock-out phases. There's intense excitement around what lies ahead. However, rugby fans are also taking immense pleasure from the games that have already been played.
Mike Miller, Chairman of the IRB (the sport's governing body) has called this the best tournament ever.
Without wanting to curse the rest of the tournament, it's worthwhile taking a break from the pressures that surround the sudden-death games and review the factors which have helped make this World Cup a successful event.
This World Cup Has Been Cuddled, Hugged, Loved and Embraced
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New Zealand is the only previous World Cup winner which has rugby as its national sport. The game is in the national psyche. The mood of the country is impacted by how well the All Blacks perform.
No one was really expecting New Zealand to win the rights to host the Rugby World Cup. Given the small market it offers, it was considered impossible for New Zealand to submit a commercially viable bid. However, this perceived weakness was converted to a strength when the country competed for hosting rights way back in 2005.
The selling point for New Zealand was that it offered a "stadium of 4 million people."
The country would embrace this event. Unlike in other countries, where rugby is a minority sport, New Zealand could offer a venue where the tournament would dominate the country's attention.
A tournament where the players felt they were the "news," they were the gladiators in an arena that spanned the length of a country.
In reflecting on the success of the tournament, Mike Miller summed it up succinctly: "I've traveled around the country; everyone has bought into it. The stadiums have been full."
Close Games, Great Product
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International rugby has always struggled because of a gap in strength between the traditional teams and the developing countries. In previous tournaments, pool play games have been one-sided affairs, which at best can be described as practice runs for the dominant nations.
However with this World Cup and right from the opening game, we have seen an unaccustomed level of resolve and skill from the underdogs. Going into the break 29-3 down, the Tongans put on a meritorious second-half effort, stemming the flow of All Black tries and scoring one of their own. The game finished 41-10 to the hosts.
The Minnows have played their part. The increased competitiveness of teams has made the event more of a spectacle.
Hey, We Can Actually Win This
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It's not just the minnows who have brought more zeal and confidence to their game. The Irish win over Australia was great for Ireland and more importantly for the tournament. It proved that the favourites can be beaten. It removed the aura of predictability away from the game.
In six previous tournaments, a Northern Hemisphere team has only once won the William Webb Ellis Trophy. Often the northern teams bring an inferiority complex to their longitudinal clashes. Their losses have been as much due to a lack of mental fortitude and confidence rather than ability.
But with this game, the worm turned, allowing Northern Hemisphere teams (especially the home nations) to continue in the tournament with more faith in their game.
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Rugby is a game whose traditions wrest in international matches. However as we all know, borders are assuming less importance in today's world. In rugby, players are sacrificing their international ambitions to pursue financial deals in overseas markets.
This rugby World Cup has provided a timely reminder to many audiences of the importance of test rugby. Rugby is one of the few sports where nationalistic fervour and nascent pride in one's country has a positive manifestation.
The face of rugby players are emerging as icons of their country; think Jon Smit (of South Africa), Mahonri Schwalger (of Samoa) or Martin Castrogiovanni (of Italy).
Players have brought a level of pride and accompanying performance that we don't see in other rugby competitions or battlefields. The importance of playing for your country has been restored.
There's Been Plenty to Gossip About
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Rugby fans are like many folk; they enjoy a good chin wag, whereas the locals are happy to focus on the game. The English tabloid journalists, who have made their way down here, have been able to unearth plenty of dirt on their national team. Enough stories to provide all rugby fans something to talk about it.
The French have also played their part. Team disharmony has been a big theme of the French campaign. Coach Marc Lievremont is very open in pouring criticism over his charges when they give lackadaisical efforts. Given the way the French have gone, this has meant quite a bit of public bitching.
The Samoans have gone social media to up their profile in the "here's something to talk about" stakes. Words like 'slavery" and 'holocaust' have been used to communicate their views on how they've been treated during the tournament. Even mouth guards (those devices which normally prohibit chatting) have landed the Samoans in hot water.
For the hosts, a Greek tragedy is emerging. As the tournament progresses, more of their heroes are falling to inexplicable injuries. The country's sentiment of anguish was probably best captured by former England test hooker, Brian Moore:
"It is a remarkable experience to be in a country where the entire mood is genuinely swayed by this type of sports news; you cannot grasp it and probably will not believe it unless you are actually in New Zealand."
A Pacific Event
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This tournament is as important to New Zealand's Pacific neighbours as it for the hosts.
