The rugby world cup is now at its halfway stage, and in terms of crowds the tournament has been a success. Yet has it converted people to the code, or have those new to the game simply bought tickets to be a part of the event, a part of history and to be able to say in words made famous by Welsh singer Max Boyce, “I was there.”
There will no doubt be twice as many people as were in Brighton and Hove Albion’s ground when the Springboks were humbled by Japan who will claim to have been there. The reason being that to somehow say you were actually there these days seems to give some individuals a perceived added credibility.
Despite some great rugby on display, one feels that come the business end of the tournament it will be those nations to whom rugby is a part of their sporting fabric who will be deciding who will be crowned World Champions. The Island nations from the Pacific have advanced, but are always going to struggle against the investment and masses of support staff and technology that the first world nations have.
Just as in the football world cup, upsets are rare. Often they stem from coaches not prepared to move players on, and keeping them in the side long after their time has passed, case in point Spain last year in Brazil. Or sometimes it can be the weight of expectation. Both France and Spain bowed out at the group stages when being the defending World Champion in football.
There are many athletes who once they have retired have only then come to realise how honoured they were to represent their country, let alone at a World Cup finals. There are some who grow with that honour and responsibility every time they pull that shirt over their head. There are some who sadly today, feel it is their right.
The money in sport has seen athletes loyalties at club level almost evaporate. Players kiss the badge of their paymaster, but how many really mean such a gesture. Do they ever stop to think how insulting it is to the thousands who would have given anything to play one game for that club?
There is no doubt that rugby, maybe because of the physical nature of the game, brings out something special in players at international level. Yet it is still the rivalries of old that get the blood pumping. It may be sheer hatred built up over decades; and often nothing to do with rugby. Or it can also be born out of respect. Wales showed when they beat England how important that game was to them. It was the passion inside that saw them victorious. Scotland would be able to relate to that. The Irish too, with all keen to put one over the English. The All Blacks v the Springboks is another passionate rivalry but this one is built more on respect, as well as fierce competition. These are undoubtedly the games that fire up the fans. These are the games that you remember.
That is why certain nations try to avoid such games. They know that come such a game their passion will never match that of the opposition. For example the Dutch want to beat the Germans more than the Germans do the Dutch, the same could be said of Australia wanting to beat England.
No matter how you package a World Cup, it is the rivalries of old that become the focal points. That get the blood pumping and spark the imagination as one recalls the battles of old.
It is these games where players realise what it means to wear a shirt that represents the very core of your being. That is linked to you from birth or by your ancestors. It is an indescribable feeling, a special moment, and a powerful driver.
In modern day sport some sadly never get to experience that feeling. Yet, some feel it every single game.
Former Welsh captain Gareth Thomas summed it up perfectly in a recent article in the Sunday Independent in the UK “I think we undervalue what created us. If you don’t understand what you embody, you are not fully engaged. When I played for Wales I was representing every drop of water in those waterfalls, (in the Rhondda Valley) every blade of grass struggling to retain a grip on the mountainside. I was passing through. I didn’t matter. Sport is a funny thing. It means nothing and everything. The slightest incident is dramatised and magnified on television. I know it seems over-sensitive and spiritual but representing your country is beyond the now.”
Rest assured the team that has players who understand what Thomas is referring to will be the team that lifts the World Cup.