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Rugby World Cup 2003: Time to take issue with rugby's global pretensions; Michael Blair cannot find cause to celebrate an event reckoned by an acquaintance as 'biggest sporting con of all time'.

Byline: Michael Blair

What do we think of it so far? Well it seems, from what I read, that the 15,000 Brits who have made the journey to Australia are having a terrific time, especially those who cannot get tickets for the matches.

Matches? Have there been any? There was the one in Perth on Saturday, the result of which must gratify those who have invested in and put their money on England.

But the bloke from the posh paper that I read, an ex-England international, reckoned that only seven of the side had played to better than half of their potential. And then not by much.

What does that make South Africa? And when you see sides losing by 90 points, how can the World Cup be said to be good for the game? Is it not having the opposite effect? Is it not holding rugby up to ridicule? All the hype, all the millions of newspaper words and all the hours of television time!

I was with a non-rugby chap at the golf at Wentworth last week and he had just taken a peek at New Zealand versus Canada on the telly in the Media Centre. He laughed at me when I tried to defend it.

'This,' he said, 'must be the biggest sporting con of all time. How can you call it a world cup when there are only four teams who can win it?' Are there that many, I was forced to wonder to myself?

I just hope that this very casual observer did not read the views of one of Britain's senior commentators on Sunday who had it that some of the referees in Australia at the moment, if not exactly bent, are something worse than partial. This, I think, was just about the most damning piece of sporting journalism that I have ever read.

'The shocking news for the smaller teams is that if, by some miracle, they are not stuffed by their painful lack of resources and the professionalism of the highly-paid teams, the referee will be sure to finish them off,' went the piece.

Whew! And, apparently, if you are English/New Zealander/Australian/South African/French, and you go down injured, the referee immediately sends for 'gangs of medicos' but if you're from Georgia or Uruguay, you can lie in your shallow grave and rot. Is it really as bad as that?

And if it might be, should not the International Rugby Board be calling a halt to the event now pending a thorough investigation?

Association Football is going through a torrid time with regard to its public image and all sorts of inquiries are being called for and sanctions demanded. At least that game is acknowledging its pain.

And here's the so-called superior sport (it was once) of rugby football sponsoring, in public, serious mis-matches and overt malpractice. And, apparently, choosing not to notice and hoping that its audience doesn't, either.

The World Cup, we were led to believe, was going to move rugby forward as a global sport. It was going to advertise its qualities to the skies and make every boy child in every nation on earth desperate to become a David Campese or a John Eales.

Perhaps there are those who believe that this could still happen --has happened --but I can only ask this question: is the World Cup of 2003 as universally competitive as was the World Cup of 1987? I think not. And nowhere near. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening by the season and I just cannot find cause to celebrate this sad event.

But my weekend's perusal of the papers led me to a letter in one of them from a reader who seemed to have caught the appropriate gist. World cups, he said, in any sport, were intended as the ultimate test for athletes, teams and nations. And the best way to test rugby greatness would be to add England and France to the TriNations teams (South Africa? mmm) and let them play each other home and away.

That would cut the whole thing down to essentials, of course. But the winners would be kings of a very small castle.

As they will be as things are.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 21, 2003
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