Rugby: World Cup minnows promised fairer deal in 2015

Rugby World Cup organisers have promised a fairer deal for the smaller countries at the 2015 tournament in England following the widespread condemnation of the unbalanced playing schedule last year in New Zealand.

However, second and third-tier teams expecting to find a completely level playing field are likely to be frustrated again as the International Rugby Board (IRB) will still seek to maximise TV income by arranging fixtures to suit broadcasters.

Mike Miller, MD of Rugby World Cup Ltd and CEO of the IRB said the match schedule of the 2011 tournament had been an improvement on previous editions but accepted it had still been tough on many smaller countries.

While the major playing nations generally had a week between matches, the likes of Samoa, Canada, Namibia, Georgia and the United States often had only three or four days, while Japan were forced to play three times in 11 days.

"The schedule influences the performance of a team - more travel and less rest makes it difficult," Miller told Reuters in an interview at RWC 2014's new Twickenham headquarters.

"We know it's an issue and we have more tools in our armoury to make it fairer this time.

"But that has to be balanced with what works for all the teams, the fans, the broadcasters and our commercial partners because we need to use to World Cup to maximise exposure and revenue to help grow the game around the world.

"Fiji, Samoa and Tonga were more competitive in the last two World Cups because of the money we are investing in them.

"If you have a schedule that maybe means it's a bit easier for the smaller teams to play during the World Cup you may have less money to invest in them during the four-year cycle and do more damage to them. So it's just a question of trying to get the balance right.

"Also there is the local culture. In New Zealand they don't play midweek matches, we had some but not big matches during the pool phase.

"In England there is a culture of big midweek matches, particularly with European football, so we will be able to construct a schedule to include big matches in midweek and so there will be more equality.

Miller is passionate about spreading the game beyond its traditional heartlands and though the World Cup is the driver in terms of exposure and income he says the inclusion of rugby sevens in the 2016 Olympics - almost a century after the 15-man game last appeared - is having a massive impact.

"Getting into the Olympics was huge for rugby in many countries around the world," he said. In Russia (who made their World debut last year) only Olympic sports can be taught at schools. It used to be an after-school thing but now rugby is on the curriculum in Moscow and will be throughout the country soon.

"That makes a huge difference. It means you start getting the good athletes younger, yes they might see sevens in the Olympics and be playing it but they will also be playing XVs.

"Their sevens team has come on leaps and bounds and 20 years from now if things keep going the way they are Russia will be a major force in rugby.

"It's the same in the United States, where the US Olympic Committee, for the first time, is paying for 24 rugby athletes to train full time. Australia were quick off the mark too and got millions of dollars of government funding into their programme."

The 2019 World Cup will be held in Japan, the first time it has gone outside of any of the major tier one countries, and Miller says that too will really lift the sport in a region, where it is already on the rise.

"In China they have a National Games and for the first time every province has to provide a rugby team to take part in them," he said.

"They are really keen, they want to use rugby in the military there too because they like its values so there is huge potential there.

"But we are also still keen to develop the game in its established countries. After the 2007 World Cup there was a 34 percent increase in registered players in France.

"There was a huge surge of interest in England after they won in 2003 but they didn't have the capacity to deal with that then so we need to make sure we plan in advance to deal with it. Now they know its going to come and they can prepare for it.

It will also help develop the game in places like Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

"It really is a fantastic shop window for our sport."


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