Rugby World Cup underdogs have a bigger bite and are narrowing the gap
It has been a better start to a than anyone could have hoped for. That may sound a dubious claim if you only watched England's first game but World Cups demand a broader perspective. Romania, Namibia, Japan … anyone who saw the so-called minnows give everything against Scotland, Fiji and France could not fail to walk away with hearts warmed and a little bit of Bucharest, Windhoek and Sendai in their souls.
Wales's agonising near miss – why on earth was James Hook's kick not referred to the television match official? – against South Africa further underlined the prevailing theme: the underdogs have muscled up and are not being subdued with the same ease they used to be. In France in 2007, New Zealand ran up a century of points against Portugal and thrashed Romania 87-8. The Japanese were skewered 72-18 by Wales and Namibia lost 87-10 to the host nation. There may yet be a blow-out or two – brace yourself for Russia v Australia and Namibia v South Africa – but the narrowing gap is clearly visible.
This is important for any number of reasons. Non-contests are bad news for everyone, crushing the spirit of the losing sides and boring the pants off the armchair viewers. They also undermine the notion of rugby union as truly a global game. How global is it if, as has happened in rugby league, you have to summon barely-competitive teams simply to make up the numbers? If you can be sure of a genuine battle when, say, the United States play Ireland, it lends the tournament far more substance.
It also challenges the received wisdom that only tier one countries can teach us anything about rugby. After three days of RWC 2011 we can already conclude that Romania drive a maul better than some of their Six Nations cousins and that Japan's passing skills are technically superior to England's. The Namibian fly-half Theuns Kotze kicked almost as many drop-goals inside five minutes as Hook has landed in 54 Tests for Wales. Fiji's Vereniki Goneva scored more tries in 80 minutes than Max Evans has managed in his 21 appearances for Scotland.
Above all else there is the difference in attitude. Fully professional players may spend longer in the gym but the desire of their semi-pro or amateur cousins is equally strong, if not stronger. As New Zealand's back-row forward Victor Vito put it, the smaller teams "grow another arm and another leg in World Cups". Romania, who have the former All Black Steve McDowell helping them with their scrummaging and conditioning, are just one example; their captain, Marius Tincu, confirms the rare opportunity to feature on the big stage is a powerful motivation. "We did not have anything to lose. We qualified for the World Cup out of nowhere, so we used it to our advantage. We enjoyed ourselves," he said after his Mighty Oaks had given Scotland a major fright in Invercargill.
England, who face Georgia this weekend followed by Romania on 24 September, have been suitably forewarned. "The thing about these so-called second-tier teams is that, from four years ago, they are a lot more athletic, a lot quicker and a bit smarter as well," said England's defence coach Mike Ford. "In the World Cup these teams raise themselves massively. We watched Argentina's warm-up game against Wales but they were nothing like you saw on Saturday night because they played at 20% above their normal intensity. This is what the World Cup does to you. Looking at some of the results and performances thus far, you can see it's happening already."
England's captain Lewis Moody goes one step further. "It's clear from what I've seen of the tournament so far that one of the big sides will lose to one of the developing nations. Over the next two matches, when we play Georgia and Romania, we have to make sure it isn't us." Samoa, who have already beaten Australia this year, are the most obvious threat to the elite, although Georgia might now just fancy their chances against the Scots on Wednesday .
The only caveat is the fixture list which forces some smaller nations to play twice inside a few days while the fat cats recover at their leisure. Television needs its prime-time weekend drawcards, condemning the likes of Georgia to play two games in four days on two occasions. Until that inequality is ironed out -– and don't hold your breath – an uneven playing field will continue to exist.
Physically, though, it is becoming harder to tell the rival tribes apart. True, Argentina tired against England but the ferocity of their hits in the first half brooked little argument. It is about to get tougher still, judging by the bold prediction of Namibia's 22-year-old winger Conrad Marais prior to Wednesday's game against Samoa: "We are going to show them that, as much as the islanders like to play tough, the guys from Africa are pretty hard as well." Someone should take young Conrad quietly aside and teach him the difference between bravery and bone-headed stupidity.
England are staying in Queenstown, a popular tourist mecca in the shadow of the Remarkables which, in case you are wondering, is not a community of retired All Blacks but a snow-capped mountain range. The Lord of the Rings movies were filmed in this area and there are enough sporting activities to keep any adrenaline junkie happy for weeks. There is another Kiwi-themed "attraction" they don't tell you about in the brochures: apparently if you visit the gents in one particular bar you will find a picture of the English referee Wayne Barnes in a location which requires no imagination. Presumably, if the All Blacks win the 2011 World Cup they will finally let Wayne rest in peace …
WORTH WATCHING THIS WEEK …
Russia v USA
The so-called "cold war derby" in New Plymouth on Thursday is Russia's World Cup debut: in three past meetings with their American opponents they have never beaten them so there is no shortage of incentive. With the former Wales flanker Kingsley Jones in the Russian camp as team director and Eddie O'Sullivan guiding the USA, it promises to be a colourful, evocative occasion.