The World Cup is Here!

Written by  //  September 4, 2011  //  Sport  //  2 Comments

[A guest post by Parag Sayta on the forthcoming Rugby World Cup. Parag is a corporate lawyer based in London. He first became fascinated by rugby while watching the South Africans fight their way to an emotional and inspired victory against the New Zealand in the ’95 World Cup final on the newly installed Star Sports on cable tv. His two years in London and numerous discussions with office colleagues have developed his interest in the game]

The Rugby Union World Cup begins next Friday. It’s fair to say that statement is unlikely to light up eyes or get conversations rolling back home, but here in Ole’ Blighty, the excitement is palpable. The British middle and upper classes who patronise the game have pencilled the dates in their calendars and (those not lucky enough to go to New Zealand to watch the matches live) have set their alarm clocks early on the weekends, when most of the Home Nations’ matches happen.

The Show of the Season

The quadrennial extravaganza, in its seventh edition, promises to provide a lot of the drama, adrenalin and excitement that have characterised most of the previous editions. There are plenty of great moments to choose from: take a look at the last few minutes of the brilliant, see-sawing ‘91 quarter finals between Australia and Ireland. Despite the charged up Irish crowd egging the home team on, the Wallabies won the match and eventually the World Cup. Or the brilliant Jonah Lomu swatting England away like schoolboys in the All Blacks’ demolition of England in the ’95 semi finals. Then there is Johnny Wilkinson’s stunning drop goal to break the deadlock against Australia in the last minute of extra time in the 2003 finals, giving England its first World Cup.

The World Cup has also provided stirring, iconic moments that have unified nations in the way only sport can. The Kiwis’ victory at home in the inaugural ’87 World Cup shortly after a rebel tour to apartheid South Africa lifted a bitterly divided country. Then of course, there is South Africa’s famous win over a seemingly invincible New Zealand in the ’95 World Cup final, right after their readmission, with the blue blooded Afrikaner Francois Pienaar combining forces with the ANC revolutionary turned President, Nelson Mandela, immortalised in the Morgan Freeman-Matt Damon starrer Invictus.

For the sceptics not yet convinced or excited, I will give you some reasons to give rugby a go.

The Allegory

“Sport is war minus the shooting”, or so they say. The epigram is nowhere better epitomised than on the rugby field. If the sight of thirty red blooded men, representing their countries by literally putting their bodies on the line and bursting a gut doesn’t excite you, few things in sport will. Yet, the analogy to war doesn’t end with the physical exertion. Tactics and strategy play a crucial role in the game, with each of the 15 men on the field having pre-defined roles. There is also enough room for creativity at both the individual and team level. For those with the time and patience, I suggest you go through the videos on this channel to get a sense of how intricate the different strategies can be. The sheer physical effort combined with the enormous amounts of thought that managers and backroom staff give to the game, tactics that don’t appear obvious in the beginning, but become more apparent as you become more discerning and follow the game more closely.

The Diversity

One of the beauties of team sport is how different traditions and cultures are reflected in different playing styles, making sport a microcosm of society. German efficiency, Italian doggedness and Brazilian flair may be clichés, but those who follow football will immediately point out that there is a kernel of truth in each of these.  And cricket fans will similarly acknowledge that terms like “flamboyant West Indians” or “mercurial Pakistanis” mean something.

Rugby is similarly blessed with diversity. The tough-as-nails Springboks and Wallabies with their well defined structures and compact defences may well be playing a different game to the fearless, free spirited Pacific Islanders. The temperamental French, impassioned Celtic nations and the awe inspiring All Blacks who combine many of the abovementioned qualities, all add to the richness and drama of the game.

Genius

Every sport needs its “wow” factor, moments when an individual (Diego Maradona in the ’86 World Cup) or a team (F.C. Barcelona last season) or even two teams locked in a titanic battle (the 2005 Ashes!) rise above the rest and make sport a spectacle to behold and etch memories into fans’ collective consciousness that they can cherish forever.

Rugby has provided these moments through its history. One of my previous bosses, a Welshman to his bootstraps, used to watch archival footage of the great Welsh rugby teams of the 1970s during his free time, such was the impact the side had on him as a youth and on Wales as a whole.  The All Blacks in action are a sight to behold, as much for their magnificence as their ruthlessness, especially when they are challenged and rise to the challenge as they did in this game against Australia in 2000. My personal favourite is England’s Perfect Game against Australia at Twickenham last year, a match that I watched live. You absolutely must watch this length of the field try from that game.

