SOUND and fury will abound in the World Cup group stages kicking off at the Stade de France in Paris today with the opening clash between hosts France and Argentina.
But prior to the knockout stages in a month’s time, only
a handful of matches will have any real significance and the majority of the 20 teams who assemble in France this week have no hope of reaching the final on October 20.
The statistics in five World Cups show rugby union’s claims to be a truly global sport are flawed despite the growing number of countries playing the game.
At the initial World Cup in 1987 co-hosts New Zealand and Australia were joined by France and Wales in the semi-finals. The first three were there again in the final four at the last tournament in Australia, with eventual champions England taking the last place.
Only two other countries, 1995 champions South Africa and Scotland, have also reached the semis.
Today’s contest is one of the few pool matches likely to have any bearing on the competition as a whole.
Combining consistency with the imagination and skills which make French rugby so exciting has been the thankless task of a succession of French coaches. The man in charge for the final time on home soil is Bernard Laporte, who will join President Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet after the Cup as minister of youth and sport.
The demands of professional rugby have cleaned up the French game’s notorious violence and the performances in warm-up games against England and Wales showed the European champions have quality in depth. Their unpredictability can even be a virtue with none of their opponents ever sure what will be in store on any given day.
Argentina, an increasingly impressive team with away victories against France and England, have been badly treated by the sport’s administrators.
Despite repeated pleas, they have failed to win a place in either the Six or Tri-Nations competitions. They have also been placed in the toughest group, Pool D, which includes an Irish team who are potentially the best of the home nations.
If France continue to show the form of champions and win all their group games, the September 30 game between Ireland and Argentina will be the most significant of the pool stages.
Next Friday, England meet the powerful South African Springboks in a Pool A match which will decide the group winners. The group is the most physical at the tournament since it also includes the rugged Pacific Island sides Samoa and Tonga. The United States are the fifth team in the mix.
Pool B’s key match features Wales on home ground against Australia at the Millennium Stadium on Sept. 15 and the big game in Pool C will be Italy against Scotland on September 29 to decide second place behind Cup favourites New Zealand.
Neither Scotland or Italy have ever beaten the All Blacks whose game against debutants Portugal on September 15 is likely to be one of the biggest mismatches of all time.
The quarter-finals are scheduled for October 6 and 7 and the semi-finals on October 13 and 14.
Meanwhile, the push to commercialise rugby within a rapidly changing and complicated media world has indirectly led to leading international news agencies suspending coverage of the sport’s World Cup.
But rugby’s focus on improving its financial gain could backfire for a sport that is trying to extend its global reach.
Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Getty Images announced yesterday that they would suspend text, photographic and television coverage in a row with the tournament’s organisers over media rights.
The agencies, along with a worldwide coalition of newspaper groups, are concerned about Internet picture rights, television access and accreditation terms and have been frustrated after failing to reach an agreement with the organisers.
“When news agencies boycott an event, that’s a pretty serious move and it will have an impact on virtually every media everywhere in the world,” Larry Kilman, director of communications for the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), told Reuters.
“Sports organisations are monetising every aspect of the game and we don’t begrudge them the right to do that but we think there is an issue of freedom of information and freedom of the press that comes up.”
Analysts at media research group Enders Analysis told Reuters that the problem arose from newspaper groups putting content online, where they have moved beyond just a small number of static images, and whether this devalues the exclusive terms agreed with broadcasters.
“How do you demarcate media rights from different sorts because with the Internet you can’t really disassociate video from text anymore,” analyst Toby Syfret said. “(Media and sports organisations) haven’t worked out the model.”
The organisers of the six-week tournament, which begins today and is held every four years, have tried to impose rules on how many photographs can be shown on websites during a World Cup game and restrict the use of audio-visual materials such as news conferences from newspaper websites.
The organisers say they are trying to protect the exclusive rights given to broadcasters.
But Kilman and Pippa Collett, managing director of Sponsorship Consulting, said any reduction in media coverage during the World Cup would be bad news for the sport and reduce publicity surrounding the tournament.
“The rugby World Cup is a great event but rugby as a sport is still a long way behind many other sports in terms of its global engagement,” Collett said. “They need to think hard about balancing their short-term commercial priorities against the long term desire to build the significance of the game globally.”
Kilman said any reduction in media coverage would also have an impact on the sponsors who rely on the news coverage to project their logos — publicity that they could not normally buy.
The European Union’s media chief yesterday urged the organisers of the rugby World Cup and the news agencies to resolve the dispute.
“I am calling on both parties to come back to the negotiating table,” EU Information and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding told Reuters.
“Everything possible should be tried to ensure that such an important and valuable sporting event which is important to millions of Europeans and sports fans can be reported on as widely and (be as) available as possible.” — Reuters.