RUGBY UNION: Showpiece Degenerates into Greedy Shambles ; Australia May Now Host 2003 World Cup Alone after New Zealand Withdraw from Agreement

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IT WOULD have been quite an event, next week's ceremonial draw for the 2003 World Cup: a glittering, if cauliflower-faced, array of rugby's great and good, knocking back the bubbly on the Sydney waterfront and hoovering up photo-opportunities on the steps of the opera house. If the orchestra had been serenading the oval-ball plutocrats with excerpts from Wagner's Ring cycle, it would have been perfect. After all, the composer knew a thing or two about arrogance, greed, brinkmanship and the corrosive properties of power.

But for the sea of bad blood separating Australia from New Zealand - a Tasman of thrombotic ill-feeling, you might call it - the showpiece would have gone ahead as planned. The directors of Rugby World Cup would have announced a fixture schedule as pure as the driven snow, with no hint of the political and commercial acrobatics they had performed in order to put the "right" teams in the "right" groups, thereby ensuring a healthy revenue stream for those with the most negotiating muscle - that is to say, the Wallabies. And the weaker nations, like the used and abused Argentinians? They would have been told, politely but firmly, to shut up and get on with it.

New Zealand's withdrawal from the sub-hosting arrangement they had tacitly agreed with the Australians - a very serious decision, driven by the equally serious fear that with the economics of the tournament loaded in the Wallabies' favour, they would lose a small fortune on the deal - means this shambolic venture is now on hold, pending the implementation of a contingency plan under which Australia will put on the entire show.

In one sense, this is excellent news: the multi-host World Cups of 1987, 1991 and 1999 were flawed affairs, with little momentum and no obvious sense of identity. The Australians, lavishly equipped with more top-class stadiums than you could shake a boomerang at, are confident of their ability to match, maybe even surpass, the stunning 1995 tournament in South Africa, a competition uniquely dressed in the garb of single nation. Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Canberra, Townsville and Gosford all contributed handsomely to last summer's Lions tour of Wallaby country, and Adelaide is also hunting a piece of the union action. Good? It should be great.

However, the events of the last few days have left an overwhelming impression of organisational incompetence, accompanied by a distinct odour of fish. RWC's lack of transparency over World Cup seedings is nothing new, but it has surpassed itself this time: last Tuesday night, when the launch was still a going concern, nobody from RWC or the International Rugby Board was willing or able to confirm any details about the seedings below Australia, France, South Africa and New Zealand - the official top four from the 1999 tournament.

Shortly after that competition, the IRB published a magazine in which Argentina, England, Scotland and Wales were ranked fifth to eighth in that order, on the basis of points scored in defeat at the quarter-final stage. (The Pumas scored 26 points against France, England 21 against the Springboks, Scotland 18 against the All Blacks and Wales nine against the Wallabies). This arrangement appeared to place Wales with Australia in 2003, the Scots with France, the English with South Africa and Argentina with New Zealand.

Two years on, the IRB issued another publication containing another set of rankings, this one promoting Wales ahead of Scotland without the slightest hint of an explanation. Significant? Definitely. The French may have delivered a top-notch Six Nations performance in Paris last weekend, but there is still more chance of getting a result against the Tricolores on neutral territory than of beating the Wallabies in Sydney. …