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The Rugby World Cup remains the Downton Abbey of sport

The Rugby World Cup has always featured teams that have overmatched and performed beyond their means. Over the decades, one-sided games have been the flour in the soup, added not for flavor or nutritional value but for volume. Everyone knew the score.

It is such an integral part of the tournament that it is never greeted with outrage or even despair. Imagine if the World Cup was littered with 8-0 and 9-0 hammers? First of all, the sponsors and the broadcasters would be in an uproar, lending their hearts and souls to the nabobs in FIFA.

The Rugby World Cup is the Downton Abbey of sport, a pretty window into a stratified society where wealth is concentrated among the elite and privilege trumps all. The tournament revolves around the traditional powers of the game. Nobody expects an underdog story. It’s not how the test game behaves.

The World Cup has always reflected the game’s age-old hierarchies. It is anchored in his identity. At the very first tournament in 1987, more than half of the teams played by invitation. The International Rugby Football Board [IRFB] Back then they only had eight members and the World Cup was their gig.

Ireland, Scotland and Wales were among the founding members in 1886, and England also joined a few years later. Amazingly, no one else was admitted until Australia, New Zealand and South Africa became full members after the Second World War, 59 years later; France only received full membership in 1978. It was an old boys club, exclusive and self-centered.

The pattern of flogging was immediately established. In half of the group games at the 1987 World Cup, a team scored 40 points or more while tries were worth just four points. In games between IRFB members and their invited guests, the average winning margin was 37 points.

Over the years some things have changed. From the 1991 tournament onwards, a World Cup qualification system was introduced for non-elite countries. Western Samoa, for example, inexplicably snubbed in 1987, stormed through four years later to beat Wales in Cardiff – resulting in one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history, admittedly from a very short list.

The IRFB morphed into the IRB and then World Rugby, over time becoming an outward-looking organization that welcomed numerous new members from around the world. But the glaring gaps in standards exposed at every World Cup have never become a source of concern or urgent need for action. Courageous performances were greeted with a shake of the head, but everyone knew where they stood.

So the beating continued. New Zealand scored 101 points against Italy and England scored 101 points against Tonga at the 1991 World Cup – when Italy was still a second-tier country; Australia scored 145 points against Japan in the 1995 tournament and 142 points against Namibia eight years later; At the same World Cup, England beat Uruguay by 111 points.

The more grotesque profit results have weakened over time, but the environmental factors have remained largely the same. The marginalized nations in the world game were doomed to failure.

How many surprising results have there been in the history of the Rugby World Cup? In 185 tournament games between Tier 1 nations and other non-elite nations – from 1987 to 2019 – Tier 1 teams have lost just seven times.

In the 2019 World Cup, host Japan torpedoed Ireland and Scotland – two frontrunners from the game’s protected elite – but in 21 other games between first-tier and lower-tier nations in that tournament, the average winning margin was 33 points. Even considering that tries are now worth five points and that the total number of points has increased, depressingly little had changed between the first and ninth World Cups.

Romania, playing in its eighth tournament, loses to Ireland 82-8 on the opening weekend of this year’s World Cup, 20 years after losing 90-8 to Australia, and everyone just shrugs.

Since the last World Cup, Romania had only played one game against a first division country. Before they shocked France’s second team with a rousing performance on Thursday night, Uruguay had not played against a top-flight team since losing to Wales in their final group game four years ago.

Portugal were great against a weak Welsh side on Saturday, but they lacked the depth, experience or ability to react under pressure to turn a fighting chance into a famous win. Where would they have purchased this facility?

When Samoa almost embarrassed Ireland in their final warm-up game before the World Cup, it was only their second game against top opposition since the last tournament. How are these teams supposed to improve without regular, engaging encounters with the best Test nations? How many major league teams are willing to consistently sacrifice a lucrative November slot to make up for a weak game against a non-major league team?

Instead, we give them a pat on the back at the World Cup.

When plans were announced earlier this year for a biennial tournament involving all ten first-tier nations plus two others (probably Fiji and Japan), second-tier nations were furious. The tournament would take up the international windows of July and November, eliminating any slim chance of a friendly against one of those years’ elite players.

Promotion and relegation were promised for the second edition of the tournament, but according to current proposals this will not be the case until 2030. Meanwhile, the best nations in the second tier will be playing in another World Cup, undermanned and underprepared. They are desperately fighting to finish third in their pool to avoid a qualifying process for the next tournament. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. The chances are good.

The hype surrounding the Rugby World Cup has grown exponentially since the first event 36 years ago. World Rugby says its global fan base has grown to 405 million, although it is unclear how this number was reached. Ticket sales for this World Cup in France have been remarkable, even for games whose outcome is no secret. In the group phases this is usually around 60 percent of the games.

Everyone shrugs their shoulders. This is the World Cup. What did you expect?

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