By most measures and in most opinions the 2007 Rugby World Cup has been a roaring success. You’ll find no argument about that in this column.
The competitiveness has been unsurpassed. In terms of upsets a couple of victories for Western Samoa — and the whole island — over Wales have been the sum total of five competitions.
Yet in this tournament Namibia, Tonga, Argentina and Georgia have all fried or at least warmed one side of some of the sport’s biggest fish. The quality has been pretty good too. Some of the best rugby has been played by Japan and Fiji while South Africa’s demolition of England was awe-inspiring.
Attendances, on the whole, have been decent, even Scotland’s game with Romania and Wales’ with Japan produced respectable figures.
The scheduling of matches is much better too. The staccato effect of 2003 and 1999 — loads on one day and then none for three or four — has been avoided and while games like Romania-Italy have not enraptured worldwide audiences they have at least been programmed to ensure everyone has at least 15 minutes of fame.
Leaving aside the scandalous advantages handed to the Welsh and the Scots by being allowed to play most of their pool fixtures at home and the fact journalists have to pay for their pre-match food and even internet access, to ape the old Olympic slogan — it’s been the best games ever.
Yet it could have been even better. Unfortunately the dice is heavily loaded against the northern hemisphere sides with the timing of the event and that, I believe, accounts for many of the sub-par performances from the Home Nations.
Yes, England and Ireland have other problems and, yes, England won the last championship at the same stage of the season. But lost in the euphoria of that victory was the fact Clive Woodward’s side were already on the downward slope having peaked a few months earlier.
Had the 2003 World Cup been staged in June, when England went to New Zealand and Australia and smashed them off their own parks, it wouldn’t have taken an extra-time drop goal five months later to assert their dominance.
But staging the event in the first month of the northern hemisphere’s season puts them at a distinct disadvantage.
Unions are caught between the two stools of giving the players adequate recovery time after intense domestic seasons and pushing them right through to the following campaign.
Certainly Ireland have managed to do neither. They are horrendously under-prepared and, if not in terms of conditioning then in terms of game strategy, so too are England. All they had by way of warm-up was the chance to murder a second-string Wales side, a non-entity at home to the French and then a good hard Test match in Marseille. One game effectively.
The Tri Nations sides, on the other hand, have been playing since only May. The Australian national side did not play a game between November 25 and May 26. That’s six months off. Of course their players look more fresh.
The All Blacks had even longer off and the Springboks warmed up for their Tri Nations campaign by embarrassing England Colts. Crucially, all three have gone from summer tours, to Tri Nations and straight into the World Cup without a break.
They have been on the move for only four months and will reach optimum output at the end of this World Cup.
In this country, however, the effect dribbles down. With all of the Premiership stars in France and supporters’ attention focused elsewhere, the English top flight has started with next to no media spotlight.
There was little or no coverage in most national newspapers when things got under way on September 15 and only 7,105 people turned out to watch Mike Ruddock’s Worcester open their new season at Sixways last Saturday. No one can argue that the Premiership is not a poorer product for the absence of its best players.
What is to be done then? Holding the World Cup in the summer or even during the Six Nations window causes problems for the southern hemisphere. They could make all the same arguments in reverse.
The current inequities make sure the playing field is not level at World Cup time — at the expense of domestic leagues, let it be noted — and that, when so much is at stake, is not fair.
* Read Brian Dick's thoughts on the 2007 tournament at his World Cup Blog