Sunday, July 27, 2014

Commonwealth Games: Predictability underlines required changes

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The 2014 Commonwealth Games saw history made for the sport of rugby as a new country won Gold. South Africa ended New Zealand's dominance to win the tournament and have the kiwis lose a Rugby Sevens match at the Commonwealth Games for the first time since the sport's inclusion in 1998. In terms of numbers the 2014 Commonwealth Games Sevens event was a huge success as a total of 171,000 people were in attendance over the two days thereby setting a new Commonwealth Games and world record for Rugby Sevens. The results, however, were less than noteworthy as predictability ran supreme throughout the matches played on Saturday and Sunday.   


The top three performers at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow were familiar names as South Africa, New Zealand and Australia won the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals earlier today. Them carrying home medals took place after big losses on Saturday by all of Barbados, Canada, Cook Islands, Kenya, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Trindad & Tobago and Uganda. The lack of competitiveness shown by the majority of Commonwealth competitors was a reminder of the huge gulf that exists must be tackled by global rugby authorities.

The IRB's release of Tier Two fixtures last week included a reminder that rugby's global authority contributes more than £10 a year in high performance programmes and competitions for Tier Two countries. The investment has certainly seen progress as the gap has closed considerably in the post Rugby World Cup 2007 years. 

Results at World Cups, however, remain by and large extremely predictable. Results from the last World Cup in 2011 that could be considered upsets included Ireland v Australia, Tonga v France and France v England. Three of forty-eight matches, in other words, resulted in the team expected to win losing the fixture. Of the three only one could be deemed a shock result as Ireland overcoming Australia and France overcoming England are commonalities. 

At the Sevens in Glasgow the closest the competition came to having an upset would be matches involving England in which Australia and Samoa both completed victories. Considering Australia finished one place lower than England in the 2013-2014 World Series and that Samoa won the 2009-2010 competition the results could not be termed shocks. Indeed, despite being a strong team, England has never won a World Series.

Prior to the tournament Canada was a team aiming to challenge for a medal but with it up against New Zealand and Scotland who called upon professionals from the Pro 12 the North Americans had to settle for a chance at winning the Bowl. Having lost 39-0 and 21-5 but defeating Barbados 68-5 on Saturday the Canadians then knocked-over Trinidad & Tobago 33-0, Uganda 32-0 and the Cook Islands 50-0 on Sunday. 

The results demonstrated that Canada, a Tier Two rugby country at the full version of the game, was far too strong for Tier Three competitors from the Caribbean, Africa and Oceania. Canada was nonetheless, not able to compete against either New Zealand or Scotland and was also lacking players based abroad which further complicated the task. 

In the words of Canadian rugby journalist Patrick Johnston 'the rich are staying rich.' A question requiring attention is whether the IRB's £10 annual contribution to Tier Two is adequate or not? To create and sustain teams capable of defeating Tier One opposition the answer is arguably that greater investment is required. Last November the RFU reported annual revenue of over £150 million a far greater number than the £54 million recorded by New Zealand or the £55.7 million by South Africa.

Only Canada and Samoa were Tier Two competitors at the Glasgow Sevens. Other members of the Tier Two include Rugby World Cup regulars Fiji, Georgia, Japan, Romania, Tonga and the USA. Combined they are receiving less than 20% of the annual revenue recorded by either Rugby World Cup Champions New Zealand or Commonwealth Games winners South Africa.

The task is therefore extremely complicated albeit there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The annual revenue figures highlighted that the RFU is easily the richest union in the world. The total revenue turned over for the financial year was, roughly, equal to that of the three SANZAR unions combined. Despite the wealth England, nonetheless, finished behind all three at the Commonwealth Games and has great difficulties in defeating all three at senior level in international competition. 

New Zealand won the inaugural World Sevens Series in 1999-2000 and has won a total of twelve seasons out of fifteen in the competition's history. Other winners have come in the form of Fiji in 2005-2006, South Africa in 2008-2009 and Samoa in 2009-2010. Finishing second to New Zealand in 2013-2014 was South Africa who won two legs of the competition compared to New Zealand which won five. The only other side to win was Fiji a powerful Sevens nation that was excluded from competing in Glasgow. 

Year
Gold
Silver
Bronze
1998
New Zealand
Fiji
Australia
2002
New Zealand
Fiji
South Africa
2006
New Zealand
England
Fiji
2010
New Zealand
Australia
South Africa
2014
South Africa
New Zealand
Australia

To make results less predictable bold actions are required and if taken the chances of a future final in the Commonwealth Games Sevens again resulting in the pre-tournament prediction of a New Zealand v South Africa final would be decreased. Money is not everything but it makes a profound difference. If the IRB were to double the funding then the probability is that the global game would be far harder to foresee. 

Having Argentina host Rugby World Cup 2023 would be a step in the direction of change. Having South Africa or Ireland do so would be taking steps backwards. There is, after all, so much at stake that the authorities responsible for the global game cannot afford to sit back and have World Cups return to previous places. South Africa hosted in 1995 while Ireland hosted five in 1991, seven in 1999 and was to host again in 2007 but lacked a stadium at the time to do so. Argentina has never hosted a Rugby World Cup match.

1 comment:

  1. Very good points, Paul. As a Kiwi, rugby has been in my blood since I was a kid. However, as I've got to know the game better, I've become increasingly disillusioned by the massive problems it has, which you mention in the article. Until the IRB seriously tackles the resource inequalities in the sport, the predictability which plagues rugby will continue indefinitely.

    Having lived in Europe and South America, it's easy to see why football (or soccer as they call it in NZ) is such an enormous passion... There are so many truly competitive sides, both at international and club level. In contrast, in rugby only four to six European countries could be considered "competitive" against the SANZAR countries. And in South America, only Argentina runs them close, although they've never beaten NZL or RSA, and haven't beaten AUS since 1997...

    I hope things change, for the good of rugby. While it's all very well coming from a country where my national side are often the best in the world, it's a pretty hollow feeling when most of the sides you're playing are never going to beat you or can't even compete. For example, in the RWC 2015 pool stages, I can't see anything than NZ thrashing Georgia, Tonga and Namibia...and probably beating Argentina convincingly too...

    Hopefully the IRB will have a good think about how to improve the situation and put their money where their mouth is... They always talk about the importance of growing the game, but I believe they need to be a lot more radical in their efforts to do this... Otherwise, rugby will never reach its true potential and will be left massively behind other sports like football, basketball and volleyball...

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