The Spirit of the Game

Rugby along with the other great British invention, cricket, was marked as a game that would build character amongst the young at England’s great public schools, who would go on to rule the Empire (on that point, watch this lovely piece of satire by Monty Python). Respecting the referee’s decisions, playing “hard but fair” and grace and sportsmanship in defeat are some of the ethos, based on the old Empire’s notion of fairplay, which can still be seen in the way the game is played today. This is all the more remarkable given how physical the game is. Unlike football, for instance, whose foul mouthed, diving-at-will, overpaid players make one cringe with despair, rugby is a game still played in remarkably good spirits. There is also the old amateur spirit that is kept alive, through, for instance, the British Lions tours and the matches played by the “invitation only” side the Barbarians. Call me a hopeless romantic, but the notion of fairplay and the amateur tradition, in my eyes, ties sport to its roots and makes it special, something that football and (sadly) increasingly cricket are losing touch with.

But there is no India!?

As is our lot in most (which with the decline of Indian hockey may soon become all) team sports other than cricket, India is currently ranked 73rd in the world out of 77 registered countries. Such is the state of Indian rugby that Rahul Bose, the actor and social activist, used to juggle those roles with being a member of the Indian rugby team for a long time.

But that, to me, is not a significant dampener. If anything, I find that to be a blessing in disguise as it allows me to enjoy the game without finding myself emotionally tied to any team. I find it delightfully refreshing to enjoy matches for their own sake. It makes me appreciate the game better. Having said that, I understand those who claim that the agony and ecstasy of having your own team cannot be matched and of course, I hope and pray for the day when 20 stone, 2 meter tall Indian men look the All Blacks in the eye as they perform the Haka. But I am going to enjoy the game in the meantime (nominally supporting England as I live here at present).

My 4 “takes” on the World Cup

Players to watch out for: New Zealand need fly-half Dan Carter to fire and captain Richie McCaw to be his usual, dependable self. Watch out for Chris Ashton from England, the Australian full back Kurtley Beale, French hooker Dimitri Szarzewski and Springbok Number 8 Pierre Spies, to name just a few star performers from the leading nations who can make an impact on the destiny of the World Cup.

Best coaches: The determined Martin Johnson for England (a World Cup winning captain himself), the experienced Graham Henry leading the All Blacks, who has much to prove after the disappointment in the last World Cup and the popular Robbie Deans, who has had a good run with the Wallabies so far.

The importance of good coaches may be underlined through this tournament. Watch out for the gaffe prone Peter de Villiers, who is rumoured to be a political appointee and Marc Lievermont, who is to be replaced as the French coach after the World Cup. In tightly run contests where margins for error are tiny, will South Africa and France regret having appointed the wrong men?

The underdogs: Argentina lit up the 2007 World Cup by finishing third. There is something about teams punching above their weight and fighting against the odds that warms the cockles of the heart. I am hoping that someone like, say, Fiji with their flair and joie de vivre or Wales with their history and passion, manage to ruffle a few feathers and reach the semis this time.

Predictions: New Zealand, Australia and England to reach the semi finals along with one of the less fancied teams. New Zealand to win, provided they cope with the pressures and expectations of their rugby-mad public.

2 Comments on "The World Cup is Here!"

  1. Suhrith September 5, 2011 at 10:57 pm ·

    Great piece. I loved Ashton’s length of the field try. Quite extraordinary!

  2. Hoshedar March 11, 2013 at 1:23 pm ·

    Just read this piece. Having followed the world cup with great interest, one of the guys who’s my favourite now (although he flopped at the world cup) is Quade Cooper. Unstoppable on his day, and very mercurial! And now that he’s done with his brief dalliance with boxing and back in training for his local Aussie team, hope to see more of him in the future. Also, the French captain, can’t recall his name. But he and his team were inspired in the semis and especially in the final. Outplayed the Kiwis in the 2nd half and gave them a real scare!!
    Pity they aren’t broadcasting the 6 Nations in India. Going by how the table stands, Wales are gonna go real hard at England this coming Saturday. Should be a good game to watch.

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