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October 4, 2011

Sport Today: What can we learn from the World Rugby Cup?

The first indication that there was something fundamentally wrong with the level of the playing field at the 2011 World Rugby Cup currently unfolding throughout New Zealand was a seemingly innocuous complaint about the scheduling from the coach of the Canadian national team, former All Black back Kieran Crowley.

Crowley protested the quick three-day turnaround his side had to make after they came from behind to beat Tonga (pop. 160,000) 25-20 in their tautly-played opening match on Wednesday, September 14th before having to face France the following Sunday, September 18.

His comments merit attention not only for the fans of the game, who are many, but also for what they reveal about world sport competition and the nature of the world today.

The World Rugby Cup is providing yet another example that even the domain of sport is being brought under imperialist pressure, whereby the modern norms of a level playing field in competition and sportsmanship, solidarity and mutual respect, some of the highest ideals of humanity, are being destroyed in order to achieve self-serving commercial and great nation aims.

What is going on? How did this become the measure of a world tournament?

What the International Rugby Board (IRB) has done is divide the competition between ten so-called Tier one and ten Tier two nations. (There is even a Tier three.) National teams from Tier one, which control the IRB, traditional rugby nations such as England, France, Italy, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, classified on the basis of possessing professional leagues, have been awarded one week between matches.

Although Canada, it is classified as “Tier two,” as is the United States, Samoa, Fiji, Namibia, Japan, Argentina, and so forth, i.e., those without internal leagues. Their national teams have come to be derided by the media as so-called “minnows,” “developing” sides and other equally patronizing, chauvinistic and nonsensical terms, even though Canada, the US, and Japan are developed capitalist countries.

The schedules makes a farce out of the propaganda that this World Cup is a level playing field offering opportunity to the fish and minnows alike. It hasn’t. Tier two teams are forced to play two of their four opening round (knockout) qualifying matches on the basis of a three or four day turnaround. France was thus the beneficiary of an extra three days rest of extra recuperation from its bruising opening game to prepare against Canada. In other words, the teams from the big rugby powers awarded themselves twice as much rest time as their “second tier” opponents.

In this most physically demanding of team sports, when players and heavier and bulkier than ever, a mere three days between games for Tier two teams is not only unreasonable but unacceptable. I know of no league in the world with such a schedule. “Mentally, (consistency) is important when you’re not used to rugby at that level,” Crowley said of the Tier two teams. “Some of the smaller teams in this tournament are staying with the stronger sides for 60 minutes, but not the full 80 because of it.”

In rugby, the last 10 minutes of a game are the most important. That’s where good and tough teams show their class after wearing down their opponent for 70 minutes. Against les Bleus, Canada tired and made big mental errors at the end of each half. All of these teams are putting in supreme efforts and three days cannot supply the required recovery. Sure enough, the final five minutes of the first half, when France scrumhalf Morgan Parra kicked three penalties, and the final five of the game, when Clerc scored his two tries to give France a 46-19 victory, proved crucial.

Sheer exhaustion of players has been evident in other Tier two matches, with the inevitable result. There are no statistics available of the injuries suffered by athletes from Tier-two countries in those brutal final moments of hell, but they must be considerable. Even the Scottish team doctor, James Robson, a leading specialist in sports medicine, spoke out against the threat to well-being. [1]

“Leaking nine points in the last five minutes of the first half and 14 points in the last five minutes of the second half, you just can’t do (that),” Crowley pointed out. “We played some reasonable patches in the meantime (but) you just can’t afford to do that at this level.”

Just a few days later on September 19, a player from Samoa issued the same complaint as Crowley in tougher language -- that the scheduling was a form of slavery. In a story that attracted international attention but little to no buzz in Canada, the roof of the “world” cup fell like a house of cards.

Winning at all costs -- lambs to the slaughter

Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, a centre for Samoa (who also plays for Gloucester), an island nation in the South Pacific, denounced the schedule for second-tier sides as “like the holocaust, like apartheid.”

The athlete was roused to a deep indignation by having to play Wales just three days after coming out 49-12 winners against Namibia in their opening game.

