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Why Rugby World Cup Fixtures Are Not Fair Game on the Minnows

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2015

New Zealand All Blacks captain Richie McCaw holds up the Webb Ellis trophy as teammates celebrate after their Rugby World Cup final win over France in Auckland, New Zealand, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Christophe Ena/Associated Press

There are certain themes that crop up in the media around major sporting events.

The pressure in the balls; the heat at kick-off times; the distances travelled between venues; whether wives and/or girlfriends are allowed within a 20-mile radius of the squad; the number of dwarves tossed.

As sure as night follows day, these will come up in some from or another—the dwarves perhaps not so often.

One angle specific to the Rugby World Cup, however, is the raw deal many of the smaller nations receive when it comes to their schedule.

Indeed, the arrangement of the pool matches never fails to befuddle.

Namibia's players take on Ireland in 2003
Namibia's players take on Ireland in 2003Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

A history of imbalance

In 2003, lowly Namibia had to play Argentina and Ireland in the space of four days. They shipped 131 points across the two games, scored 21 and, as a reward for emerging from the mincer of those two daunting fixtures, faced hosts Australia six days after that. The 142-0 scoreline recorded by the Wallabies remains the biggest winning margin the tournament has ever seen.

They still had Romania to deal with before they could go home, the Eastern Europeans themselves having been forced to play on October 18 and 22 against the Pumas and the host nation, conceding 140 between them. It clearly hadn’t taken as much out of the Oaks as it had the Southern Africans, with Romania winning 37-7.

Japan endured a short gap between fixtures in 2007
Japan endured a short gap between fixtures in 2007Warren Little/Getty Images

It went on again in 2007, Japan getting the particularly thin end of the wedge with three days off between a thumping by the Wallabies and a heroic 31-35 loss to Fiji. The Australians, by the way, had a full week to get over that taxing run-out against the Blossoms before facing Wales.

Little Portugal didn’t fair much better, hemmorhaging a century against the All Blacks before three days' rest and another run out against Italy.

2011 saw more tough scheduling meted out as the USA endured a four–day span between kicking off against Australia and the final whistle of their next contest against Italy to name just one case.

Indeed, that edition of the World Cup in New Zealand saw things come to a head after heavy criticism of the lower tier nations’ scheduling.

Graham Jenkins of espnscrum.co.uk wrote at the time:

Russia made an impressive World Cup debut against the United States on Wednesday but their reward in (sic) another two games in the next 10 days. Samoa also caught the eye in despatching Namibia in their tournament bow but will have had just three days rest before they go head-to-head with Wales in a crunch Pool D clash. Elsewhere, the USA must tackle Australia and Italy within a crazy five-day window while Georgia will barely have time for an ice bath in the wake of their opener against Scotland before tackling England.

Many noises were made post-2011 that this sort of thing would be remedied, per rugbytoday.com, who reported comments Rugby World Cup Ltd chief Mike Miller made in an interview with Reuters:

The schedule influences the performance of a team - more travel and less rest makes it difficult.

We know it's an issue and we have more tools in our armoury to make it fairer this time.

But that has to be balanced with what works for all the teams, the fans, the broadcasters and our commercial partners because we need to use to World Cup to maximise exposure and revenue to help grow the game around the world.

 

But it isn't all fair in 2015. In fact, when you examine the fixture list, you can see it is happening again in England this year.

Fiji feel the squeeze

Fiji, a team with a frightening collection of talent, get five days between playing England and Australia, which doesn’t seem an awful lot for a nation with 20 per cent of the registered rugby playing population of England and less than a third that of Australia, according to World Rugby player numbers.

NANTES, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 29:  Fiji players celebrate their team's 38-34 victory as the final whistle blows during the Rugby World Cup 2007 Pool B match between Wales and Fiji at the Stade de la Beaujoire on September 29, 2007 in Nantes, France.  (Photo
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

And yet, apple carts have been upset before. Consider what Fiji did in 2007 despite being put under the pump by a schedule that required them to face Australia and Wales in five days.

They beat the Welsh in a thrilling encounter in Nantes before coming mightily close to derailing South Africa’s ultimately successful campaign in the quarter-finals.

What are the chances of another win over Wales this time, having already played the sides ranked fourth and sixth in the world in under a week?

