Emerging nations look to RWC 2015 Posted almost 4 years ago

A few weeks after he had announced in August 1995 that rugby union was going open, Vernon Pugh, the late chairman of the International Rugby Board, said privately that the change would, eventually, upset the established order.

Since then, Italy and Argentina have increased the number of nations competing in major tournaments to 10, but they still have to be given full privileges in the club called the International Rugby Board, one vote compared to the two enjoyed by the members of the old Five and Tri Nations.

Pugh recognised that rugby union needed to get Olympic status if professionalism was to broaden the game’s boundaries and widen its global appeal. He saw China as a future power, as well as the United States, questioned how the Celtic unions would cope, especially Ireland and Scotland, and fretted about how England would use their financial muscle.

China and the USA are still to stir, but Sevens, the form that rugby union will take in the 2016 Olympics, has proved popular in countries like Brazil, Kenya and Portugal. The base is, albeit slowly, getting wider and deeper.

This month has seen attention paid to the top four of the world rankings ahead of next month’s drawn for the 2015 World Cup pools, but as interesting is the battle to be in the top eight, three old school tie unions, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, vying for three places with Argentina and Samoa.

The Samoans have been in Cardiff all week ahead of their international with Wales on Friday night local time. They have long learned to deal with adversity in a stoic manner, even if they did question why their full-back, James So’oialo, had this week received a three-week ban for a shoulder charge against Canada last week while the New Zealand flanker Adam Thomson got just a week off for unfancy footwork at Murrayfield.

(There has been considerable indignation in the UK about what is perceived as a light sentence for Thomson. It is seen as a pro-New Zealand conspiracy, never mind that it could be argued that he was given a one-match ban for giving a gypsy’s warning to a forward who was lying on the wrong side of a ruck and prevented the ball from coming out).

Samoa have, for once, been able to select pretty much the squad they want for a tour to Europe with the International Rugby Board getting tough on clubs, mainly in France, who try to prevent the release of their players.

The IRB’s chairman is a Frenchman, Bernard Lapasset, and it is to his credit that he has not connived at the restrictive practices of some of the Top 14 clubs. When he was re-elected last year, only narrowly defeating England’s Bill Beaumont because of the way votes are apportioned on the IRB, his support was spread over the rugby world, the British Isles excluded, even if Oceania was the one region that did not back him.

Lapasset pledged that the Board would become more representative and he has so far been true to his word. There are issues to be addressed, not least eligibility, but with a programme of matches being arranged for tier two and three nations in between World Cups, the policy of expansion is being pursued in more than words.

Samoa started the month 10th in the world rankings, a considerable achievement considering they play precious few Tests at home against teams above them in the world rankings, something that Scotland’s visit to Apia this summer will start to change.

Fiji, who reached the last eight in the 2007 World Cup, tied with South Africa at the end of the third quarter in the quarter-final, and Tonga, who defeated France in the 2011 tournament, will also benefit; as they should.

Wales were expecting Samoa to provide them with an examination in Cardiff as stern as any they faced in this year’s Six Nations: the Samoans won in Australia last year and then rocked South Africa in the World Cup in Albany, unfortunate to be on the wrong side of a few key refereeing decisions.

If Samoa went into the World Cup draw next month among the second seeds – they face France in Paris next week – it would be a clear sign of how the old order is changing. It may be asking too much of them, but few of the traditional big unions will relish being pooled with them: they will be better again by 2015.

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Paul Rees was born in Cardiff and has been a full-time writer on rugby union since 1986, first for the South Wales Echo, then Wales and Sunday and, from 2001, the Guardian and the Observer, having contributed to the former on a freelance basis since 1988. He has covered every World Cup since 1991 and five Lions tours. When time allows, he also write on cricket, mainly Glamorgan. And away from work, he a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, watching them home and away, including the European Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.

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