To begin my first piece for the National Rust on the 2019 World Cup – the greatest ‘shop window’ for what I think we can all agree is the finest sport ever to grace the Earth – I wish to pay my respects to the host nation and particular one of rugby’s greatest sons Shiggy Konno.
I make no apology for stating that the debt of gratitude owed by World Rugby to Japan and other countries who play the game cannot be under-estimated and the fact that that this year’s tournament – the first to be staged further afield than one of what we call the Tier 1 nations – is being played in Japan is entirely fitting for two reasons.
Firstly, having myself both played and coached here briefly back in the day, I know from personal experience that whenever this host nation organises something it does it properly and with a sense of purpose that has to be seen to be believed. I was confident in advance that everything about this festival would run like clockwork and I have not been disappointed – nothing is too much trouble and the local population, already rugby savvy, have welcomed every squad like heroes.
Locally here the (Samurai) “warrior” traditions arguably predate but echo those of the Maori so there is an innate bond of mutual respect running between us.
Japan has a population of over 120 million and – remarkably for what is not regarded a major sport here but one in which it is ranked 11th in the world – over 125,000 registered rugby players and the best part of 4,000 rugby clubs.
As you’d expect, via its physical contact nature and both on and off-field ‘esprit de corps’ cultures, rugby has always had its fill of larger than life characters in every nation.
As they say, it comes with the territory and is celebrated whenever players or fans gather together.
There was scarcely a dull moment when “The Bodge” was on the scene.
In the context of the 2019 Rugby World Cup it seems entirely appropriate today that I pay tribute to Japan’s equivalent Shiggy Konno (1922-2007), who was awarded an OBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 1985 for his services to rugby and Anglo-Japanese relations.
I am privileged enough to have counted Shiggy, a prop in his playing pomp, among my greatest friends.
It was the world’s good fortune that as a youngster he was educated at a prep school in England and as a result spoke fluent English.
Who will ever forget his quip about being trained as a kamikaze pilot towards the end of WW2, the only reason he was still alive being the fact he was so useless a flyer they never sent him on a mission because they didn’t want to damage the plane!
Shiggy was instrumental in the formation of the Asian Rugby Football Union in 1968. From the following year he was first director and then chairman of the Japanese Rugby Football Union until 1994 – and was still in harness behind the scenes there until his passing – and also the Japanese rep on the International Rugby Board from 1991 to 2000.
Although Shiggy had big misgivings about the arrival of professional rugby – he was a stout defender of amateurism – I’m sure he would be in awe of this Rugby World Cup. I miss him a lot.
We hear a great deal these days about the challenges facing World Rugby as it seeks to develop the game around the globe. I’ll address some of these in my dispatches to follow but today I merely want to pass a couple of comments on the tournament so far.
I’m surprised that World Rugby has come out and criticised the standard of refereeing in the first week because in my view it was their responsibility to set things up appropriately to start with. The fact they’re waving the big stick this early demonstrates they failed to do so.
Coming out with a new direction on the ‘legal’ height of tackling days just before the group stages began was a hostage to fortune for both players and officials, especially with the availability of TMO video playbacks.
All players ever want is transparency about what the rules are – and that they are then applied consistently. They haven’t been … and that’s a problem.
THE TMO SET-UP
What I mean is that in rugby the official is in charge of the process. If he knows what he’s seen, he calls it. If there’s a doubt, he calls for the TMO but remains in charge.
For example, he can tell the TMO “I’m happy that I can award a try – but is there any reason why I cannot?” [which then puts the onus on his TMO counterpart only to pipe up only if he spots a reason to reverse the referee’s provisional decision].
Alternatively, the referee can ask the TMO “Try – yes or no?” [which by implication advises the TMO that he personally hasn’t been able to see a grounding, but can the TMO do so?]
That said – and this is not just Southern Hemisphere solidarity speaking – I was outraged that the referee in the Argentina v France game persistently ignored the offside rule.
Specifically and crucially, at the point he intercepted the pass that resulted in the try that won France the match, French back rower Picamoles was a country mile offside – as the slightest look at the video replay would have proved.
Argentina woz robbed!