Rugby’s heavyweights ensure World Cup will garner Japan only fleeting prestige

Rugby union is turning Japanese, but not for long. Once the World Cup is presented in Yokohama on 2 November and the bunting is swept up the hosts, like the other tier-two and -three nations making up the numbers, will slip back into relative obscurity for the next four years.
Some will emerge briefly for a friendly against a largely second-string team from the Six Nations or Rugby Championship, but otherwise they will wallow in the lowlands of barely reported tournaments, no closer to clenching the World Cup than when the tournament was first staged 32 years ago.
That threatened to change when World Rugby this year published its plans for a Nations League, a new tournament it hoped to run from 2022, which would have given countries outside the top 10 a route to the sport’s two main annual competitions, the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship.
World Rugby is the sport’s governing body, but its executives are not allowed to lead, and it has become like the United Nations, handicapped by the veto held by the major players. Twenty-four years after the sport went open, one of the biggest decisions it had been presented with was decided by a closed cabal, the Six Nations. Like the four unions in the Rugby Championship, all of them had to agree for the plan to proceed. Two did not.
A professional sport continues to be predicated on amateur conventions, all the poorer for the extra money flowing into the game at the top. The World Cup will, again, show how narrow its base is: the eight previous tournaments have yielded four winners, five finalists and eight semi-finalists. The equivalent figures for the last eight football World Cups are five, nine and 16.

The Nations League would not have changed anything in the short term, but it would have provided opportunity. The Six Nations, with Ireland and Scotland the most vocal, raised understandable concerns – not least the impact of relegation were a second tier established – but the fact that the decision ultimately lay with a body that does not have any independent directors and with a questionable history of governance shows why leadership is an issue.
There is none and, the way the sport is set up, there can be none. It continues to be a haunt of blazers doing deals in rooms which, while no longer filled with smoke, are still polluted with haze. Self-interest dominates. No one wants to see the Six Nations lose its prestige or significance on the sporting calendar, but that was not an intended consequence of the Nations League.
The aim was to use the divisions below the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship to grow the next 10 countries financially and provide the means to develop their infrastructure. Every World Cup tends to see World Rugby get beaten up over a perceived lack of provisions for the South Sea islands who have all, at various teams, used the tournament as a means of exposure and added vibrancy to it.
All World Rugby has to spend is the profit it makes from a World Cup and tier-one nations always want a bigger chunk. Fiji look the best placed of the Pacific nations this year, but as with Samoa and Tonga, the game there is amateur and its best players have to go abroad to earn a living; many end up pledging their allegiance to another country to give themselves the chance for regular Test rugby at the highest level.
A joined-up international competition would, at first, reduce that need and then eliminate it, but that is not going to happen. The Six Nations, like the English Premiership and the Pro14, are looking to tap into private equity, which in effect means enjoying a large short-term loan. That will give clubs in France and England and parts of the Celtic nations the means to tempt more players from the southern hemisphere – and further weaken Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship.

Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the game going open, but what has changed other than money, the physique of players and the greater risk of serious injury? Doors remain shut, access by invitation only. Japan will put on a show, but the legacy will not be theirs to enjoy.

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