Enjoying a few days off during Eid al-Fitr, known locally as the Ramadan Bayram holiday to mark the end of the Islamic month of fasting, I decided to tune into the World Rugby website’s live streaming of the Nation’s Cup.
First up a feisty Namibian team really took it to the Argentina XV and led for much of the game, eventually succumbing 39-25 to the recently crowned South American champions.
Not sure how much resemblance there was to the team that got thrashed 106-0 by Nelspruit in the South African Super Sport series last weekend, but the Welwitschias proved a real handful for their more fancied opponents.
Following this a similarly impressive Uruguay proved too slick and skilful for a disorganised Russian outfit, cruising to a 48-26 victory. The host nation looked well-drilled and composed, while the Bears squandered possession and gave away penalties at crucial moments.
What really struck me as I watched these games, played back-to-back at Montevideo’s Estadio Charrua, were the lack of spectators. The stands looked completely empty during the early game, while there couldn’t have been more than a few hundred on hand for the national team’s clash with Russia.
Certainly, it was a midweek fixture, the early game kicking off in the middle of the afternoon, but Los Teros’ encounter with the Bears on home soil did not kick off til 5pm. One would have expected a healthy number of school kids along by then, at the very least.
How about travelling fans from Buenos Aires; the Argentine capital just a few hours away by bus and ferry? Of course, they had their own international tournament to attend that day, the World Under-20 Championships, and attendances there looked conversely impressive.
One can only surmise there really isn’t much interest in the Nations Cup among spectators. And why would there be? It’s a meaningless invitational tournament between random teams.
Designed by World Rugby to develop some of the second and third tier nations, the series has been running since 2006.
Bucharest was the regular host but the tournament evidently failed to capture the public imagination there either, and for the past two years it has been staged in Uruguay.
While the objective is laudable, it seems there must be better ways for World Rugby to invest in the game. They have spoken themselves of the need to add meaning to international competition, so perhaps this would be a good place to start.
How about transforming the Nations Cup into an annual Confederations Cup of Rugby, involving the top teams from Rugby Europe, the Americas, Asia-Oceania and Africa?
Most of the work has been done already, although the African championships would need to be revived, after being cancelled this year. The proposed eight team, two group schedule, which apparently cost the tournament its sponsorship, ought to be discarded, and the six team, round-robin format reinstated.
Rugby Europe already has a top division involving half a dozen sides, while North and South America have combined to get the Americas Rugby Championship off the ground. That leaves Asia and Oceania, which could be united by adding the Pacific Islands trio to the Asian top three.
This in itself would provide a tremendous learning curve for the likes of Hong Kong and South Korea, and the Pacific Islands would also benefit by playing at the big stadiums in Japan and Hong Kong.
Obviously there would be concerns about lopsided scores, but Hong Kong and Korea are at about the same level as Brazil and Chile, who have more than held their own against Argentina, Canada and the US in the Americas, after all.
Like Argentina in that event, the Pacific Islands would likely field their home-based players only, rather than call the professionals in from abroad. That would certainly level the playing field, to some degree.
So there you have it. Four six nations championships involving a combined 24 second and third tier teams across the four major geographical zones. This could help pave the way for World Cup expansion in the next decade.
The four winners would then qualify to compete in a Confederations Cup of Rugby which just might catch on with the fans, the way soccer’s has. Hosting could rotate among the continents.
On recent form this would involve the Argentina XV, Namibia, Georgia and either Fiji or Japan. Not a whole lot different to the Nations Cup, except that places would be earned and the quality therefore higher.
Regional competition really ought to be the focus of World Rugby as it pursues its objective of developing the international game. Global competitions, such as the proposed ‘League of Nations,’ can only have the opposite effect and shrink the game at the top.
Basically, what we have at present is the Six Nations and Australasia, plus one or two world-class teams on each continent – with little beyond that.
What rugby needs are more competitive regional competitions involving multiple world-class teams. Only then will we have a World Cup to rival FIFA’s.
Eid Mubarak (happy festival).