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As a life-long rugby fan, I am delighted to introduce the inaugural Financial Times special report on the Rugby World Cup. Rugby is growing fast in popularity and commercial revenues, making the tournament arguably the third most important in sport after the Olympics and the Fifa World Cup.
This year’s World Cup takes place in England, where the game was invented by William Webb Ellis, a young man who caught a football (allowed) and ran with it (disallowed) during a match at Rugby School. The incident reputedly took place in 1823 and the game, like Webb Ellis that day, has never looked back.
Modern rugby has long been dominated by New Zealand teams. The All Blacks present a hulking spectacle, even if their pre-match haka has lost some of its intimidation factor. A stringy fly-half at school and university in the 1960s and ‘70s, I marvelled at All Black powerhouses such as Colin “Pinetree” Meads, Kel Tremain and Alex Wyllie, and was thankful I would never grace the same pitch.
After rugby turned professional in the mid-1990s, the search for speed and power intensified. South Sea Islanders such as the Samoans and Tongans are still in particularly high demand. Players with Samoan links regularly appear in All Black teams, while former star Jonah Lomu is of Tongan descent. They also appear in English, French and Welsh teams and, while purists may debate what constitutes a national rugby team, questions about lineage and domicile apply equally to cricket and other sports. We live in an era of globalisation.
In this magazine, our team of specialists examine in depth the strengths of the leading teams from the northern and southern hemispheres, as well as the sport’s heritage in countries such as South Africa (winners in 1995 and 2007) and Wales, where the mining towns produced legends such as “Merv the Swerve” Davies, Phil Bennett (my teenage idol) and Gareth Edwards, the pocket battleship scrum-half and perennial breaker of English hearts.
No special report on World Cup rugby would be complete without Will Carling, one of the finest postwar captains of England. He played in two World Cups, notably in 1991 when the hosts England reached the final, only to lose narrowly to Australia at Twickenham. A bone-crunching tackler and flying inside centre, Carling and coaches such as Geoff Cooke and Jack Rowell presided over the professionalisation of the England team, preparing the way for a winning performance in 2003 under captain Martin Johnson and coach Clive Woodward.
Today, players are accompanied by doctors, psychologists, physiologists and nutrition experts. A player can lose two litres of water in sweat during an international match, but performance is scrutinised off the field as much as on. The game has moved from the tracksuit to the laptop — welcome to the age of the supercoach and the likes of Warren Gatland (Ireland, Wales and the British Lions) and Joe Schmidt, the Kiwi who coached Leinster to triumph in Europe and now is in charge of Ireland.
Yet no amount of big data or game management can prepare players for the World Cup. This is not a military campaign like the European Six Nations championship or the Rugby Championship, which includes Argentina alongside Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The knockout stage is more like a 19th-century duel, a spectacle where even the world’s best may fall victim to self-doubt.
So, fellow fans, let’s look forward to the games to come — and if any World Cup player needs me for this modern-day version of swords at dawn, I am more than happy to carry their (XXXL) blazer.