This Saturday, if you're lucky enough to have a ticket, you can watch our national rugby team take on a splendid All Blacks outfit at Twickenham. You can guarantee that it will be a fantastic spectacle, with the reigning world champions taking on the team currently rated number one, in what is possibly the greatest rugby stadium on the planet. England versus New Zealand, the tradition, the fervour, the grandeur. Perfect. Long may it continue. And while you're watching this epic contest, you may well reflect that in two years time, the same two teams could well be contesting the next World Cup Final. The odds will never be that long after all, because we all know that it will be the usual suspects who reach the semi-finals, same as always. The only unknown will be which out of England, France, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa don't make it to the last four. Rugby is in good shape right now, and you can guarantee that the 2007 World Cup in France will be a real treat, but it would be an even more engaging tournament if there was a real chance of a smaller team progressing to the latter stages, such as South Korea's semi-final appearence in the last football World Cup.
And that's the problem in a nutshell. Rugby union, as the preserve of a small clique of elite nations, is still far too insular and despite what the IRB says, it is still not doing enough to help develop the 'smaller' nations. Rugby-playing nations like Argentina, Japan, Canada, the US and the Pacific Island teams (Tonga, Samoa etc) are being held back because they aren't able to get enough meaningful competition outside of the World Cup. The elite nations like to play each other, because the guaranteed full houses mean nice full coffers for the likes of the RFU and the minnows have to make do with the scraps they get thrown every now and again.
Some progress has been made, the growth of the Churchill Cup (played in Canada every year) being a good example of a tournament being developed to help the minnows, but nevertheless it is still unacceptable that Argentina and the Pacific Islands have no involvement in either the Super 12 or the Tri-Nations and that in Europe so little has been done to help push along the interest in rugby that exists in Georgia or Romania (remember them? England used to play them you know, but not anymore).
At 5.30pm today, we will learn where the IRB have decided to hold the Rugby World Cup in 2011. The voting delegates from the member nations have three choices: New Zealand, South Africa or Japan. To put it quite simply, New Zealand and South Africa represent status quo and higher guaranteed incomes. Japan represents the chance to prove that rugby has the potential to become a truly global sport, as well as an opportunity for a 'minnow' to develop its national game and challenge the elite. Before they did an excellent job of hosting the football World Cup in 1994, the US had no professional mens' league and a rubbish national side. The MLS is now thriving and the national team deservedly reached the quarter-finals at the last World Cup. There is no reason why Japan cannot make the same kind of progress, and if the IRB is serious about developing the game worldwide, they must be given the chance.