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Rugby world order shifting as New Zealand prepares for the end of its unipolar moment

Rugby world order shifting as New Zealand prepares for the end of its unipolar moment
Published 30 Oct 2015   Follow @RodgerShanahan

It is only fitting, on the eve of the Rugby World Cup final this weekend, to take a look at the intersection between rugby union and international relations. Plenty has been written about the plethora of world leaders and even revolutionary figures such as Che Guevara who have pulled on the boots to run 'with a fine disregard for the rules of football', as did William Webb Ellis in 1823.

My first understanding of the connection between rugby and the world began at school. I was a Rugby League player in primary school, but once I hit Year 5 I had to play Rugby Union and it stayed that way for the next 40 years.

One week while I was at school we were given free entry to nearby Chatswood Oval in the afternoon to watch Gordon play the visiting Argentinian club side Rosario. It opened my eyes to a world much broader than the one on the lower north shore which I occupied, and I've been a student of the world and of rugby since.

Rugby is in many ways a metaphor for the international order. Like international law, the rules of rugby are complex, ever changing and always open to interpretation. And in rugby there is a neutral arbiter to ensure these rules are adhered to. In this way however, soccer probably better mirrors the real world as opposed to the idealised one that rugby represents. Whereas in rugby the referee is called 'sir' and is approached only by the captain wherever possible, in soccer the referee is cajoled, abused and called anything but sir.

Like states in the global economic system, rugby is also unique in the way in which it welcomes all body shapes to use their comparative advantage to find their place. Those of stout frame? Front row. Tall? Lock. Fitness freak? Breakaway. Short and an ability to annoy people? Halfback. Fast? Fullback. No apparent comparative advantage? Wing.

In this World Cup we have seen the game mirror other aspects of the real world. [fold]

The unipolar rugby system where New Zealand rules supreme is still in evidence, but like the US in the real world, New Zealand's days of dominance may soon end (my unbiased prediction is this Saturday night). And whereas the BRICS represent the potential new wave of world powers on the international scene, the Rugby World Cup has thrown up its own version of the BRICS. Argentina represents the urbane and increasingly confident South American element, Japan's rugby stocks are rising dramatically at the same time as its economic ones are falling, while Georgia is the Eastern European powerhouse that seeks greater international recognition and acceptance.

Indeed, Argentina's rapid rise in rugby standards following its acceptance into the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship is like the best free trade agreement outcome ever: a more level playing field ('scuse the pun) has led to increased competition, which has in turn led to a rise in standards.

Contrary to those here at home who see rugby as a niche 'establishment' sport, the Wallabies also represent the multicultural nature of Australian society. The coach, Michael Cheikha, is the son of working class Lebanese immigrants, captain Stephen Moore was born in Saudi Arabia to Irish parents, halfback Will Genia's parents are from Papua New Guinea and star player David Pocock's parents moved to Australia from Zimbabwe. Indigenous Australia is represented by Kurtley Beale, and we haven't even mentioned the Pacific Islander heritage of Kefu, Folau, Sio, Kuridrani and others.

To borrow an over-used international relations term, it is fair to say Australia has punched above its weight in rugby. This is the eighth World Cup final and Australia's fourth appearance (equal with New Zealand). We've won it twice (along with New Zealand). But unlike New Zealand, rugby is a lesser sport in Australia. In Kiwiland it is the sport of everyman, whereas in Australia we have long relied on private boys schools in Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra to keep the national team supplied. That's why the natural order of things is reversed in rugby. In pretty well every sport we play (Rugby League, netball, cricket) one expects the Kiwis to put up stiff resistance and to win occasionally, but the norm is for Australia to be cast as the big, mean, older brother and New Zealand as the plucky underdog.

But the opposite is true when it comes to rugby, which is more than just New Zealand's national sport, it is its national identity. In expat communities around the world, it is expected that an Australian will be able to bat a bit and bowl a bit. Having a few of them in your cricket team sends a message to the other pretenders. A New Zealander who turns up in an expat community without a reasonable sidestep or is unable to spiral pass both sides of the body is considered a bit of a disappointment. You expect New Zealanders to be decent rugby players because the game is in their DNA.

So when the Wallabies beat the All Blacks it is more than just a sporting loss to them — it is a blow to national pride. Losing to the Springboks isn't liked but it's tolerated because there is respect for the history of South African rugby, and the Boks are considered the closest thing to peer competitors the All Blacks have. But Kiwis know that rugby struggles for attention in Australia, so a loss to the Wallabies really, really hurts. And in a World Cup final with the imminent retirement of several of their greatest players, a loss won't just hurt – it will be humiliating.

New Zealand, prepare to be humiliated by the multicultural Wallabies.

Jules Annan/Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

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