At the other end of the spectrum, France have 10 days between fixtures with Canada and Ireland.

Given they will be likely to rest several key players without whom they will still beat Canada comfortably, that could mean those players could have 18 days off between playing their second fixture against Romania and facing the Irish in the pool decider.

Conversely in Pool C, Georgia play Tonga and Argentina in the space of six days and will doubtless need to field as many of the same players as possible in the hope that they can get something out of either game. They then have a week to piece themselves back together before taking on the All Blacks.

If they can get 15 fit bodies out for their final match against Namibia just five days later, it will be nothing short of miraculous.

It goes on: Tonga have a whopping 10-day break between fixtures with Georgia and Namibia but then have to play Argentina and New Zealand in the space of five.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 21:  All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen is interviewed on radio during the New Zealand All Blacks 2015 International season squad announcement at Auckland Grammar School on June 21, 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Ha
Hannah Peters/Getty Images

There are some short turnarounds that make sense considering who is involved, such as New Zealand’s four–day gap between their opener against the Pumas and their next match with Namibia.

We can be reasonably confident there will not be a single name on the teamsheet for that second fixture who featured in the first, such is the depth Steve Hansen has at his disposal. This is an example of a team who can handle a calendar like this, and it was a point Jenkins made:

If anything, the top sides should be the ones forced to deal with such a severe turnaround as their players are used to such demands and have the ability to shoulder such a workload. Instead, they are afforded the comparative luxury of a week between their games with the TV broadcasters able to leverage their significant investment to ensure the big names play in the most optimum window in terms of commercial value.

Romania perhaps have one of the meanest schedules in the tournament.

The Oaks start on September 23 against France and follow that up four days later with Ireland. Here is a nation, per Andy Bull in the Guardian, who were once on track to become the sixth nation in Europe until tragedy struck:

It is almost forgotten now, but in the 1970s and 1980s Romania were one of the best teams in the world.

In 1974 they beat France 15-10, and in 1980 they beat them 15-0 and then held Ireland to a 13-13 draw in Dublin. In 1984 they beat Scotland 28-22. On and on it goes: in 1988, Wales were defeated 15-9 in Cardiff, and in 1990 France went down again, this time 12-6. Throughout that period, Romania beat Italy in 12 of the 20 games they contested.

In the mid-80s, Romania really were one of the best teams in the world, and on the verge of joining the Five Nations. And then the revolution happened. Six of the national team lost their lives in the fight to overthrow Ceausescu.

Now, they are saddled with the task of facing two of the World’s top 10 nations in a horribly short time frame.

This is a country deprived of a contest against anyone in the Top 10 since 2011, unsurprisingly during the last World Cup when the schedulers were a little kinder and gave them a week between clashes with Argentina and England.

For the other nine nations in the tournament who currently reside outside the top 10 places in the world rankings, the picture is not much prettier in terms of chances to face the best.

Fiji have had the most exposure to the cream of the crop, with eight fixtures against the powerhouses since 2011—Tonga are second with seven outings. Canada, the USA and Japan have had five apiece, Georgia and Uruguay three each and Nambia none.

Consider the other side of the coin.

The Tri Nations and Argentina play each other twice then travel north for three or four fixtures against the big guns of Europe on a yearly basis.

The Six Nations duke it out in their round robin once a year and spend summers touring for two or three matches as well as facing the Southerners in the autumn.

England, Wales and Ireland’s advances in the last two decades have been founded on regular exposure to the best rugby-playing nations on earth, but teams the next level down are seldom given the same chance, only facing them in World Cups and taking pointless drubbings, usually with little time to recover between defeats.

Rugby’s global appeal comes into question

Growth of the sport is a long-held aim of the world’s governing body, and the millions of pounds invested in the lower-tier nations is a laudable step. But more needs to be done, says the Telegraph’s Daniel Schofield:

So much is already stacked against tier-two nations. Witness the make-up of the World Rugby Council, the ridiculous scheduling at the last World Cup...or the eligibility rule which is exploited by tier-one nations to import “project players” (the single most abhorrent phrase in rugby parlance).

There will be much to admire about the 2015 Rugby World Cup; the star names, the sparkling stadia, the perfect surfaces and the drama that will doubtless unfold.

Look carefully, though, if you watch. You’ll soon spot the playing field isn’t as level as it might seem.

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