New Zealand's place in the Pacific, has given Samoa, Tonga and Fiji an opportunity to play a more dominant role in this World Cup. Not just on the field, but also with exhibiting the culture and passion the Pacific people bring to rugby.
New Zealand is home to a considerable Pacific population. The World Cup has offered locals an opportunity to display pride in their (or their parents or grandparents') country of birth. A record number of Samoan, Tongan and Fijian flags have been purchased and displayed with immense pride.
A normally humble people have been vociferous in supporting their teams. Fans have hastily assembled flash mobs (substantial crowds of people) to demonstrate support for their beloved rugby heroes.
The world has been treated to a culture that normally struggles to garner exposure.
Hakas (traditional warrior dances) of various forms and types have been popularly received by fans from all over the globe. In fact, hakas have been emblazoned as being representative of Pacific rugby, and not just the New Zealand game.
Sadly for the Pacific, none of their teams made the quarterfinals. The way the tournament was structured, especially reduced rest periods between games, has been blamed for diminished results.
The last weekend of pool play saw a mixed collection of emotions for the Pacific teams.
The Fijians felt humiliation, in being destroyed by an exciting young Welsh lineup. Many consider the Fijians to be the "underperformers" of the tournament. They just didn't shine in this year's World Cup.
The Samoans were aggrieved as they felt referee incompetence had cost them their chance to upset the Springboks (the current world champions).
However, the Tongans found joy in upsetting the French. Ikale Tahi (the Sea Eagles) gave a rousing performance against Les Bleus. Their determination totally rattled French resistance.The French were suffocated of ball and given no opportunity to regroup to combat the rampant red Pacific monster.
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The organisers of the World Cup has made accessibility of fans to players an important consideration. Throughout the tournament, different ceremonies and public sessions have been organised for fans, allowing them to see and meet their heroes.
This relationship between fans and players has been groomed to benefit the sport.
Teams have been scattered around the country, each assuming a different home base. At the start of the tournament, as the sides arrived in the country, they were greeted by large crowds often made up of fans who had no connection with the team.
As teams have left, departing captains and coaches have all taken time out to thank the locals for the support they showed and for the friendliness and that was displayed to their teams.
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For most of the world, New Zealand is a land far away. A country that lies in a remote pocket of the world.
Despite its remoteness, tourism is New Zealand's largest export earner. People across the country are naturals when it comes to playing host to international guests.
There's an important lyric to New Zealand's much maligned national anthem "make her praises heard afar." Acclaim and recognition is something New Zealanders strive for.
Kiwis have an innate understanding of sustainability. If we look after our guests, they'll hopefully go home, recount positive memories and encourage others to come and visit us.
With the World Cup, most New Zealanders have understood that they each of us has a role to play. An incredible army of volunteers has been assembled to help welcome and guide touring fans, in and around stadiums on matchdays. There's no way we were going to let this event be a flop.
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It's there for everyone to see, the fans and the colours they've brought to our vistas.
Rugby is a unique beast. A fierce game with strong rivalries. However, camaraderie is an important part of the sport. Sure a fair amount of banter (that verges on antagonism) is shared between rival fans. But the taunts don't overflow to hatred.
Fans tend to mix and mingle, sharing the joy and discomfort of the result. Armies of police are not required to ensure rival sets of fans are kept apart.
After the game, opposing fans normally find the ability to share a pint or other such drink, ensuring that the day's result becomes a distant memory as the night unfolds.
Rugby has the ability to bring all sorts of people together. This is exactly what's happened. Be it in the stadiums, in public concourses (fan zones) across different cities, or in the countryside (fans sharing the same roads as they travel in their camper vans).
It's a Long Way to Come, We're Not Just Here for Fun
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The distance and costs one needs to face in making it to New Zealand, means that those who are here are definitely ardent rugby fans. People who are really going to make the most of this event.
One resulting consequence of New Zealand hosting the event is we probably have some of the game's most passionate supporters here in the one place, enjoying the tournament.
You're not going to come all this way, if rugby bores you.
The same can be said about the competing teams. It's a fair old journey, so you might as well give it your best shot.
For the locals, rugby is their passion. Most New Zealanders you meet can put together a worthwhile conversation about the sport.
But what surrounds the games in New Zealand, isn't just fanfare and interest but also knowledge and expertise. The crowds bring with them an appreciation of the game that the players appreciate. The fans know when to clap at the right times and reward the players with genuine praise.
Unlike fans from other countries, New Zealanders don't tend to sing and apply unwanted hubris to a sporting occasion. They prefer to sit and watch the beauty of the game. That is focus on the intricacies as they unfold.