As a glittering tournament approaches its end, it would be a dereliction of this website’s duty not to pass comment on the Rugby World Cup as it approaches its climax this afternoon. After last weekend’s two absorbing, pulsating semi-finals, left standing are the world’s two best teams. It is perhaps curious that world cups in any sport don’t always produce such an outcome, in fact they regularly don’t. That is perhaps more a reflection of the vicissitudes of sport’s unscripted nature, and therefore something to celebrate on one level. But it is also satisfactory when a tournament’s send off features the two sides that have soared highest in the preludes to the decider.
New Zealand have reached such heights in this tournament that comparisons have frequently been invoked with their greatest predecessors to have worn the jersey. Such is the folklore attached to New Zealand rugby, claims that this might be their greatest ever team are as clear an indication as you would ever need of the standards they have displayed during their progress to the final. Lining up against them will be an Australian team with a more extensive armoury than any they have boasted for several decades. In addition to their customary attacking verve is a pack that doesn’t wilt in the scrum as it did for so many years, and which also contains some truly stupendous talents in the back row. This final is a fantastic prospect.
And what sort of match are we hoping for? Australia and New Zealand have been involved in many great ones. In a game with stakes this high, the free scoring classic of cliché is unlikely, but is that even desirable? The most satisfying rugby games to watch are those with an intensity that compels the viewer. They have their own unique narrative that keeps one rapt, caught up in the ebbs and flows, wondering which side will make the decisive breakthrough. A game of rugby is a conflict, but one that is enthusiastically joined by both teams. The game itself is a mutual celebration of the contest – every aspect of the game, even the gritty stuff at close quarters, is enjoyed. The basics of the game are built around structures, and they need to be respected and honed. Yet it is also a game that rewards moments of spontaneity. The teams equipped with resourcefulness and speed of thought and the ability to maintain skill levels when the battle is most fierce will usually prevail. When played at its best, it is a test of mind and body. Admittedly, the meathead tendency in the game can sometimes suggest it is a test of merely the latter.
Rugby provides one of the clearer demonstrations today of one of our seemingly unshakeable conceptions of sportspeople – that they stand apart somewhat. Indeed, rugby players are among the most extreme examples of how elite athletes less closely resemble the wider population. Our relationship with elite sportsmen is in some ways commensurate with our longstanding relationship with scientists and mathematicians. Some believe there is nothing in science that should not be explainable to the man in the street. That is true, even if some areas of science require a lot of time to explain to the layman. But others love the mystique, the idea that we can’t know what they know. It gives scientists a certain power in the public sphere. So it is with people in elite sport today, especially in sports that place a premium on power. They are somehow not of this world. Rugby’s marketing thrives on this.
The conditioning of the modern rugby player is most strikingly palpable in team photographs. Never mind the limbs and the upper bodies – just take a look at their necks! It used to be the case that you could watch the teams standing for the national anthem before the game and accurately guess the position of almost each player. Not so now. I’ve seen wingers in this tournament who wouldn’t have looked out of place as front row forwards back in the 1980s. Plenty people have raised eyebrows as to how that is achieved; by fair means or foul? Still, doping has had less effect on the evolution of the sport than professionalism, which has given players and coaches the unhindered time to prepare physically and technically. It has produced players engaging in contact activity which the human body is arguably ill-suited for, sustaining impacts that are akin to car crashes. “Collision focus” is the term I recently enjoyed seeing deployed. “One of these days they’ll ban this sport”, my cousin once told me while we were in the stands watching Wasps v Northampton, perhaps seeing the implications of where the game was heading.
But rugby is a game in a constant state of evolution, and perhaps we are seeing a new trend emerging, as the average weights of players could be starting to level off. As we have seen in this World Cup, the emphasis on speed and more constant mobility could, in the long run, make extra bulk a handicap and bring a pause to the arms race. The game will remain the province of big men, but if it is demonstrated that many other attributes are important for success, that will prevent the game from ever becoming a freak show, even if its elite practitioners are different from you and me. Today’s finalists exemplify the multifarious qualities that make rugby union a frequently thrilling spectacle. It is to be hoped, and there are solid grounds for expectation, that they produce a contest of skill, passion and athletic intensity that will draw us into its vortex.