The devil vs the angel in my rugby heart


The devil vs the angel in my rugby heart

The point of world cup tournaments in any sport is growth. But even with teams competing regularly, you cannot make miracles happen. Look at Italy's 96-17 hammering by the All Blacks. LOUIS DE VILLIERS doesn't think there will be any surprises in this weekend's Rugby World Cup matches.


IN 1991, just after Namibian independence, the Biltong Boere managed to make a clean sweep in a Test series against a Five Nations team.

It was probably the best team the country will ever have; a bunch of tough Currie Cup veterans with at least five players who would never let any Springbok team down during that time. But if you think I'm writing to complain, predictably, about the decline Namibian rugby has experienced since then, you're wrong.

Namibia, my mother's country, is far too big with far too few people to ever excel in rugby, but until Kenya, Morocco or Côte d'Ivoire get their act together one day, it's the national rugby team's fate to represent Africa in the World Cup.


Rather luck. I'm sure those farmers, doctors and insurance agents had one of the most enjoyable adventures of their lives.

That Five Nations team back then was Ireland, and 32 years later they are the No 1 team in the world and a favourite to make it official with a World Cup.

Around the turn of the century, Irish amateur clubs were transformed into four well-organised regions. To the surprise of anyone who watched bad Irish rugby at Lansdowne Road in the late 1990s, they are now the big dogs.

Chosen from fewer than 200 well-coached professional players.

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In the same year Ireland took a beating in Windhoek, Australia won the World Cup, just as they did eight years later as the first professional team to do so.

Since then they have been regressing at roughly the same pace at which Ireland have been improving. Australian journalist Spiro Zavos argues quite convincingly that even back then, it had much to do with Eddie Jones' obsession with rugby league players.

While the 15-man rugby code struggles against the league version, as well as Australian football and soccer, the fact that Rugby Australia spends a fortune  recruiting stars from the 13-man code instead of focusing on its own doesn't send a great message.

Currently, amid the biggest Australian rugby crisis since money was officially allowed into the sport, Rugby Australia is courting Angus Crichton, Cameron Munster and Nathan Cleary from the other code. Can they clean up scrums and loose mauls? No, because they're not part of rugby league. The stupid courting just irritates supporters of both rugby versions.

What Australia have lacked for years are proper tight forwards, and unfortunately you can't just pluck them from rugby league or the South Seas islands.

Ocker is hosting the Lions in two years and the next World Cup two years later. Rugby Australia boss Hamish McLennan is seemingly best of friends with old Eddie, and the devilish side of my rugby heart wishes these two stay in tandem as the big guys so Australian rugby can go to the devil.

But the angel in my rugby heart warns even more loudly that this sport is by no means healthy enough to have one of its traditional great nations dissolve like a hangover Disprin and leave only a mild heartburn behind.

Even if it couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch of big-mouths.


So many things are wrong with the format of the Rugby World Cup. It's been going for a month and the knockout phase has yet to begin.

So far, there have been few truly competitive matches, and the time gap between meaningful games is far too long. Let's not even talk about the premature draw.

However, the point of world cup tournaments in any sport is to see them grow.

Australia are regressing; Japan and Argentina are stagnating; Fiji, as usual, are alternately brilliant and painfully naive; and the other islands haven't benefited much from the return of former All Blacks.

Uruguay, Georgia and especially the delightful Portugal have improved impressively, but if they don't get more regular opportunities against the bigger teams it will remain their fate to receive condescending compliments every four years and to suffer one or two nasty beatings.


But not even regular competition can make miracles happen, as was evident when Italy were spectacularly crushed 96-17 by the ever-dangerous All Blacks.

Italy have participated in all 10 world tournaments without once advancing to the quarter-finals. It's not just global popularity that gives soccer a significant advantage over rugby in promoting the sport.

The try line in rugby is much wider than the goal in soccer. A score of 96-17 in rugby terms would probably be something like 6-0 in soccer terms, which sounds somewhat more competitive.


Something must clearly be done about the gap between the giants and the minnows. Most supporters would probably be delighted to have some sort of plate, as in sevens, or a qualifying round; but World Rugby dashed those hopes on Wednesday.

Instead, the 2027 tournament will have six groups of four, which will hit even harder but will probably have the side effect that the Wallabies will reach the knockout rounds, even if Eddie Jones is still at the helm.


Given all these things, as well as the cold truth that two of the four best teams on earth will leave the tournament next week, there is at least  painful irony in the fact that Wales and England are the only teams to have reached the quarter-finals after three matches.

These two worn-out giants stumbled all the way to France but now their engines have finally started humming, and with Fiji undoubtedly waiting for England and Argentina or Japan for Wales, the path to the semi-finals looks fairly clear.

And then the playoff for third place, because they are not a match for whoever comes through the quarter-finals unscathed on the other side of the draw.

Nothing is certain, however. At that level, there is so little difference between the best that small leaks can sink the greatest ships.

Not all referees are always impartial. Not all key players are always match-fit. Not all hotel cooks always wash their hands after leaving the restroom.

This weekend, though, it's only early Sunday afternoon's match that is really at stake, when the Pumas and the Brave Blossoms measure their disappointingly waning strengths. I have little doubt there will be no surprises.

There have been far too few of those.


Three tunes for Friday from three countries probably on their way home. Something from Glasgow, Scotland, where the guitars jingle more than elsewhere:

Japan for refreshing weirdness: 

And, of course, Australia. They may be cursed with Eddie Jones, but they are blessed with King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard:


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