“#IRB, Stop exploiting my people. Please, all we ask is fairness. If they [Wales] get a week, give us a week. Simple. #equity #justice,” wrote Fuimaono-Sapolu on Twitter.

“If is obvious the IRB is unjust. Wales get seven days, we get three. Unfair treatment, like the holocaust, like apartheid. **** U.

“Give Wales 3 days off and give Samoa a week. We would kill them.”

Samao’s last game to qualify will be this weekend against the defending champion South African Springboks, a side rooted in apartheid, which will have the advantage of the longer turnaround.

The Samoan challenged the International Rugby Board to suspend him, saying it would be another injustice. But the IRB insists that the World Cup will brook no dissent. As “his complaint that Samoa and other Tier two and three teams have an unfair schedule compared to the top-tier sides resonated in the rugby world” -- in the words of the Associated Press report -- the Rugby World Cup Limited, event organizer, decided to make an example out of him rather than soberly discussing the merit of his basic argument. Samoa officials, instead of defending their player, “apologized on his behalf and the organizers let the England-based centre off with a warning.” The player’s Twitter comments were deleted. The response of the powerful sports media is not fitting of journalism. Associated Press reviled the athlete for “crossing the rugby board” and the London Guardian denounced “his grotesque comments.” No such warning or media condemnation was given the polite Canadian coach.

But it is the Samoan and not the court scribblers who hit the well on the head.

Sporting events such as the world cup are one of the few international venues where small nations have an opportunity of affirming their national identity and their right to be. In words and spirit, championed by the athletes, they are synonymous with the highest sporting ideals of humanity, sportsmanship, friendship, and appreciation of all peoples. Rugby is a national sport and passion of Samo, Fiji and Tonga and other Pacific nations, despite its peculiar imperial history; regardless of their small populations, they are extremely skilled, proud and a potent force on the pitch no less than the Irish and the Scotch. But the athletes and small nations are being blocked, not on the field, but by an anti-democratic schedule and structure organized to favour the leading rugby countries, each of which have powerful corporate sponsors such as Nike and Adidas, banks and beer.

The IRB timetabled the leading countries in prime-time, weekend slots to maximize commercial revenue over a seven-week-event, in line with the demands and requirements of the global media corporations such as Murdoch’s News Corporation, Sky TV and this year, for the first time, NBC Sports and Universal Sport in the USA (See sidebar). This goes far beyond a convenient relationship for TV and the corporate sponsor (Koog, Adidas, Nike, Canterbury, etc.). The IRB mobilizes all the resources behind a set of monopolies and uses the “world” cup to shut out their competition. On the field, those who are the “winners” and those who are to be the “losers” have essentially been predetermined. The table in the opening round has been stacked to ensure the teams from ten countries, seven of them from the northern hemisphere, who are defined as those who will be “winners” internationally, get through to the quarter finals. Ireland, for example, has had gaps of six, eight and seven days between their matches whereas a country like Georgia had to play two matches in four days. The corporate sponsorship also essentially determines which national teams will get to divide up the lucrative revenues from the world cup and other IRB-sanctioned competitions, and ensures that the division between the haves and the have-nots is perpetuated. The “winners” then spend the next three years playing lucrative international test matches. The IRB even disciplines athletes who speak the truth behind this incestuous relationship.

Locations are, at least in part, determined by the ability of organizers to deliver large venues that meet the corporate and marketing objectives of the IRB that are, in turn, dictated by the self-serving needs of its monopolies. Further, primetime matches seem to be played in large covered stadiums with their dry turf, a huge bonus for the kicking game which the northern hemisphere teams specialize in. There are other resources available mainly to the leading powers known as brands; the New Zealand All Blacks wear a new high tech jersey designed by Adidas that weighs one third less than the traditional jersey.

In the name of the high ideals of sport, the IRB, like the IOC and FIFA, is operating as simply another sports cartel from a tiny handful of nations, mainly NATO countries, who have defined themselves as the world and are dictating the terms of entry into its community, much as politically the Security Council has usurped power from the General Assembly at the United Nations in order to suppress the voice of the member nations and run roughshod over international law.

