Over the last few months, rugby – careering through its first 25 years as a professional sport – found it had arrived at a crossroads.
If ever rugby had a custom-made opportunity to embrace the global game and indulge the developing nations, it was through World Cup qualifying.
Following the success of the invitational event in 1987, momentum appeared headed in that direction as the powers that be themselves got caught up in the winds of change.
Twenty-five nations competed for eight berths at the 16-team tournament in 1991, with Samoa the main success story, earning their place in the quarter-finals on debut.
By the end of the decade 65 were chasing 16 spots at the expanded 20-team event, while the process remained entirely independent of established regional competition, meaning more international exposure for all concerned.
The Home Unions played teams on the continent and subsequent champions Australia had to come through a tough qualifying group with Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. That was the apogee.
First tier against second and third tier. Spain and Portugal got to play Scotland at Murrayfield, while Romania scored 35 points in a 20-point loss to Ireland at Landsdowne Road.
Thus rugby entered the new millennium seemingly on the brink of true global status; its all-inclusive World Cup qualifying process almost set to rival FIFA’s. But having scaled such laudable heights, the powers that be appeared to quake at their own success and began a hasty descent.
Leading the charge were the Kiwis. The 1999 World Cup third-place playoff had doubled as a World Cup qualifier, but following their defeat to the Springboks in that match, New Zealand seemed to balk at the indignation of having to earn their place in 2003.
Eventually a rule change was pushed through, relieving the eight quarter-finalists of the burden of qualifying, while more than 80 nations were left to scramble for just 12 berths. It was rugby’s “Let them eat cake” moment, as the privileged few decided to look after themselves and spurn the increasing demands of the masses.
England’s century against Holland was eagerly held up as an example of the qualifying system’s folly. Everyone seemed to forget that in their other match at Huddersfield the English had been given a tough workout by the Italians.
Moreover, they had reached treble digits against Tonga at the 1999 World Cup and would do so again in 2003, against Uruguay. New Zealand had also registered a ton in 1999, against Italy, while four years earlier they had annihilated Japan 145-17.
Did anyone suggest the likes of New Zealand and England should be exempt from playing such opposition in future? Of course not. Italy joined an expanded Six Nations a year later, Tonga has since beaten France at the World Cup and Japan stunned the Springboks at the last instalment.
Just think of the upsets we might have witnessed in World Cup qualifying had the process remained on the same trajectory as last century! The second and third tier nations would have grown accustomed to playing the elite nations by now and undoubtedly improved.
Instead, qualifying has been reduced even further, with 93 nations vying for a paltry eight places at this year’s World Cup in Japan, culminating in a four-way repechage tournament.
In addition to which, the process is now tied directly to established regional competition, and the debacle in Europe last year, which led to the disqualification of Romania and Spain, may well have been part of the fallout.
Meanwhile, the top twelve teams at the last tournament no longer need inconvenience themselves trying to qualify for the next. Their performance of four years earlier will suffice, regardless of results and personnel changes in the interim.
Hardly surprising, therefore, that we will only see one change to the line-up at this year’s World Cup, Russia (the beneficiary of the aforementioned debacle), just as we have at every tournament so far this century.
In fact, there have only been three debutants since the expanded event in 1999, Georgia and Portugal being the others. Five qualifying series’ this century have not produced a solitary newcomer from any of the other regions. New Zealand, South Africa and France, meanwhile, have still never been required to qualify. This is nothing short of shameful.
World Rugby needs to take control of the process once again, live up to its mandate of globalising the game, and look after the needs of all its members, rather than just a privileged few.