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Why I can't get excited about the Rugby World Cup

· Rugby

The Rugby World Cup (“RWC”) kicks off in less than 12 hours time as I write this blog, but I find myself struggling to get excited about it.

Now, I grew up playing rugby in Scotland from the age of 9 and sat on the schoolboy benches at Murrayfield on many a glorious (and not so glorious) occasion, and I have continued to attend and watch 6 nations matches until very recently, so its not as if I have no connection with the game.

By most accounts the tournament will be superbly organised, marketed and delivered (and having previously worked with a number of those involved with the event I have no doubt this will be the case), so I have no gripes with this side of things. Nor can I claim my life will be intolerably disrupted by the traffic and fans in the Richmond/Twickenham area of London as I moved away from there almost a year ago.

So why then, do I feel such a disconnect? Partly it is the geography. My new home of Sweden is not exactly renowned for its rugby tradition (I have always thought Scandinavian viking-types would make great rugby players, but that is a whole other debate), so I can honestly say I have not come across a single reference to the RWC over here – whether on TV or otherwise.

That, however, doesn’t quite cover it. There are plenty things I remain passionate about despite living overseas. I retain an unhealthy obsession with Partick Thistle FC (of “Kingsley” fame), for example.

The answer, I think, stems from the last RWC game I attended, back in 2007. It was Scotland’s pool match v the All Blacks at Murrayfield, which Scotland lost 40-0. The score line was not the problem – as a Scot, crushing defeats in sporting events are not uncommon – it was the manner of it. Scotland, with one-eye on the crunch next game against Italy, made 13 changes to their side and essentially fielded a B-team. It was a highly pragmatic move, and was perhaps ultimately justified by the 18-16 victory against Italy 6 days later which meant the Scots qualified from Pool C.

This approach (and the fact I had paid a hefty price for a ticket) really jarred with me. Here was a game in the world cup, against the best team in the world, in front of a home crowd and we essentially wrote the game off.   I couldn’t help make the comparison with football. If Scotland faced the All Black’s equivalent in the round-ball game (Brazil, surely?) - as we did at France 98 - it would be a national event and our strongest team would be sent out in the hope of getting a result (which we almost did) regardless of the odds.

Maybe I am too much of a romantic when it comes to sport – always believing that the impossible is achievable, and that miracles can happen. But isn’t that the essence of it after all? If it all becomes too pragmatic, too clinical and predictable, we would lose interest. Fans love sports flawed geniuses (George Best, John Daly) and plucky underdogs as much as they applaud the all-conquering goliaths.

Looking back at the history of the RWC, perhaps it’s just a little too predictable. Only 8 different teams have occupied the top 4 positions (compared to 14 in the football world cup since 1990), and real shocks occur very seldom. Take for example, this recent list of the top 10. Most of them appear fairly hum-drum to me, even the All-Blacks defeats, while surprising, can’t be called true David and Goliath moments given they came against fellow rugby powers France, Australia and a Nelson Mandela-inspired South Africa. It just doesn’t seem possible for Rugby to produce a Greece in 2004, or a Denmark in 1992.

I know that comparisons to football are a little unfair, and the IRB is trying to broaden rugby’s geographic spread - the awarding of the 2019 RWC to Japan is certainly brave - but right now, to me at least, rugby feels a little stale.

It’s a great shame, as there is so much about the game of rugby to admire – the camaraderie and respect in particular – particularly when contrasted with football’s recent corruption scandals.

Greater rugby fans than me will no doubt produce compelling counter arguments, and I would be happy to be corrected. Its also very possible that this is a temporary phase and I’m simply fed up of Scotland losing and finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that, in the modern professional area, they look unlikely to ever reach the heights of the early 90’s again.

Or, (whisper-it) maybe I’ve always just been more of a football man at heart.....

Jamie McDonald is a business and legal advisor operating in the sports, media, technology and entertainment industries. He specialises in advising athletes, sports events, media organisations and tech companies on both commercial and legal issues. Prior to founding his consultancy sportsandlegal.com he was in-house counsel for IMG Golf in London for 7.5 years.

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