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Challenging the Core in Rugby Union

Posted on: September 12, 2019

The ninth Rugby World Cup (RWC) kicks off in Japan later this month. It is an important event as it represents the first time that the tournament takes place outside of the eight foundation nations of international rugby. Japan 2019, one year ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, has the potential to be one of the most exciting World Cup competitions to date.

Many commentators suggest that this may be the most open RWC to date. Only one of the four home nations will be guided by a coach from the northern hemisphere and a number of players will have moved between the core nations to represent a different country from that which they were born in. The tournament will be unrecognisable compared to the first RWC in 1987 and it is hoped that the gap between the core and those nations on the periphery is narrowed and that the tournament is a great success.

On the pitch, the World Cup has been dominated by southern hemisphere nations, with seven of the eight tournaments to date being won by one of the big three teams from that region. The sole victory for a northern hemisphere nation was England’s 2003 success in Australia. If we are to see a first-time winner this year then this will most likely be from within the core. Wales have recently moved to number one in the world rankings for the first time and have several experienced world-class players in their squad. Ireland have failed to deliver at an RWC for a number of years but will go into the tournament at number one in the world rankings, having been near the top for some years now. Scotland may be considered less of a challenger at present, but France have reached the final of an RWC on three occasions and will host the tournament in 2023. 

It is somewhat unlikely that there will be surprises to rank alongside Japan’s victory against South Africa in the group stages of the last World Cup, but there have been other unexpected developments  at previous RWCs. The 2015 match against South Africa raised the profile of the sport in Japan to unprecedented levels and saw a marked increase in television viewing figures for other Japan matches in the tournament.

The significance of Japan 2019 to the landscape of international rugby provided the impetus for our book on Rugby in Global Perspective: Playing on the Periphery. Co-edited with Nicholas Wise, Reader at Liverpool John Moores University, it brings together leading scholars from a range of disciplines to critically reflect upon the position of rugby in a variety of different nations across the world.

Topics covered in the book include a consideration of the position of rugby in Japan and the recent development of professional rugby union in the United States of America. These two nations are central to most wider discussions of globalisation but have always been very much on the periphery in international rugby terms. There is a long history of rugby in Japan and, with both the RWC and Olympic Games (including rugby sevens) taking place in the country, this is clearly an important window of opportunity. In the USA, rugby sits in the shadows behind another code of football but, as Lindsey Gaston and Lara Killick show, there has been a recent push to develop professional rugby there.

Rugby World Cup Japan 2019

Nicholas and I have been interested in the relationship between the core and periphery in rugby union for a number of years. In this collection, we continue with our work on Argentina, and look at how things have changed in the country since we first looked at the topic at the start of the decade.  In playing terms, Argentina has been the nation that has challenged the core, having secured a third-place finish at the 2007 RWC when they became the only nation from outside of the core to reach the  semi-final of a World Cup competition. They repeated this in 2015, securing a fourth-place finish when all four of the semi-finalists were from the southern hemisphere.

Our book also includes a focus on nations that will not feature in the World Cup but are seeing the sport develop significantly. Mike Rayner’s chapter on Cyprus and Danyel Reiche and Axel Maugendre’s work on Lebanon both offer fascinating insights into the sport in places that have not been looked at before. In many nations where rugby is a minority sport, the game would not survive without the many sacrifices made by individuals to keep the game being played.

The development of women’s rugby is also a central topic covered in this book. The chapter by Yoko Kanemasu and Gyozo Molnar looks at the case of the Fijian women’s team and highlights many of the challenges that these players face. It was the Fijian men’s team who secured the first Olympic medal of any kind for the country when they took gold in the rugby sevens in 2016. The development of rugby sevens as an Olympic sport has been very important for the sport in a global perspective and is a key driver facilitating rugby development in various nations across the world. As Gareth Hall and Arianne Reis show in their chapter on rugby and sport for development in Brazil, the leveraging of Rio 2016 was used by some programmes to legitimise the use of rugby in sport for development programmes.

As Nicholas Wise shows in an overview of rugby in several African nations, World Rugby have made some significant strides forward to develop the sport in places at different stages in their rugby development. In the concluding chapter of the collection, I highlight how rugby has the potential to make a significant difference to communities. This is examined in relation to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Here I also reflect on some of the key issues facing the sport as concerns over player welfare remain.

With the sport’s governing body seeking to expand influence and participation globally, we look forward to seeing how Japan 2019 helps broaden the game amongst the periphery.

Professor John Harris is Associate Dean Research in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University. He is the author of Rugby Union and Globalization and his recent publications with Routledge includes Sport, Events, Tourism and Regeneration and Events, Places and Societies (both co-edited with N. Wise).

John Harris, author of Rugby in Global Perspective