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With half-time approaching …

As the Pool stage draws to its conclusion this week it seems to me that the Rugby World Cup has served primarily to highlight some of the sport’s strengths and weaknesses as it seeks to develop its global reach.

Whilst its special qualities have ticked the boxes as a festival of athleticism, thrilling entertainment and a joyous coming together of fans from around the world semi-drunk in more than one sense upon the team-bonding ethos it engenders, the contrast between the haves and the have-nots has been starkly exposed.

The truth is that the complexities of its rules and the premium that its nature places upon size and skill specialities required of those playing in different positions tend to be obstacles to an easy path to universal popularity.

A comparison with football is the most obvious.

Any group of youngsters possessed on a spherical object of the appropriate size and capable of improvising a set of goalposts can set up a football match in the most unlikely of habitats and in no time at all can make believe that one day they will be playing for Real Madrid or Manchester City.

Meanwhile, a similar bunch of embryo oval-ball players have to learn to give and take a pass before they can even begin practising drills or, much later, begin playing touch-rugby, leaving the physical side of the game (especially tackling) until an age when they can learn the proper techniques and thereby avoid injury.

From a political point of view, historically and inevitably, rugby union’s Tier 1 nations retain a huge advantage – based around administrative structures, money and self-interest – that (turkeys and Christmas-style) none of them will relinquish willingly.

Although there’s plenty of well-meaning hot air talked about giving Tier 2 nations opportunities to play more games against their Tier 1 equivalents the truth is, as far into the future as anyone is able to see, it ain’t going to happen more than the ‘once every four years’ that the RWC provides.

One semi-laudable reason for this is player welfare.

Elite rugby players already take to the field far more often than is good for their long-term health so the idea that the Tier 1 nations are going to give up playing amongst themselves in order to nurture and bring on the relatively few Tier 2 teams who might one day be capable of joining them at the top table is pie in the sky.

And that’s without taking into account the conflicting commercial interests of the elite club sides in Tier 1 nations who habitually resent losing their key players to the international playing schedule.

But I digress.

Over the past few weeks several people have asked me if domestic bliss has been under stress in the McDonnell family and the answer is negative for the simple reason that, like all Scots fans, Himself has been long been resigned to the inevitable.

With the pressure off – in an echo of the iconic line from John Cleese in the 1986 movie Clockwise “It’s not the despair, Laura – I can take the despair. It’s the hope I cannot stand …” – he has been able to relax and enjoy his early morning viewings of events unfolding in Japan.

Rather, it has been yours truly who has been wrestling with a mix of anticipation and nervousness.

The rugby press is no different from any other. When his England honeymoon period was succeeded by a proounced dip in form, like pack animals they were chivvying away at every aspect of Eddie Jones’ stewardship.

Coming into the RWC they were still mithering on about his management style, the composition of his final squad and falling over themselves to pen variations on the hardy perennial “Does Eddie even know his first XV?” lament.

A penny to a pound says that if by any chance England do win the Webb Ellis Trophy, they’ll be queuing up to claim not only that Mr Jones is a genius and that they knew all along he’d pull it off!

Frankly, in my view, if a month ago you’d offered England the position they’re in now they’d have bitten your hand off.

In a World Cup in any sport the only yardstick is the record book and who won the bauble.

A slow or stuttering beginning to a tournament campaign is nothing to worry about and possibly even a plus: history is littered with examples of teams that flattered to deceive in Week 1 only to be floundering on the ropes three weeks later.

The Pool stage of a RWC is just a warm-up. I’m reminded of Muhammad Ali’s response to a question on the eve of one of his fights as to why he wasn’t exerting himself much in his sparring: “I don’t necessarily need to hit my sparring partner. I just need to know I can get into a position I could if I wanted …”

For me, the most worrying aspect at the moment is the state of three of England’s big guns – the Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi.

Despite being given plenty of game time (too much, some scribes are complaining) Billy Vunipola – the Number 8 – has remained a shadow of his former self since his latest return from injury.

Elder brother Manu – the loose head prop – has had but a 30-minute run out since his own prolonged period out with a hamstring problem and, notwithstanding he’s a world class operator in his role, whichever way you look at it is undercooked.

And then there’s Tuilagi.

He had one game in the summer warm-up internationals in which he was back to his rollicking ‘bowling ball’ best but –  rare flashes apart so far in Japan – has been lacklustre to the point of ordinary and not the Manu England fans revere.

George Ford has been the stand-out player for me. On the current Owen Farrell controversy – is he being deliberately targeted by opposition defenders? – I do not think so. However, what does concern me is the number of pots at goal he missed against Argentina.

About Sandra McDonnell

As an Englishwoman married to a Scot, Sandra experiences some tension at home during Six Nations tournaments. Her enthusiasm for rugby was acquired through early visits to Fylde club matches with her father and her proud boast is that she has missed only two England home games at Twickenham since 1995. Sandra has three grown-up children, none of whom follow rugby. More Posts

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