Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Rugby World Cup of two halves

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 12.)

I am in two minds, almost literally, about the Rugby World Cup, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

On the one hand, you can look at the event as purely a sporting contest in which teams from around the world compete, in theory, to find out who’s best. (I say “in theory” because the RWC really only determines which team performs best “on the day”. There are probably half a dozen teams capable of winning if the ball bounces their way.)

On this level – as a showcase of skill, athleticism, tactics, brute force and dogged determination – the Cup so far has been a great success. Rugby fans have been treated to some sensational contests and, in the very best sporting tradition, a couple of monumental upsets.

Who would have thought, for example, that Ireland would beat Australia? Certainly not the Australians. Or that Tonga, having gone down to Canada in the early stages of the tournament, would turn around two weeks later and humiliate France, one of rugby’s great powers?

Then there was the breathtakingly close result in the Scotland-England game, when England clinched a narrow victory in the dying minutes. How the New Zealand fans – no friends of the English – would have savoured an upset win by the underdogs in that fixture.

On such occasions, sport becomes a compelling drama that can stir even sceptical non-fans. A friend told me that he heard broadcaster Brian Edwards – not exactly your stereotypical rugby follower – admitting on the radio that, to his surprise, he found himself not only watching but getting emotionally involved.

It’s been rewarding, too, to see the so-called “minnows” of the game – teams such as Georgia, Romania, Russia and Namibia – enjoying their moment of glory, or at least international exposure, on the world stage.

A sports writer in the illustrious New York Times made the mistake of writing an article in which he rubbished the RWC format and suggested it was absurd that such weak rugby countries were pitted against mighty teams like South Africa and Australia.

He was howled down by readers, including many knowledgeable American rugby enthusiasts, who pointed out that the “minnows” relished this opportunity to compete against their heroes, even if the scores were crazily lopsided, and that it was only by exposure to such international competition that such sides could hope to lift their game and promote rugby in their home countries.

That’s another respect in which the Cup seems to have been a success: it’s great PR for rugby, raising international awareness and appreciation of the game and boosting its profile in countries where it’s only a minor code.

There’s no doubt New Zealanders have helped achieve this by getting behind the event, turning it into a nationwide party and making sure that no team lacked vocal support.

The Wairarapa, where I live, officially adopted the Georgian XV and swung in behind the team with gusto. Masterton turned on a welcome parade in the main street and Georgian flags were still fluttering around town a week after the team bowed out of the contest.

Again, people who thought themselves well and truly inoculated against rugby fever have told me they were surprised at the way they were swept along by the contagious enthusiasm for the event.

For all that, however, the RWC has been tarnished. Because you can also look at the tournament as an example of sport being subverted – you could almost say corrupted – by money, greed and corporatism.

The International Rugby Board cynically took advantage of New Zealanders’ love of the game by charging them far more to see their own team play than any other – and this after taxpayers and ratepayers had forked out tens of millions of dollars (one estimate put it at $1 billion-plus) to subsidise the event and to ensure facilities conformed with the nitpicking requirements of the IRB, the broadcasters and the sponsors.

In fact admission prices for all but the minor games were set at a level most people couldn’t afford, and it was no surprise that that there were empty seats at the quarterfinal matches.

Providers of accommodation and other services got in on the act by hiking their prices, and why wouldn’t they? They were only taking their cue from the organisers.

Meanwhile Parliament, to its shame, demeaned itself by kowtowing to the IRB and passing draconian legislation – the Major Events Management Act – to protect the precious interests of sponsors.

The creation of advertising-free “clean zones”, patrolled by government enforcers, went far beyond what was reasonably justified to ward off so-called ambush marketers.

It was a distasteful display of bullying that also set a disturbing precedent for the regulation of free speech, since a government that can be persuaded to outlaw certain types of advertising at the behest of rugby sponsors might also be tempted to crack down on other forms of expression that it decides are inconvenient.

The extreme reach of the new laws, which will remain on the statute books after the RWC has finished, became apparent when it was revealed that even the St John’s ambulance service had to cover sponsors’ logos on ambulances and uniforms for fear of incurring a massive fine.

As the RWC progressed, the oppressive heavy-handedness of the IRB became progressively more absurd. A helicopter firm was warned not to fly over Eden Park because its company name was visible (it seems the IRB’s rights now extend to airspace) and two Samoan players were fined $10,000 each for wearing unapproved mouthguards – mouthguards, for heaven’s sake!

The ridicule and contempt heaped on the IRB over that episode was richly deserved, especially when the same pompous, arrogant, Northern Hemisphere rugby establishment had turned a blind eye to illegal ball-switching by the English team. Cheating you can get away with, apparently, but don’t dare upset the precious sponsors.

Did the IRB get the message? Clearly not, because only days later we learned it had issued rules about what players could write on the strapping around their wrists, where some players inscribe biblical references or allow family members to put messages.

This obsessive micro-control discredits rugby and has soured an otherwise wonderful event, but that’s what happens when sport is captured by men in suits.

For the fans and for most, if not all of, the players, rugby is still about sport. But for the game’s administrators and the broadcasters and sponsors who bankroll it, it’s all about money – and the two are not always compatible bedmates.

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