Playing schedule for rugby union’s showpiece is unveiled in London.
Two leading Australian rugby chiefs insisted the schedule for the 2015 World Cup was the fairest yet to all nations, saying officials could “no longer tolerate” the lopsided schedules that had blighted recent editions.
Commercial imperatives have seen major countries such as England and New Zealand often playing at weekends, with a week between pool matches, while ‘second-tier’ countries have been forced into a much more congested fixture programme.
In 2003, Italy’s quarter-final hopes were all but scuppered by a punishing schedule of four matches in 14 days while at the most recent World Cup, in New Zealand two years ago, Samoa’s hopes of advancing to the knockout stages were also hampered by their fixture schedule.
After Samoa lost 17-10 to a Wales side that had the benefit of three days’ extra rest between matches, the Islanders outspoken centre Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu said his team were being treated like slaves.
“The message is that 2011 was the last time we could tolerate tier two nations having to face an unfair schedule,” former Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O’Neill, now a director of Rugby World Cup Ltd, said after the match schedule for the 2015 edition was unveiled in London.
England 2015 will see defending champions New Zealand and fellow southern hemisphere giants Australia and South Africa in midweek action where they will be joined by established European nations France, Scotland and Wales.
Brett Gosper, the Australian chief executive of the International Rugby Board (IRB), said: “The rest days are equal for tier one teams as tier two teams.
“There is a very balanced rest day programme. There have been issues in the past where we have seen performances fall off at the back end of the pool stages for tier-two teams because they don’t have the depth and haven’t had the rest days.”
O’Neill added: “There are 20 teams in this competition and the only team with home-ground advantage is the hosts (England). After that, every other team has to be on a level playing field in terms of facilities, training and rest etc.
“Australia has a three-day break, for example. That’s fine. You’ve got to live with it — that’s why you bring 30 players.
“You can’t ignore the commercial realities, but what we have here is a proper mix of commercial outcomes and fairness to all teams. This is a template which should endure for all future tournaments.”
Meanwhile Gosper insisted the IRB would do all it could to prevent clubs failing to release players for World Cup action or, as happened two years ago, offering them financial inducements to absent themselves from international duty.
“The IRB will not accept that practice in not allowing players to play for their countries, for two reasons,” Gosper said.
“It undermines the competitiveness of the game which we are investing vast sums of money in and every player should be able to live his dreams and not be compromised by pressure coming from his club as to whether he can play for his country.
“We are going to police it very hard. It is like tax dodging. We can’t perfectly ensure that there is no practice around the edges but we have to close as many loopholes to make it difficult and stigmatise the practice and make it unacceptable.”