The 2019 Rugby World Cup

Almost is such a misleading word. It could mean “almost” as in: He almost knocked over his drink, but he caught it before it toppled over. It could mean “nearly” when he nearly knocked over his drink, but did not actually touch the glass so nothing happened. Or perhaps he “virtually” knocked over his drink, or even he “practically” knocked over his drink. I am not sure that he could have almost, as in “roughly” knocked a drink over, as that could be subject of yet another interpretation, but it could perhaps also mean that he “more or less” knocked over his drink.

Almost could also be “next to,” or even “approaching” or “not far from” or a host of other synonyms.

I will use it in the context of “nearing” as I talk to you about events that are still nigh on a full year and ten months hence.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup is almost upon us.

Whilst we still have some 22 months that separate us from the kickoff of the 2019 RWC and the game between hosts Japan and a team currently called “Europe One” at the Tokyo Stadium, in Tokyo, on Friday the 20th September 2019 at 19h45 in the evening, we already know the entire pool match schedule for the competition.

Of course, many uncertainties still remain between now and then. Uncertainties that rugby people have no means of influencing or changing.

Donald Trump might declare war on North Korea, Russia, Mexico, Venezuela, China, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, France, Cuba, California, or even some small town in the Outer Hebrides, or not…….. Whatever he does, he is promising us all that it will be “so beautiful” – a word he uses a lot, especially in the mornings while he shaves. He might also decide that he has had enough of the colour orange and change his spray tan skin tone to green.

Who knows what he will do, it is actually easier to predict who will win the 2025 Kentucky Derby, and none of the entrants have been born yet! With a loose cannon holding the nuclear key almost anything could happen, and he could blow the concept of a unified world playing rugby in Japan to smithereens.

A tsunami, a cyclone, an earthquake, a viral infection introduced by aliens from the planet Zog, the zombie apocalypse, political turmoil, Mount Fuiji might erupt…. All these things might intervene. The RWC is not one of the two Great Inevitables, Death and Taxes, so we cannot be sure that it will take place.

However, we do know that IF it takes place, the Match Schedule for the competition was decided, agreed, and announced back in November 2017.

We know that the first game of Pool A, on the first day, Friday the 20th September, features the Japanese hosts against one of the European qualifiers, a team that have not yet been identified.

We know that the second day, the 21st November, in the very first round of competition, Fiji play Australia, France play Argentina, and the two giants, South Africa and New Zealand will bump heads at the International Stadium in Yokohama.

Japan, in an effort to bring the game to the whole of their country, will host 48 matches spread amongst 12 host cities across the length and breadth of their islands, with each match venue hosting a minimum of two matches.

The International Stadium in Yokohama will be at the tournament’s heart with four pool matches, including New Zealand v South Africa, Ireland v Scotland, England v France and Japan v Scotland, and then hosting both semi-finals and the Rugby World Cup 2019 final on 2 November.

World Rugby tell us that the match schedule has been designed with player welfare in mind, as well as enhancing fan experience. All match venues will be within 45 minutes of a team camp, while the match schedule has been developed to optimise rest days for Tier Two teams ahead of Tier One fixtures, enhancing preparation.

The schedule has been developed following team feedback after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, with an equitable match schedule a core principle and, they tell us, a significant improvement has been achieved within the framework of a four pool, five teams per pool format. No Tier Two team plays a Tier One team following a short rest period.

And right there I spy the first problem.

The 2015 RWC match schedule was an exercise in legalised bullying. The smaller nations, now dubbed Tier Two nations, were simply cannon fodder dished up as match practice for the big guns. Some of the small guys felt that they had scarcely time to launder their playing kit and dry it all before they were back at a stadium to face one or another of their much bigger cousins.

(Not that some of those little guys did not dish out a thorough shin-kicking to those big bullies! South Africans still blush at the result against Japan.)

When 2015 was done and dusted, World Rugby promised that they had heard all the complaints about insufficient rest time between games, and all about schedules that punished the smaller guys while favouring the heavyweights. It would never happen again, they said. Players would be given sufficient time to recuperate and prepare, they said.

And, on the face of it, they have succeeded with the schedule announced for 2019.

Well, sort of………

If we take a closer look at the schedule we see that short rest periods are still there. 12 teams will face four-day turnarounds between games. This simply goes against everything that is the current hot topic in the entire rugby playing world: Player Welfare.

A four-day turnaround allows players just one rest day, one recovery session, and just one day’s full training before playing again. And then there is the travel from one venue to another, even if their residential arrangements for the upcoming match guarantees no more than a 45 minute commute to the stadium on match-day! And these four-day turnarounds are regardless of the next opponent they will face, Tier One or Tier Two opposition.

Let’s be blunt: This is stupid! The human body is not designed for that kind of punishment, no matter how super fit the athlete in question. The reality is that World Rugby have produced a schedule that places more strain on the players’ bodies than ever before. Some might say that having a 31-player squad allows for full squad rotation between games, which is also a nonsensical argument. A match-day squad consists of 23 players, so just 8 get the day off, and then there is the inevitability of injuries, niggles, tummy bugs, and the like.

South Africa’s Springboks have drawn the shortest of the short straws on offer in 2019. They will play all four their pool games in just 18 days. If you struggle with Math, I will give you the answer: They get an average of four-and-a-half days off between matches. To make matters worse, they open their account against the All Blacks. Games between these two teams inevitably require massive commitment and preparation, huge effort on the field of play, and inevitably leave some wounded on the battlefield when the final whistle has gone. After such a game recovery is essential.

The Springboks have the most testing schedule of any team, after playing the All Blacks on the 21st September they have six days off before facing whichever team fills the vacant Repechage spot, probably Namibia, on the 28th September. Then they have a five-day break before they play Italy on the 4th of October, and then just four days before they play another Repechage winner, probably the USA.

Unsurprisingly, the hosts, Japan have the longest time over the pool stage, with all of 24 days between first and last game.

Scotland, New Zealand, Tonga and the African qualifiers will enjoy 22 days, while Ireland, Italy, England, Australia and Wales will have 21 days for their four pool games.

The bottom line is, whilst the schedule is a positive step for the smaller nations, four-day turnarounds at the World Cup are still wholly unacceptable.

Why has World Rugby compressed their champagne event into a four-week pool stage? Surely this event, especially with the importance given the welfare of the players, deserves a five-week pool stage? Adequate rest time, adequate recuperation time, proper preparation time, and fresh players should be the deciding factor. What is one extra week every four years?