|Is England v Oceania 1 an appropriate tournament opener|
The draw handed to New Zealand for Rugby World Cup 2011 was a promoters nightmare. With only one Tier One opponent in the pool the chances of having an opening match to rival that of Rugby World Cup 2007 never came into being. Argentina´s 17-12 win over France to open Rugby World Cup 2007 was the best possible match to open the tournament. When the match schedule was made the only confirmed participants were the eight Quarter Finalists from Rugby World Cup 2003 - Australia, England, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales. France had been drawn with Ireland, Americas 1, Europe 3 and Africa 1 and it was clear from the beginning that Americas 1 would be Argentina while Europe 3 would not be Italy. With Europe 3 likely to go to either Romania or Georgia the France 2007 authorities had the choice of opening the tournament with either France v Ireland or France v Argentina.
Of the two choices the better option was quite clearly Argentina. The name of the tournament implies that it is about the world and thus having France and Ireland open the tournament would have lacked the key geographical validation required but by having a formidable opponent from a different continent face the hosts to open the event was able to begin with an appropriate fixture. It also enabled France v Ireland to be played two weeks later and ensure the draw of the pool stages would help market the tournament. New Zealand 2011 had no such luxuries. With New Zealand being drawn together with France, Tonga, Americas 1 and Asia 1 the tournament organizers were backed into a corner. The choice was open with New Zealand v France and lose a highly profitable match that would usually be on the third weekend or bite the bullet and open against Tonga or a regional qualifer that turned out to be Canada and Japan.
The choice of opening with New Zealand v Tonga meant the tournament did not have a competitive match as its opener. Indeed while Tonga played better than normal and New Zealand was not at its efficient best the All Blacks nonetheless cruised to victory without ever being in danger of losing. The same weekend had notable matches such as South Africa v Wales and Argentina v England which were clearly put in the match schedule so early to compensate for having such as non-competitive fixture to open the tournament.
Indeed when Japan was bidding to host Rugby World Cup 2011 there were posts being made on social media criticizing the idea of Japan hosting due to the impossibility of having Japan do well in the tournament opener unless it would be against the lowest ranked team in the pool. With Rugby World Cup 2003 fresh in the memory during the bidding process this would have meant a match such as Japan v the USA open the tournament. Such a match would be highly competitive but could be said to lack a marketing edge that could mean the tournament opener would not reach as large of an audience as the occassion would merit.
For Rugby World Cup 2015 England was given the toughest pool of all. It could have been tougher had the highest ranked New Zealand or South Africa been drawn in the pool instead of Australia. Otherwise the draw handed the tournament organizers with the ideal task of selecting the appropriate opening match to ensure Rugby World Cup 2015 could be as good of a product as possible. This failed to eventuate as the organizers made a mess of a dream scenario by not having England face Australia or Wales but instead the match will be against Oceania 1 - certain to be Fiji. If New Zealand can play Tonga then why should England not be able to open against Fiji? The reason goes beyond ability.
Crucial to interpreting the decisions made behind closed doors is acknowledging that New Zealand v France was never going to open the tournament. Instead the organizers were always going to go for New Zealand v the third ranked team. Had the draw been kinder, in marketing terms, then it could have meant an opener such as New Zealand v Scotland or New Zealand v Italy. But with New Zealand having such a significant Polynesian population the fixture against Tonga could be argued to have been the correct decision. England v Fiji in Rugby World Cup 2015, in contrast, will occur in a place in which the visiting team does not have a notable population based in the host nation.
More importantly it is a match that Fiji cannot win and its selection has had ramifications for the remaining pool matches that England will play. England could have opened against Australia to have a comparable first match as that of France v Argentina from 2007, South Africa v Australia from 1995 or England v New Zealand from 1991. Instead it has gone for a match in which England is certain to win. France´s loss against Argentina and England´s 1991 loss against the All Blacks would appear to have haunted the tournament organizers. They want the host nation to win its opening fixture. But in selecting Fiji England will then face Wales and Australia in its second and third pool matches. In other words it will not be reserving the final weekend to have a competitive match. To the contrary England´s final match will be its easiest with England to face the play-off winner - possibly Russia or Uruguay in the only match to be played in Manchester.
It is too late for any changes to be made but it is not too late to scrutinize the decisions. The authorities ought to have ensured that England had a split match schedule with a tournament opener against Australia and its final pool match should have certainly been against Wales. This would have enabled not only a superior match to open the tournament but would also made it better for the English population and could have given the City of Manchester Stadium a more reputable match. On this one occassion surely England could have played a match against Wales away from Twickenham. Instead more eyes will be paying attention to other matches scheduled for the opening weekend. Like New Zealand v Tonga from 2011 the 2015 opener will hardly be the match of the round as the same weekend will also feature France v Italy and Argentina v New Zealand. Another interesting match is that of Samoa v Americas 2, a match certain to be more competitive than that of England v Oceania 1.
2007 Opening Match
2011 Opening Match