Today, with the release of its match schedule for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the International Rugby Board (IRB) firmly drove its knife through the back of developing rugby regions—namely Eastern Europe, Africa and North America.
This controversy is centred around the number of rest and recovery days between matches which, in a month-long competition like the Rugby World Cup, does much to determine the competitiveness of teams, especially those with limited professional player depth.
Following worldwide outrage at the unfairness of previous Rugby World Cup schedules—which were widely acknowledged to be unfair to Tier 2 developing nations—the leadership of the IRB promised a fairer schedule, which would do much to eliminate the imbalance in the number of recovery days each team was allotted.
“We asked for it after the (last) World Cup,” Tew said. “We thought it was unjust that the smaller unions were asked to play at the pinnacle event on shorter times than our games.”
In the same article, IRB Chief Executive Brett Gosper promised that his schedule would be seen by all as a major step forward.
We think in the next World Cup schedule that will be announced very soon there is a very strong fairness in terms of the times of rest periods. It will be the same for all teams. Completely equal...There’s a very strong fairness in terms of the times of rest periods. So it’ll be the same for all teams, far more equal. Completely equal versus the last World Cup.
The facts of the newly released 2015 Rugby World Cup schedule makes it clear that Mr. Gosper and the clique of IRB bureaucrats—almost entirely made up of representatives from first-tier rugby nations—could not have been serious in their efforts.
It is true that a great deal of the outrage in 2011 was centred around the ill-treatment of Pacific Island nations, who were generally considered to be the teams closest to causing an upset and therefore the most harmed by the unjust scheduling.
#IRB, Stop exploiting my people. Please, all we ask, is fairness. If they [Wales] get a week, give us a week. Simple. #equity #justice.
It is obvious the IRB is unjust. Wales get seven days, we get three. Unfair treatment, like the holocaust, like apartheid. F*** U.
Give Wales 3 days off and give Samoa a week. We would kill them.
Despite the treatment they and their Islander brethren received, Tonga went on to cause the only upset of the 2011 World Cup, defeating France in the later stages of pool competition.
If the efforts of Mr. Gosper and company were intended only to placate the criticisms regarding Pacific Island nations, then he can fairly be said to have succeeded. Of the three Pacific Island nations which regularly play in World Cup competition, only Fiji—who are likely to qualify as Oceania 1—seem to be at a disadvantage. The Fijians will play the tournament with 15 rest and recovery days, while Tonga and Samoa will play with 17; the same total as England and Wales.
However, where in past tournaments the inequity may have fallen most visibly on the Pacific Islanders, the IRB's World Cup schedule for 2015 has seen the axe fall elsewhere.
Across the breadth of the tournament, regions whose qualifiers have yet to be identified have received the short end of the stick.
Qualifiers from North America and Africa will have to compete at the 2015 World Cup with only 14 rest and recovery days, while first-tier nations like Ireland and France—long at the heart of world rugby decision making—are blessed with no less than 19 rest days.
Nowhere in the whole of what must surely be regarded as another shameful schedule is the unfairness more apparent than in Pool D.
In a shocking injustice aimed directly at the heart of the developing—and politically weak—rugby world in North America and Eastern Europe, Pool D competitors Ireland, France and Italy will enjoy 19 rest and recovery days in the relaxing heart of London in 2015. Elsewhere, Pool D's only tier-two nations, which will take the form of a North American qualifier from Canada or the United States and an European qualifier, likely to be from the Eastern European region, will be struggling to bind their wounds in time to field a competitive roster.
Europe's qualifier will have to make due with a meagre 15 days of rest, while the unfortunate North Americans will have to somehow manage to play four pool matches with only 14.
For nations with such limited professional depth in their player pool, the ability to keep their first-choice athletes healthy represents the difference between potential success and embarrassing failure at an event like the Rugby World Cup.
How, in the name of sportsmanship and reason, is it fair to expect two second-tier rugby nations in Pool D to face off against three separate Six Nations countries while playing at such a disadvantage?
Some, upon examining the fixture list, will point out that strong teams like the New Zealand All Blacks also have to endure narrow turnaround times between matches; but therein lies the rub.
Upon closer inspection, it is revealed that where such short recovery windows exist for Tier-1 nations, it will inevitably find them suiting up against an excessively weak opponent.
In the case of New Zealand, their only narrow recovery window sees them taking on the already slighted qualifier from Africa, making for a double injustice as the Africans will now have to arrive rested for their opening game of the tournament against an opponent they cannot possibly defeat.
Such scheduling "troubles" are unlikely to give pause to the world's rugby giants.
None should be fooled by pronouncements from IRB officials that the 2015 World Cup schedule represents any kind of improvement over previous such scandals. The injustice has simply been shifted to nations that are even less able to cope with such an unequal fight.
Until this pattern of inequality ceases, none should hope for the upsets and high drama that all true rugby fans long to see at a World Cup. Instead, all should voice their dismay that the virtues of sportsmanship, brotherhood and community that rugby is famous for yet continue to be forgotten by those at the sport's highest levels and on the sport's biggest stage.
Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report
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