Moreover, Fuimaono-Sapolu’s reference to the Holocaust and apartheid is not as outlandish as the media would have one believe just as the issue of scheduling is not a technical one as the IRB makes out. The hierarchy being imposed goes beyond formal competition within tiers wherein advancement from one tier to the other is nominally based on merit. In ideo-political terms, was it not Social Darwinism, with its reactionary thought of the division of humanity between “superior” and “inferior” peoples and races who evolve according to the dictates of the law of the jungle, which formed the theoretical axis for the emergence of Hitlerite fascism, racism and the Holocaust? Is this not implicit in the division of world sport such as rugby between the rich countries and the poor, between those “winners” who play with a loaded deck, who are presented as the stronger or the “fittest,” and the “losers” who are presented as the weak and even the “minnows,” which has become so pronounced in New Zealand and other venues? This international trend on the political, economic, cultural and athletic plane has wrought disaster for humanity.

Rationales for a “certain sacrifice” by the “minnows”

In condemning Fuimaono-Sapolu and overlooking Crowley’s statements, the IRB and the sports media naturally draw an official veil over the substance of their complaints and go all out to explain how the “minnows” can become big fish through the natural evolution of parity in pool competition. Even the English sportswriter, James Lawton of The Guardian, was struck by the patronizing irony of the sharks. Their protests against the scheduling “we are supposed to believe, came out of an ignorance of one of the basic realities of the evolving tournament of a still emerging professional game.”

“Scheduling insists, we are told, that the needs of television and their advertisers are given first priority. Having a daily diet of live play requires a certain sacrifice -- one that it has been decided must be borne by those who are least able to make it.” [2]

The high profile matches that must take place in a primetime weekend slot demands that the Tier two must play on three or four days rest. But these nations are to be reassured. They won’t have to do it any more than two out of their first four matches in the opening round!

In other words, by agreeing to start out with two strikes against them in the opening round and performing as cannon fodder for the “tier one” countries, the sacrifice of the minnow to the big fish ensures “parity” in some distant future for both the second and third tier. The lower tiers will reap spin-offs -- revenue transfers for “development” of the sport made possible by the revenues generated by the World Cup which will even include rugby academies for “development.”

The sadistic humiliation of Namibia by the South African Springboks (87-0) and then by Wales (81-7) and New Zealand’s running up the score against Japan 83-7 (in the 1995 competition, the scoreline was 145-17) in defiance of all sporting ideals are to be accepted as “character-building” and transitory.

The courageous Namibians, whose character and morale was already forged in the struggle against apartheid, fought to the last whistle, as did the Russians in a seemingly one-sided match with England, showing that they belonged on the same pitch.

The Independent [1] sarcastically pointed out: “Namibia, by some distance the most poorly-resourced side in the competition, played four games between mid-afternoon on 10 September and early evening on 26 September. If Amnesty International ever investigates this, its report will be well worth reading.”

AI might also look at the impunity granted England. While it was shellacking Romania 67-3 on September 23, two English coaches illegally switched balls that their kicker, Jonny Wilkinson, was due to kick on a number of occasions, without requesting permission from the referee. Neither the kicker nor the head coach was disciplined nor did the IRB convene a hearing, unlike the Somoan centre. [3]

According to the logic of the IRB recycled in the Globe and Mail, (“Learning to try: Rugby investment creates World Cup parity,” September 18) parity is paying off: the average gap between the Tier One and Tier Two teams has closed from an average of 31 points in 1987 to 26 points by the end of the second week, but with tries now worth five points.

By the end of the third week, as the Independent noted, “coaches decided to prioritize games in which victory was feasible above those in which it was out of the question, the consequences were inevitable: the 26-point average jumped to 36 points. Suddenly, the tournament became more lopsided than most previous World Cups.” [4] The gap was five points higher than 24 years ago. Such is the “parity” of the IRB. It is outrageous to then read cosmopolitan articles in the London Guardian (“Do World Cup Thrashings Benefit the Sport?), New York Times, and Globe and Mail (“Let the Routs Begin,” NYT, September 29) bemoaning “boring games,” mocking the “minnows” and advocating their elimination to enhance the spectacle, an argument that would have been impossible to understand, but for the fact that it was made by paid representatives of the sharks who caused the problem in the first place. Canada may have won one game and drawn with Japan -- Japan is the host of the 2019 World Rugby Cup but it has not won a game in 20 years -- but its point spread heading towards its final game with New Zealand this weekend is rated at a whopping 64.5. I would bet that the Canadian athletes will compete to the bitter end. But what will the Globe, the “media partner” of Rugby Canada, say then?

