Back in 2002, the RFU’s CEO Francis Baron launched an ambitious plan to radically alter the make-up of the sport’s showpiece event, the Rugby World Cup. Yet instead of voting for change, the member nations of the IRB showed themselves to be staunchly conservative. But what might have been had the 2007 edition of the tournament been held in England instead?
Baron put forward three blueprints for England 2007: the radical overhaul, the traditional set-up and a hybrid between the two. The changes would have seen the World Cup effectively split into two tournaments, the first being a streamlined 16 team main event and a new 32 team ‘Rugby World Nations Cup’, featuring tier 2 and 3 countries.
The Nations Cup was to feature 28 teams who were outside of the IRB’s top 20 rankings, with four sides who failed to qualify for the main event taking the numbers to 32. It would have meant massive commercial opportunities and media exposure for so-called ‘minnows’ and could even have provided the prospect for promotion and relegation between the two events.
Imagine a team like Russia, Namibia or Uruguay winning the Nations Cup and then guaranteeing themselves a spot at the main event in four years’ time. Instead of having to play a plethora of qualifying games to make the tournament, the winners could plan for their World Cup like their wealthier peers and attract significant sponsorship deals with the certainty of a place at the tournament.
For smaller and less established teams such as those in the lower divisions of the European Nations Cup, it would mean that despite failing to qualify for the World Cup, they could still take part and immerse themselves in the carnival atmosphere of the host nation.
So why was the concept thrown out? The RFU insisted the tournament must be held in England and England alone. As for the French, they were kind-hearted enough to offer pool games and a quarter-final to Cardiff and Edinburgh. As such, the IRB members ended up a little bit more ‘FIFA’ than ‘forward-thinking’ and the Nations Cup was consigned to the waste bin.
Concerns about the financial viability of hosting 48 countries in two parallel tournaments would have played their part for nations with less capital than England as well.
World Rugby – once the IRB – have made significant moves since then to improve the chances of tier 2 and 3 nations, with the introduction of a number of tournaments across the globe, including the Americas Rugby Championship, the Pacific Nations Cup and the Pacific Rugby Challenge, as well as the U20s Trophy for tier 2 nations’ junior teams. Yet during the World Cup itself many smaller nations are left twiddling their thumbs as spectators rather than participants.
Baron said at the time of the bid: “Through excellent forward planning, we aim to make the Rugby World Cup 2007 the most widely experienced, viewed, read about and listened to rugby event ever.”
This was the World Cup that never was, but it can only be hoped that one day it will exist.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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