The sport of rugby union has just unlocked the door to a brave new world. Hands up those who, six weeks ago, feared sides like Japan would be flattened by “proper” nations and envisaged a surfeit of dull, second-rate games in half-empty football stadia? How gloriously, thrillingly wrong those predictions proved to be, even before New Zealand defeated Australia in Saturday’s throbbing finale at Twickenham.
Here’s a statistic to reinforce the sense of a global game going places. The average attendance at the football World Cup in Brazil in 2014, over 64 matches, was 53,592. At its rugby equivalent, supposedly a much poorer relation, the figure was remarkably similar: 51,621 over 48 games.
There were 2.47m tickets sold, backed up by record TV audiences with Olympic recognition looming for rugby sevens next year. RWC 2019 in Japan will bring further expansion.
But do not simply judge 2015 on size or scale alone. Instead, cling to the sights and sounds of the past month and a half: thousands of Argentina fans turning Twickenham into a suburb of Buenos Aires, the unforgettable Brave Blossoms of Brighton, Namibians and Georgians being roared on in Exeter. The best World Cups offer a kaleidoscope of images and this brilliantly-staged oval-ball extravaganza outdid anything the game has seen. The 2015 tournament was certainly not defined by England’s premature exit.
Instead it will be remembered for the rare excellence of the rugby, not least when the All Blacks were playing. New Zealand have become the first side in history to defend their world title, offering a fitting farewell to stalwarts such as Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. “To be standing where we are having won back-to-back World Cups is such a unique and special feeling,” said Carter, who is ending his international career after 112 Tests and moving to Paris to play for Racing 92.
Sift through a few more mental snapshots – complete strangers crossing the street to congratulate Japanese families on their team’s stunning win over South Africa, teenage girls working on their line-out throwing in the fan-zone on Brighton beach, 90,000 people watching Ireland v Romania at Wembley, Diego Maradona going bananas – and the inconceivable suddenly seems feasible. Could rugby union at last fulfil its mass-market potential and make even football pause for thought? Give it 20 years and the likes of Japan and USA will be pushing harder still.
If – or rather when – that happens, 2015 will have been a significant catalyst. Never mind the commercial strides or the remarkable weather, it has been a game changer. There are increasing signs rugby will not be dominated indefinitely by the same familiar names and the gap between supposed tier one and tier two nations is narrowing all the time.
The other big lesson of this World Cup – let’s not mention the trains or Craig Joubert – is that top-quality coaching and a commitment to positive-minded rugby can make conventional orthodoxy look horribly dated.
Thus it was that hitherto under-performing sides such as the Wallabies, Argentina, Japan and Scotland fared better than some of their supposedly superior rivals. Australia reached the final assisted by four players who were not involved until a few months previously. Their coach, Michael Cheika, inherited a team riven with internal dissent barely a year ago.
Fail to plan, plan to fail etc but clarity of thought, a rejection of comfort-zone rugby and decisiveness under pressure proved just as valuable.
Perhaps the biggest mistake England, in particular, made was to assume training ground form and recent results would be an accurate guide to their World Cup prospects. In the event they could only watch in anguish as everyone else raised their game by two notches while they sank in the pool stages. The game is changing fast; this World Cup saw fewer than five successful penalties per match kicked. Tries and turnovers were a far more valuable currency while drop-goals have become a rarity. There were only eight in the entire tournament, compared with 20 last time and 23 in 2003.
If the northern hemisphere wants to redress the balance – and let’s face it England and France have nothing left to lose – they might be advised to stop prioritising tight Six Nations arm-wrestles and seek instead to encourage more ball-playing backs and forwards in their domestic leagues. The All Blacks have players both versatile and skilled enough to cover every base. One-dimensional Test rugby is now passe on both sides of the equator.
Also defunct is the notion of ignoring everyone in Europe outside the Six Nations. Fair play to World Rugby for helping to fund the coaching and training improvements at tier two level but the sport’s administrators need to be braver still. If the Rugby Football Union has time between conducting reviews it should arrange for England to play a full Test against Georgia in Tblisi without delay. “We’d encourage any Tier nation to talk to us because we’d love to have them,” the Georgian coach Milton Haig told me.
England Saxons should also be touring Namibia and Madagascar, not to mention Romania and Russia. In terms of broadening minds – and skill sets – staging a Premiership game in New York is merely the start.
Always assuming, that is, the desire exists to reach for the sky. Yes, England got things badly wrong and ended up leaving their own party prematurely. But with luck it will do them a massive favour, help to refocus minds and silence the waffle about building for Japan 2019. Gazing longingly at the horizon is all very well but modern rugby union is reinventing itself in front of our eyes. Endlessly waiting for Godot or, in this case, Webb Ellis is not the way ahead.