Parity and evolution is the basic neo-colonial, “win-at-all-costs” lure of the International Rugby Board as well as the IOC, FIFA and other sport federations for sacrificing integrity and sovereignty, and succumbing to the altar of the neo-liberal, anti-social and anti-national offensive of big capital which has made sport their instrument.

The “brawn drain”

The aim of this rationale as well as the orchestrated derision by the media against the “minnows” is to conceal the real transfer of wealth and talent from the poor to the rich and the concentration of power in their hands which is well underway. Sixty per cent of the IRB’s World Cup revenue comes from broadcast contracts. Of the £150m revenue garnered by the IRB between 2009 and 2012 approximately 50 per cent of the revenues goes to the ten tier-one nations. The remaining 109 member national unions are left to scramble over the other fifty per cent, according to their “strength.” Such is the concept of “parity” of the IRB.

Furthermore, the content of this “development” and “aid” hides the grim reality concealed within it, the neo-colonial and imperialist relationship.

For example, professional coaches who are sent here and there under the pretext of raising the level of the game are mainly drawn from the British Isles and New Zealand. They promote a homogenous Eurocentric approach to the game of overwhelming physical firepower, as in the organization of the scrum, prohibiting the emergence of any national character in the playing style of the smaller nations.

And what happens to the athletes so “developed”?

The Socialist Republic of Cuba has raised a legitimate protest against systematic talent theft from the small island nation and the developing countries in the sports of baseball and athletics. Rugby is no exception. Its raw material is now being found in the southern hemisphere. IRB revenues, for instance, are being invested in the development of rugby academies in Namibia and Samoa where rich professional clubs in Europe and their agents can get a hold of raw talent at a cheap price. The clubs recruit the rugby athletes from the developing countries for a song, a phenomena known as the “brawn drain” (or “soccer slavery” in that sport [5]) and go so far as to inhibit them from playing for their national side in world competition.

Even the New Zealand All Blacks, who defied the international sports boycott of South Africa and then reinvented themselves as the biggest brand in world rugby in exchange for millions from the German Adidas sporting goods monopoly, is using the World Cup “to mount a counter-offensive against the northern hemisphere, the home of the international game and the richest union in the world, the Rugby Football Union in Britain,” says the Guardian, for talent theft.

It is telling Europe to stop poaching its star athletes.

“If we keep having to spend more money retaining our players in New Zealand because their club environment in Europe continues to put the price of players up and we do not get any more money out of the game, then eventually we will go into the kind of recession that Welsh rugby went into for a period of time,” says the NZRU chief executive, Steve Tew.

“Our players continue to be the most sought after. We supply 39 players to this tournament on top of the 30 All Blacks. We are the largest exporter.” [6]

Take Canada, a country rich in resources where sport as a democratic right and a source of health and well-being for all should be promoted and provided with a guarantee. Many Canadian rugby players have to pay their own way or go into debt to compete. Those wishing to play and develop their skills full-time are encouraged to emigrate and find employment with European clubs or scholarships with U.S. NCAA universities. This talent drain like the brain drain is presented as “natural,” even “a great opportunity.” The European-based professionals cannot always afford to leave their clubs to play for Canada; if they can, they have little time to train with the team.

The Harper government, extending the previous Liberal administrations where Social Darwinism has become entrenched in Ottawa, is second to none in pushing the “winning at costs” ethos as the decisive criteria for sport funding and using sport as a pawn to promote corporatism and militarism. There seems to be no shortage of government planes to fly youth to fight in imperialist war or Harper and his children, Defence Minister Peter Mackay, his most famous rugby player, and his leading generals here and there to attend hockey and football games and vacations with the militaristic message of jingoism and chauvinism. No such service is provided our young men and women to compete in national and international sport competitions, develop national and amateur sport, and friendship, respect and solidarity amongst the youth and peoples of all lands.

