Nothing ever stands still in international sport. In just over 13 weeks the next Six Nations championship will be kicking off and the global rugby circus is already moving on. The 2027 Rugby World Cup in Australia might seem a far distant prospect in every sense but it will come charging over the hill quicker than expected.
So even as Paris’s hoteliers and bar owners count their profits (if anyone in Guardian accounts is reading this, we’ve kept all our mineral water receipts), now is the time for thinking and planning ahead. And, as ever, wondering how the World Cup experience might be improved in future, rather than simply cutting and pasting from previous brochures.
To some extent this is already happening. Rugby Australia is well aware it has been handed a juicy opportunity and is desperate to cash in on its golden ticket, which also features a British & Irish Lions tour in 2025 and a women’s World Cup in 2029. We already know the tournament will involve 24 teams instead of 20 and be based on a city “hub” model to reduce some of the logistical difficulties which arose in France.
It should be quite a show and there is, of course, a precedent. The 2003 tournament was well run and featured plenty of dramatic rugby. This time around, with the pool draw also to be conducted closer to the event, the portents are also pretty decent, assuming the Wallabies manage to unearth a competitive team between now and then.
What the event will not do, though, is break new ground. Rugby union generally prefers the tried and tested and is suspicious of the road less travelled. The usual first step is to ask if a new idea will be sufficiently lucrative. And then, if the answer is potentially ‘yes’, how much will my cut be?
As underlined by the recently announced Nations Cup format, which effectively protects the leading 12 nations for the next decade, this approach does little to spread the gospel more widely. There have been 10 World Cups to date and only one, Japan in 2019, has not been hosted by an established rugby powerhouse.
It was hailed as a big step forward, therefore, when World Rugby awarded the men’s 2031 tournament and the subsequent women’s equivalent in 2033 to the US. America is not a rugby hotbed as yet but crack the code and, in the view of the former Eagles captain Dan Lyle, a World Cup there clearly has potential. “We don’t even need people to travel because there are so many expats in America. And you’ll be talking 50,000 at each game. Everyone wants to be part of something that’s unique and authentic.”
There is, however, a sizeable elephant in the room, wrapped in a star-spangled banner. Everyone likes the sparkly vision of an American World Cup but the foundations need to be solid. At present that is not the case. The USA Eagles failed to qualify for France and the national team have yet to win the hearts and minds of an expectant nation. That, in turn, makes it harder to woo the corporate big beasts with sufficient financial muscle to drive the project. As does the current global economic slowdown.
There is increased muttering, consequently, on both sides of the pond. Can it actually be done? What if the US is still struggling to get its act together, on and off the field, in four years’ time? The global game depends on successful World Cups to fund almost everything else. It cannot afford any turkeys, least of all a high-profile American one.
But is there another option that doesn’t involve either a humiliating retreat or a return to, say, stadium-rich England? Perhaps there is. Spain, Italy and Portugal, it is said, are already mulling over a joint Euro-zone bid to host the 2035 men’s Rugby World Cup. You only have to write down a 10-city list of possible match venues – Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, San Sebastián, Lisbon, Porto, Rome, Milan, Genoa and, maybe, Naples – to spark up the imagination. A final played in front of 100,000 fans at the Camp Nou, tens of thousands of travelling supporters, all in a prime-time European television slot? Olé!
If it ever came to pass, rugby would instantly be seen in a more evangelical light. Boldly going where it hasn’t been before etc. It might even prod one or two of rugby’s other great institutions into action. Why, for example, do the British & Irish Lions only play Test series in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on an unchanging loop? Could they not, at some point, tour the Americas?
There is instant fun to be had in doodling a possible itinerary. Games against Canada and a Major League Rugby All-Star XV in Vancouver and Chicago, followed by a Test against the US Eagles in New York? Before heading to South America to face Brazil (currently 26th in the world rankings) Chile and Uruguay, topped off with three Tests against Argentina? The anthem badge-clutching alone would be worth the trip.
It will not be everyone’s cup of mate. Agustín Pichot, for example, is among those not wholly convinced it would be a revolutionary masterstroke. “I wish the Lions would come to South America. But if they only come once every 16 years what will that change?” As so often, he makes a good point. But if rugby simply ploughs the same old furrows, how is it ever going to grow?
First among equals
World Rugby’s annual awards always ruffle a few feathers. This time it was the inclusion of only one South African 2023 World Cup winner – Eben Etzebeth – in the official men’s team of the year, with five Irish players making the cut. It is probably worth remembering at this point that these things are subjective – everyone is entitled to their own opinion. There is little doubt, however, that the Springboks had to overcome some major obstacles en route to retaining their title and at least four of their forwards – Etzebeth, Ox Nché, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi – had huge roles to play in securing the Webb Ellis Cup. The man management of Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus also deserves praise – and of all the squads involved at the tournament the Boks were arguably the most media friendly. It is not necessarily the best individuals who win World Cups but the best-run, best-led teams.
Final word from France
Many thanks to all Breakdown subscribers for the feedback and messages during the World Cup. And thanks, too, to the many supporters with whom we rubbed shoulders along the way. To the cheerful Portuguese fans in Nice, the Irish hordes in Paris, the stoic Australians in Saint Etienne, the hopeful English legions in Marseille, the noisy Bok loyalists in Saint-Denis and, last but not least, our friendly French hosts. You all added passion, energy and colour to the tournament. May your livers – and your bank balances – recover soon.
Still want more?
Best player, best match, breakthrough talent and predictions from 2027 are some of the topics our writers chew on in our Rugby World Cup awards.
South Africa were worthy winners but moving forward there has to be incentive for teams to vary their tactics, argues Robert Kitson.
Three years ago Pieter‑Steph du Toit almost lost a leg. Now he has joined the Springbok greats. Jonathan Liew tells a remarkable comeback tale.
Steve Borthwick averted England disaster in France, but bloody-mindedness must now give way to a bloody good plan, writes Gerard Meagher.
Danny Care shows off his skills as a falconer at a Harlequins photoshoot in April 2008. Earlier this year, Care broke the all-time appearance record for Quins and has now amassed 358 appearances for them.
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