Thursday, March 29, 2007

Should the IRB implement an international Ranfurly-type Shield?

April 19, 2006

Short answer: YES.

Late last year saw the IRB awarding their hosting rights for the 2011 Rugby World Cup to New Zealand. The international reaction was a lot of overheated sour grapes and hysteria, especially in the U.K. press.

I have already exhausted all I need to say about that specific matter in previous commentaries here and on the IRB online forums, but one of my prime concerns was the so-called "growing the game globally" card played every time somebody whinged about the decision. I am all for growing the game globally, but I never saw anything concrete in Japan's bid proposal that led me (or the voters) to believe they were doing anything more than paying lip service and crossing their fingers.

Suffice it to say, we should look at all perspectives to grow the game globally, and I believe there are solutions that are worthy of examining.

One I'd like to share is an idea that's been turning over in my head for nearly 15 years. I’m sure a few people will have perfectly valid reasons why such a proposal won’t fly, but I’ll share it with you regardless in the form of a question:

Should the IRB implement an international Ranfurly (-type) Shield?

The Ranfurly Shield, known colloquially in New Zealand as the “Log of Wood,” is one of the great traditions in that nations' domestic rugby competition.

Ranfurly Shield

Wikipedia explains: “The Ranfurly Shield is perhaps the most prestigious trophy in New Zealand's domestic rugby union competition. First played for in 1904, the Ranfurly Shield is based on a challenge system, rather than a league or knockout competition as with most football trophies. The holding union must defend the Shield in challenge matches, and if a challenger defeats them, they become the new holder of the Shield.” [Emphasis mine.]

Part of the feverish attraction to the Shield is the system of determining the winner. As far as I know, it could be unique in team sports -- the title changes hands the way a championship belt does in boxing. Every challenge is a sudden-death defence of the Shield, and the greatness of the challenge process is that any team, no matter how lowly, has a chance to win.

Right now the biggest prize in world rugby is the William Webb Ellis Trophy awarded to winners of the Rugby World Cup, contested in a tournament held every four years.

The tournament is an enormous cash-cow and publicity stunt that promotes the Union brand and (theoretically) grows the game globally. But the plain fact of the matter is that now and in the forseeable future only five nations -- rugby union's superpowers -- rate a realistic chance of ever winning the World Cup. Those nations are New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France. The first four are the only teams to win the Cup, and outside those five no other team has even made a final. There's nothing from the results of the past decade that indicate this pattern is going to change any time soon.

Some pundits have suggested a RWC "Plate Competition" for the 2nd-tier nations, much like those awarded in Sevens competitions. But that has always smacked of a humiliating 2nd-class status upon teams that are already "minnows," and I've never been a proponent of the idea.

Between World Cups, the biggest events in world rugby are the big annual tournaments, such as the Six Nations and Tri-Nations. There are the occasional test series like last years' All Blacks-British Lions 3-test series, and many nations have their own annual trophy adjuncts, such as the Calcutta Cup (England vs. Scotland), Bledisloe Cup (NZ vs. Australia), Mandela Plate (South Africa vs. Australia) and many more, which are all well & good for stuffing trophy cabinets but also restrictive as far as grabbing the interest of rugby nations standing outside the "Old Boys Club."

There are other prizes on offer -- every year the IRB awards a Team of the Year, and every year teams battle and desire to sit atop the Official IRB World Rankings. But these plums don't excite the public. The former award is decided by a panel of judges, and the latter is calculated by a computer.

This is where I believe an international "challenge" shield, like the one they have in New Zealand, would generate global interest in Rugby Union.

Looking at my boxing analogy again: It is highly unlikely that boxers like Oliver McCall or Buster Douglas could have ever walked through a round-robin or series tournament featuring Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis or Evander Holyfield and walked away with the belt. But on their day, put them in a one-match "winner take all" match-up, they can catch lightning in a bottle and anything can happen.

Let's face it: right now Scotland doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of winning the Rugby World Cup. But as this past years' Six Nations tournament showed us, on their day they can knock off some of the world's premier teams. And if Scotland could win a challenge shield, the excitement it could generate at home matches could be huge. You could attract big crowds to Murrayfield for tests against the likes of Fiji or Tonga or Argentina -- and any of those teams could win the shield for themselves and stir the same excitement at home. It would take a few years to get the tradition rolling, but I think it could work.

That's the beauty of the shield -- you don't have to wait every four years to get excited, and every team has a chance to upset and win the thing. Instead of the Big Five, you could actually see 2nd-tier nations winning meaningful silverware at an elite level.

On a related note, it used to be in the old days (i.e. pre-RWC, pre-professionalism) that Test matches meant something. They still do of course, but global fans have become so fixated on the RWC that the quadrennial tournament trumps everything else and relegates other "test matches" to the equivalent of soccer's international "friendlies." The allure of the RWC is so tremendous that we now see unions tinkering with team selections, starting players that aren't the best in their nation, and using the intervening years between World Cups to target their squads at the RWC. For me, this has lessened the value of actual test matches and series, and that is a shame.

I believe the IRB can help promote the game globally by offering a major prize in unrestricted open competition throughout the calendar year instead of every four years, and that the chances of a little guy winning the prize are much higher than those same nations’ chances of ever holding the William Webb Ellis trophy over their head. It would engage the public more often than every four years too, especially if a smaller nation claims it. And if a big power does pull together a long winning streak, that too will only intensify interest.

Schedules or extra games needn't be altered prior to the season, it won't make any additional tests on the calendar. The challenges will be made for games that are already on the schedule, the same way the system works in the NPC, and those shield challenge tests would be extra-special for players and spectators alike, because it gives all the challengers a realistic chance of glory.

Good idea or bad idea...? Discuss...

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that there is already a "virtual" shield compiled by members of the usenet group called the RSRU Shield.

It has been going since the 1995 RWC Final, which tells you 1) what a great idea it is; and 2) how outta the loop I am.

(I actually used to visit that usenet forum many years ago, but all the best posters abandoned the place for good reason -- far too many useless trolls make it a waste of time & energy. Wading into r.s.r.u. is like walking up to the London Psychiatric Hospital and screaming "COMMIT ME!!")

The shield idea has a lot of merit, and it's a nice eye-opener to see fans get behind it. It would be even better if the IRB got their act together and made it official. The current RSRU Shield holders are the New Zealand All Blacks.

It's interesting to note that Samoa, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have all held that virtual shield in the past decade, but these include home-and-away tests. I'd prefer that a "real" shield be contested on the holder's home paddock, like the Ranfurly Shield.

(Hat tip to Tim at the Silver Fern.)


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