Last November 5th, the All Blacks made a stop in Chicago before their European tour to challenge Ireland.
Soldier Field, a 62,000-seat stadium where usually the American football team the Bears play, was sold out that day. A month prior to that, the London team Twickenham had in its calendar the Argentina-Australia Program, valid for the International Championship, the southern hemisphere’s tournament: 50 thousand attended, a respectable figure for what is considered the temple of rugby.
In the three year period 2008- 2010 the matches of the Bledisloe Cup, the ancient tournament between the national teams of Australia and New Zealand, were played twice in Hong Kong and once in Tokyo, achieving good sized coffers.
“Where is rugby going?” This question is circulating among insiders, and the answer is obvious: rugby goes where the money is.
New potential markets are being probed. The next world cup will be played in Japan in two and a half years. The response of consumers is being evaluated, weighing in demand and supply, costs and revenues, and in the end, they will decide where to take the game.
This is true for soccer, basketball, for any sport that can attract investment and public, and therefore it is valid also for the oval world. One day, perhaps, we will see the William Webb Ellis Cup land in Doha or Dubai. The key decision making point will be the relationship between costs and benefits, not the roots of rugby in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula.
Rugby has always proven to value its own stories and traditions; on top of them, it built the myth of its diversity, an exception that has cultivated and defended as long as it was possible. Is it still so?
In part it is, but for some time we have been hearing troubling creaks.
The eighteenth edition of the Six Nations tournament, which kicks off this weekend, belongs to the best tradition of the oval ball.
One hundred and thirty-three years of rugby history go on stage from now to mid-March because the oldest team tournament in the world was born in 1883 as the Home Nations Championship. Back then, it was reserved for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the four home unions. In 1910, it became the Five Nations with the entry of France.
Everything else, the World Cup and Tri Nations, came later, much later. And even though over the years the rules have been changed periodically, either to protect the health of the players, or to support the spectacular nature of the games (not always with satisfactory results), mostly the tournament has always been true to itself.
However, this year, it was decided to introduce the system of bonus points already applied in other international tournaments. The allocation will no longer be 2 points for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss, a mechanism that has always worked fine, but 4 points for the winner, 2 for a draw, zero for a loss, plus the following variants: 1 additional point if the team scores at least 4 goals or if the team loses with less than 8 points of difference, and 3 points for those who score a Grand Slam. A baroque system that does not feel necessary.
The last edition was won by England, which also scored a Grand Slam by winning all the games in the tournament. Italy finished with zero points: whitewash (only defeats) and wooden spoon (last place) in a single blow. It was the last, troubled season with manager Jacques Brunel.
It seems that the hiring of Irish Conor O’Shea as leader of the Italian national team is working out: during the games scheduled in November, Italy accomplished the admirable feat of beating South Africa in Florence, a result that surprised the entire world of rugby.
The goal of the Italians for this Six Nations tournament is to be able to win at least one match and confirm the progress obtained so far. The Azzurri will play three games in Italy: Wales tomorrow, Ireland next Saturday, and France on March 11th. The challenges with England and Scotland will be held on their fields.
The odds are in favor of the English that have won all their games in 2016, under the guidance of Eddie Jones. A total of 13 consecutive wins, including four matches against Australia and one against the Springboks that hold second place in the international rankings, a position that no one questions (only the unrivaled All Blacks are at the top, but they have not played against the XV of the Rose in the last four years).
Just below there is Ireland, also fresh from a remarkable year during which they defeated all three major teams of the Southern Hemisphere, a feat that no other team has ever managed to accomplish.
Next come Wales and Scotland: the dragons are always capable of outstanding performance and amazing results, but for many of them, the age and wear and tear are having an impact; Scotland continues to grow and, unless a surprise happens, should be able to end between the third and fourth place.
France, finally, is facing a transition period that seems to never end: since 2011, the year of the World Cup final in Auckland, the coqs have never been able to go beyond the third place in the tournament.
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