Later this month the destiny of rugby’s world cup will be decided at Twickenham, the home of the Rugby Football Union in West London.
No matter who reaches the final it will be the perfect stage. The brutalist concrete stadium has been looking its best during the six-week tournament, adorned by the finery of competition dressing designed to bestow a sense of identity and occasion common to each of stadia selected to host matches during the biggest world cup to date.
It has been billed as the world’s third biggest sports event and has certainly assumed the heirs and graces associated with that title. Slickly-organised by a team whose members have learned their roles on events including the Olympic Games, it had a glitzy opening ceremony which offered a spectacular nod to the game’s fabled roots in an 18th century English public school as well as embracing its international 21st century audience.
This is a sport and an event which has changed spectacularly since England last hosted it in 1991 and the difference is not simply one of scale. It is about ambition and professionalism at World Rugby, the international governing body, the local organising committee and IMG, the agency responsible for doing the deals which keep the money flowing in.
It is important, amid all the hype, to take a step back and maintain some perspective
In 1991 the tournament started somewhat anonymously but interest in the world cup grew as the tournament progressed with media attention buoyed by the home nation’s progress to the final. That saw rugby promoted from the back pages to the front, even among those newspapers which generally tended to give the sport a wide berth.
By contrast, the 2015 version was heralded by hype and stories predicting that rugby might be about to give football a fight for the title of the nation’s – if not the world’s – favourite sport.
And you know what? People bought it. All of a sudden rugby shot to the top of the conversational agenda and even those with only a passing acquaintance with the game felt empowered to hold forth on
the relative merits of kicking styles, scrummaging techniques or, in the case of an 18-year-old daughter known to me, whether New Zealand’s starting XV was ‘hotter than Wales’ XV’. The jury is still out on that one. But while this may begin to look like another tipping point for the sport, it is important, amid all the hype and to take a step back and maintain some perspective. Yes, rugby world cup will be the biggest yet but is it really the third biggest sports event in the world?
Lots of others can and do lay claim to that title, among them the Asian Games, Uefa’s Champions League, the winter Olympics and the ICC (International Cricket Council) World Cup being just a few.
The rugby world cup will be available in 207 territories with a potential global audience of four billion. But the reality is that in most of those markets rugby is at best a secondary interest and often a closed book to the vast majority of the potential audience.
When England played Fiji in the opening match of RWC 2015, the audience, on the free-to-air ITV channel – peaked at 9.4m, a share of around 40 per cent. When the England soccer team played Italy in a group game at last year’s Fifa World Cup the television audience was over 14m.
Evidence gathered down the years tells us that viewing of major sports events follows a certain pattern. People watch the opening event, their national team until they exit, and then the final. Given this and the number of territories in which rugby struggles for mindshare, it is difficult to see how even this latest, best-of-breed version of its World Cup justifies the ‘third biggest’ tag.
However, on the first weekend of matches something astonishing happened, something which will boost the competition and the sport in general more than the most meticulously devised and expensively instigated marketing campaign. And it happened not in an office but on the pitch.
Japan’s 34-32 victory over two-time World Cup winners South Africa was not simply the greatest shock in the history of international rugby but possibly in the whole of sport. At a stroke it challenged perceptions that Rugby World Cup’s early stages are predictable and that the hegemony of the established nations is built into the fabric of the sport.
The tears of delight shed by the players at the final whistle showed what it meant to the nation which will host the next edition of the tournament to have made an indelible mark on this. The impact of their famous win will be felt right around the world and it announces that the status-quo is shifting