World Cups always feel like watersheds. Eddie Jones has reminded us often enough that everything else is just sparring; that all that matters is the date of the final – 2 November – and ensuring England are at their peak when the latest four-year cycle comes to an end. Except 2019 seems different, not least because there is so much uncertainty as to what will come next. Put simply, no one really knows what the international landscape beyond Japan 2019 will look like and that only adds to the intrigue.
There is plenty of intrigue already surrounding the first World Cup to be staged in Asia, away from the sport’s traditional strongholds. Throw in the fact that Ireland have mounted a genuine challenge to New Zealand, the creeping sense that the balance of power is shifting from south to north and the narrative of Jones’s return to Japan – sure to follow England’s campaign every step of the way – and it is quite the melting pot.
If it is too strong to say a new world order was established last year, it was certainly shaken. Consider that there were no northern hemisphere teams involved in the final two weeks of the 2015 World Cup and then that three of the top four positions in the world rankings are currently occupied by Ireland, Wales and England.
New Zealand remain the team to beat but there was a wobble towards the end of 2018, raising questions as to whether the All Blacks are in decline, or at least approaching that stage. Which brings us back to the rugby landscape post-2019 and all its uncertainty. Four of the top six teams in the world will have a new head coach – including New Zealand – and there is a fair chance England and Australia will join them. The San Francisco agreement – hammered out in January last year – is due to begin in 2020 but precisely what the longer-term global calendar will look like remains unclear as talk of a World League continues.
The argument in favour of it is financial, a response to the centralisation of power in the hands of the Premiership and French clubs. For it is naive to think that the rise in player salaries is going to slow down, as much as the Premiership claims its £230m windfall will not go on wages, and that will only weaken the southern hemisphere nations. The most fascinating subplot of the World Cup is whether New Zealand, South Africa and Australia can still prevail over market forces. Even if they do you wonder if they are just holding back the tide.
But if there is uncertainty as to what will happen on the field, it is matched by the sense of a step into the unknown off it. The tournament’s director, Alan Gilpin, has described this year’s World Cup as the most challenging and it is easy to see why. To put it mildly the climate in Japan in September is changeable and the threat of earthquakes is only too apparent, not to mention that of typhoons that would also cause major disruption. There are a number of cultural differences too for players, coaches and spectators to overcome, including the need for tattoos to be covered up in public swimming pools and baths.
Infrastructure is no longer the problem it once was and while Gilpin, concerned by the lack of progress with training facilities, was forced to give the organising committee a few reminders in late 2017, he is satisfied they are again on track. Problems with the host venues have been surpassed too, after the final was moved from Tokyo to Yokohama because the showpiece new stadium would not be ready in time. Instead it will be opened for the 2020 Olympics, which has the potential to act as either a distraction or added motivation to impress.
Meanwhile, ticket sales are always a concern when major events enter new territory and the worry is that there will be plenty of empty seats at the less glamorous fixtures, hence the drive to encourage the 400,000-plus visitors to mix tourist pursuits with matches – come for rugby, stay for the ryokan. “We like to think of it as the most challenging because of the extent of the opportunity it gives us,” said Gilpin. “Going somewhere as different in rugby terms as Japan, using this as we are trying to grow rugby in Asia, creates challenges we have not faced before.”
Much will depend on the success of the host nation and ultimately the Japanese public loves to get behind a winner. Women’s football briefly soared in popularity when Japan won the World Cup in 2011 and success this year – which would mean getting out of their pool – would eclipse the feat of 2015, in which Jones masterminded the victory over South Africa.
His homecoming certainly helps in building the profile of the tournament too, but what of his England side’s chances of success? Jones’s familiarity with the host nation is an advantage but it cannot be ignored that despite all his efforts, he has failed to arrange a trip for his players to acclimatise, even if he and his coaches have been on countless recces.
It is significant because practically all of England’s rivals will have had some experience before the tournament starts but his players will be in uncharted territory. As with so much else, uncertainty abounds.
Source link : https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/02/2019-world-cup-fever-rugby-union-japan-ireland-new-zealand
Publish date : 2019-01-02 10:05:00