Mark Reason: How rugby could learn from the Cricket World Cup

2019-06-11 17:28:59

OPINION: Who dreamed this one up?

Who dreamed up a World Cup where all the top teams would play each other and where every match matters? Who dreamed up a World Cup where Indian fans would be checking their phone app every five minutes in desperate hope of a ticket return?

Who dreamed up a World Cup where hundreds of Kiwis are so absorbed that they are staying up through the night until they nod off into Zombieland? Who dreamed up a World Cup where Aussies are booed and South Africa despairs?

Who dreamed up a World Cup where the fast bowlers are ripping it off the surface, threatening throats, and a reborn West Indies are reducing Pakistan to pebbles? Who dreamed up a World Cup where the next day the batsmen are smashing the bowlers back into the sea and the totals are threatening to reach four hundred.

Who dreamed up a World Cup where one moment Ben Stokes is leaping to take a catch that you couldn't reach with a fly fishing rod, and the next moment two of his team-mates score centuries and still end up on the losing side?

Who dreamed up a World Cup where Bangladesh can beat South Africa and make fluffy Tigers the toy of today? Who dreamed up a World Cup where Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor can try to run each other out on six occasions and still look like the dream team?

Who dreamed up a World Cup back where it all started in 1975, back in London, that seething multicultural metropolis where the queues at the curry stand are 43 deep, and where you can be any nationality you like just for one day?

Finally someone worked it out. They worked out that it's not the players, not the television, not the money, that make a World Cup. It's the people. There is a reason why the 1995 Rugby World Cup is still revered. It ended up being about people. It was about a Rainbow Nation, it was about Nelson Mandela in a Springbok shirt, it was about Jonah Lomu, and plotting and intrigue and everything else that goes to make us human.

That was why the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand was such a beautiful success. It was about the people, travelling from town to town, city to city, dressed in red, singing their songs, drinking their beer with the locals and just glad to be alive.

Back at the Oval a crowd of ticketless Indian supporters are peering into the ground through a gap in the buildings. It's a view of one end of the pitch, obscured by a banner, and a few bodies, but it is a glimpse of something special. And that's enough to draw a throng of Indians who have been there since early morning.

Oh, why on earth did the World Cup ever leave London, its home for the first three World Cups. Yes, we were thrilled to have it here in New Zealand four years ago, but it just wasn't the same. There were dead matches that nobody will ever remember, not even some of the people who played in them. And we don't do crowds well. Not enough people and not enough diversity.

In recent cricket World Cups there have been too many pools, too many teams, too many meaningless matches. In other words, it was like the Rugby World Cup which has become overblown. There will be too many dead games in Tokyo. Too many starts and stops in Rugby World Cup 2019 until it finally gets going in the knockout stages.

Japan versus Russia will kick the whole thing off. Really? It's an oddity, a confection. A resumption of a war fought over a century ago. The next day New Zealand play South Africa. Now that's a match worth staying up for. But then what? Then what do you do if you're an All Blacks fan?

Is anyone really bothered about the game against Italy, ranked 14th in the world, a contest that finished 66-3 the last time the two teams met at the end of last year. And Italy are a hell of a lot better than the other two teams in the pool. Canada are ranked 21st in the world and shipped 79 points to a virtual New Zealand 'B' team at the 2011 World Cup. Namibia are even worse, ranked 23rd in the world. These games are a bore.

Look, we're going to have to find our kicks elsewhere, laughing at someone else's expense, because there won't be much going on in the New Zealand 'pool of life'. That will have been decided after the first match. What's the point in that?

How much better would be a Rugby World Cup that aped cricket's format. How much better would be a Rugby World Cup that was between the top ten ranked countries in the world (currently NZ, Wales, Ireland, England, South Africa, Australia, Scotland, France, Fiji and Argentina), each team playing each other once in order to decide the semifinals. The winner would play 11 matches, doable, not unlike a Lions tour in fact.

It won't happen because World Rugby will waffle on about a world in motion and pretend that rugby is going to go global. It won't. The money is too concentrated, the greed too great and the power base too small. Since the advent of professionalism the gap just keeps getting wider between the top nations and the aspiring ones. The great Canadian and Samoan sides are but a diminishing, abandoned memory.

The football World Cup can expand because the nature of the game brings much greater chances of an upset and because football is truly global. But cricket and rugby are games of the old Empire. They are both magnificent games but they're not big in China or Chile or Chad right now.

Look, I don't pretend everything is perfect about the Cricket World Cup. If a top team gets a rain abandoned match against Afghanistan it could cost them qualification, and there is a lot of abandonment to come, with floods, deluges and the wettest English June on record forecast. Oh, that's right, I remember now why England can be a World Cup liability. The summer weather.

But until Tuesday's wash-out we were loving it, because there's something hanging on every game, because the fans of all nations are filling the grounds and because the cricket changes from day to day, between bat and ball. What a pleasure for us sports fans to see that there is still a beautiful world out there.

Then it rained.

Duckworth Lewis.

Moisture, misery and maths.

New Zealand romp into the semis!

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