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Rugby reveals consequential minnows

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4 October 2011 14:04

Sport is one of the few avenues open to the world's minnows to make their mark by competing with top countries. Some have earned an enviable reputation as a result.

There are not too many times that the US would be nervous about taking on Jamaica in anything, but in the 4x100m relay the Caribbean nation is one you don't want to run against. If the Olympics is the time for the Caribbean nations to stand up and be counted, and the soccer World Cup the opportunity for sub-Saharan Africa to have a crack at the big boys, then the Rugby World Cup is the time for the South Pacific.

Anybody who watched Tonga defeat the French and Samoa make the South Africans pull out all stops on the weekend saw the Pacific countries' chance to shine on the world stage. The thing about the Rugby World Cup is that, unlike those other two major international sporting get-togethers (Olympic boxing excepted) physical contact is the essence of the contest. This makes the Pacific nations, with their size and warrior culture, well-suited to the task. 

And while it is still true that a handful of big countries are likely to win the Rugby World Cup, on the evidence of the past few weeks, the gap between the top tier and second tier nations is narrowing.

For me, the physicality of the World Cup also means that, unlike non-contact sports, rugby is as close to the Clausewitzian notion of sport being politics by other means (or something to that effect) as you can get. People who saw the way both teams ripped into each other in the England vs Argentina game would not have thought that the Falklands War ended nearly 30 years ago. Or that the Cold War was over when Russia and the US threw themselves into each other in another very hard game.

The World Cup has also revealed, if not reinforced, cultural stereotypes. 

Being from the driest continent on the planet, the Wallabies have once again shown that their ability to play competent rugby is diminished once it rains. And in New Zealand that is often. The Georgians and Romanians loved the close-in contest and seemed to revel in the set pieces, but became a bit lost as the play opened up and became less formulaic. Still, if you asked me who I would least like to meet in a dark alley it would be any member of the Romanian or Georgian forward packs.

The Fijian team seem to mirror the state of their nation at the moment. Once the standard bearers of Pacific rugby, they seem to have drifted off the pace alarmingly, content to rely on past achievement. Their Samoan and Tongan cousins are more engaged internationally and reaping the benefits. The French are in near open revolt with their coach, but in their normal Gallic way, may blow their quarter-final opponent away or capitulate meekly. Who knows. 

New Zealand has once again shown what really matters to Kiwis. The national mood has turned the same colour as their beloved rugby uniform, not because of any economic downturn or other minor matters of state but with news that their beloved Dan Carter has suffered a tournament-ending injury.

The Scots did their best William Wallace impersonation. Outnumbered, outsized and outgunned, they played passionate, hard rugby against Argentina and England only to lose in the last few minutes to both. If heart and fighting ability counted for much, they would be finalists, but at least a business class flight back to Glasgow is going to be a bit more comfortable than what Wallace faced when the English beat him. 

Ah, perfidious Albion. Rugby's equivalent of the Hollywood bad guy, England face so many countries in the tournament with a score to settle against them that it makes every game a contest. Former combatant countries (Argentina, France, Russia, Ireland), former combatant countries who live really close by (Scotland, Wales), colonies with a really big sporting grudge against them (Australia), former colonies that are too polite to hold grudges (Canada, New Zealand) and former colonies that threw off the colonial yoke and only recently became attracted to one of their games (US). And then there's one country that thinks only New Zealand is a worthy enough opponent to play them (South Africa).

The men in white (am I the only one who sees the irony?) have played their role to perfection. Trying to illegally substitute a ball, two players suspended for foul play on the field, and enough social faux pas off the field to warm the hearts (if they had hearts) of Fleet Street editors. They are playing the French this weekend in the quarter final and, given the French team has the hardness of a freshly baked croissant at the moment, it is likely to be the semi-finals before England's high noon moment arrives.

Given its recent experience with natural disasters, New Zealand has deserved its moment on the world stage for other than sad events. And it has delivered to date with a well attended, well organised and happy tournament. 

From the Tongans encircled in prayer in the middle of the field seconds after smashing the daylights out of the French to the Argentinians doing the pogo stick dance in front of their players after they just overcame Scotland in the final minutes, the tournament has revealed cultural elements of the rugby nations that relatively few get to see. From the muscular Christianity of the Pacific countries to the joyous celebrations of the South Americans, sport is once again a way of revealing the essential elements of a country's psyche.                

Image courtesy of  RWC 2001 website.

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