There is still a problem with the World Cup – the lack of a second-string knockout tournament. How about a competition for the pools' 3rd and 4th-placed teams?
By Mark Coughlan
OK, first thing’s first. Hats off and congratulations to the southern hemisphere. Plenty of other, better-qualified people have had their say this week on the gap between the north and south – not to mention Craig Joubert’s hot-footed departure, and England’s obsession with the name Ian – but I’m not here to talk about any of that. It’s simply that I still have a problem with the World Cup – it’s the lack of a second-string knockout tournament.
Ever since the pool stages finished, there’s been a feeling – potentially stronger among those “more casual” rugby fans – that the World Cup has lost some of its sheen. Yes, the quarter-finals were excellent, but the week gap between games makes it difficult to keep the narrative going, and tough to keep interest high for some. Furthermore, the likes of Samoa (after their epic game with Scotland), Japan (after three victories and capturing the global imagination) and England (er… the hosts) leaving the tournament just seems a shame.
Sevens has long had a tradition of minor knockout tournaments, where the teams who finish third and fourth in each pool go through to compete in their own separate knockout tournaments, and it’s an idea that I believe the World Cup could borrow heavily from. It certainly wouldn’t take anything away from the quarter-finals – they’re obviously still the pinnacle – but imagine if the teams who finished third, fourth and possibly even fifth in each pool headed off to compete in tournaments that are held midweek. The public imagination would continue to be held, and if lower ticket prices could be offered, there certainly wouldn’t be a problem filling the stadiums.
Speaking of which, the manner in which the likes of Exeter, Gloucester and Leicester embraced the few games they hosted was rightly applauded – so isn’t it right that it should have been rewarded too? Allowing the smaller stadiums to host the Plate or Shield tournaments would ensure passionate support – it’s no coincidence that the rugby hotbeds provided some of the most colourful, vibrant atmospheres – and fill the long gap between weekends.
Maybe the tournament could even be held at stadiums that didn’t get any of the pool games, to ensure a level of fresh excitement exists. Can anyone really tell me that The Rec, Welford Road or The Stoop wouldn’t pull out all the stops to host a major international game?
And if there’s a worry that teams won’t be too enthusiastic about the idea, how about we take away the automatic qualification for the subsequent World Cup that goes hand in hand with finishing third in the pool?
Instead, all 12 teams go into this further tournament – let’s call it the Qualifiers, just to be original – and qualification for the next World Cup is on the line. Win your pool – with one team from each pool – and you qualify. If you want to add to the excitement, all 12 teams could go into a random draw to decide the avenue they have to go through. Yes, it could mean England would be in a straight fight with Italy, Japan and Georgia (who all finished third in their pool) for one automatic qualification spot, but let’s be honest, how could that not be exciting?
It would take a bit of thought, and the big teams would certainly need some convincing, but the quality of the “minnows” means they deserve every chance they get. Why should they constantly have to go through qualifying when the the established order don’t have to? At least this way the playing field is levelled, and over time, that can only improve the smaller sides.
If nothing else, the “fallow” midweeks would be filled, and that means less talk about Craig Joubert and his toilet needs. Come on, let’s give it some serious thought.