Funding for too many national teams has been made dependent on transfer payments from the transnational sport federations and the corporate monopolies, that is, according to whether our athletes are “winners” or “losers” in international competition. Rugby is one of the amateur sports classed de facto as a “minor” sport by the Harper government, which has tilted the playing field to sports and athletes it deems “major” and “winners.” Despite its mass base in Canadian society, rugby is denied the funding and support that would enable the development of the baldy-needed venues and facilities, coaching, a national league, and a national team with the possibilities of participating regularly in international tests. As a result, despite the commitment, dedication and talent of its athletes, Canada has not survived the knock-out round since 1991 where it reached the quarter-finals.

Why the sharks should be thrown out

What is the real match, the real contest here? It is a matter of two outlooks, of two concepts, an amateur concept of sports and the concept of sports as entertainment and a market commodity. At this time the debate between amateur and professional cannot be defined in the old way, where the worth of players was determined on the basis of whether or not they were paid by the owners of property and then used to split the unity of amateur sport and render the principles of the famous Olympian oath formal. On the contrary, modern sport will be determined by the flourishing of all nations and peoples of the world and their sports. The chase for the almighty dollar has reduced and demeaned the level of rugby and other “world” sports, not raised it. In so doing it has lowered the level of humanity and blocked the development of a human-centred sports movement. The anti-social, anti-national and neo-liberal drive to subjugate sport to the dictate of the rich and powerful, private monopoly and the big powers, should be actively rejected by athletes, sport administrators and Canadians alike. The logic of the privileged sports elites to justify the orchestrated tilting of the level of the playing field and abandoning the norms of sportsmanship according to the interests of the private corporate sponsor is specious, self-serving and just plain wrong.

The fact is that the most potent spectacle along with the displays of amazing skill, coherent team-work and selfless sportsmanship by the top athletes in the world still remains the possibility of the small nations, rising from a level playing field with extraordinary, inspiring performances against the seemingly powerful. This, along with new democratic relations between the national members of the sport community, replacing the imperialist relations of inequality and domination, will ultimately dictate the breadth and depth of a world game. It says that one day there will be a level field and equitable arrangements for rest and preparation -- a day when Canada, Namibia, Fiji or a Fuimaono-Sapolu and his Samoan team-mates or a Jacques Burger and his Namibian team-mates perhaps do not have to face such a stacked deck. Perhaps it is the working class who gave birth to the sport of rugby in the first place who will have to reclaim sport as part of its to ensure this is brought about. Now that is something worth cheering about!

Tony Seed, a former features writer with the Globe and Mail, is co-author (with Curtis Coward) of The Kids’ Baseball Book, past president of the Nova Scotia Cricket Association, and a certified coach in baseball, cricket and basketball, which he still plays in the Halifax grandmasters’ league. He welcomes comments at

Visit his at http://amateursport.wordpress.com

Endnotes

1        Chris Hewett, “Minnows left ‘bruised’ by overcrowded schedule,” Independent, Saturday, 24 September 2011

http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-union/international/minnows-left-bruised-by-overcrowded-schedule-2359948.html

2        James Lawton, “Schedule still leaves the lesser nations at a disadvantage,” Guardian, 21 September 2011

http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-union/news-comment/james-lawton-schedule-still-leaves-the-lesser-nations-at-a-disadvantage-2358049.html

3 Alex Lowe, “England duo banned over ball switch,” Independent, 29 September 2011

http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-union/international/england-duo-banned-over-ball-switch-2362868.html

4        Chris Hewett, “Minnows' swim for home with heads held high: Developing nations would make even greater strides if broadcasters' influence on fixture list was lessened,” Independent, Thursday, 29 September 2011

http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-union/news-comment/minnows-swim-for-home-with-heads-held-high-2362502.html

5        See “Europe is draining Africa of football talent,” 19 May 2010, “Friendship First, Competition Second” website

http://amateursport.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/europe-is-draining-africa-of-football-talent/

6        Quoted by Paul Rees, “Rugby World Cup 2011: New Zealand tells Europe to stop poaching stars,” Guardian, 27 September 2011

http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2011/sep/27/rugby-world-cup-2011-new-zealand

http://amateursport.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/europe-is-draining-africa-of-football-talent/

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