Last week at the Holiday Inn Woking, the great and the good of the IRB decided to maintain the current Rugby World Cup format of 20 teams.
This was a major turnaround from the thinking before the World Cup when it was all but a done deal to cut the number of teams from 20 to 16. This would have been a terrible move for developing nations. It would also probably have meant that teams such as Japan, the US, Canada, Georgia, Romania and even Samoa, would have to fight to qualify. Luckily the performances of these teams at the World Cup was very strong, and with support from players, fans and the media, it won the day.
There was terrific support from journalists around the world led by the nemesis of New Zealand rugby, Stephen Jones of The Sunday Times. The UK, France and New Zealand also passionately supported it. Nigel Melville, USA Rugby CEO, attended the conference along with John Kirwan representing Japan. I think they both did a terrific job in explaining why a 20 team competition was great for the game. This is a progressive forward thinking move by the IRB, and one that will be supported by rugby lovers throughout the world, particularly those living in developing rugby countries. Led by Argentina and Fiji, the developing nations of Samoa, Tonga, US, Japan, etc., now have 4 years to show the IRB that their investment is a good one. All these nations need to put together their high performance programs, get some new competitions going and raise the level. Then come 2011 in New Zealand, a couple of these sides can beat the Tier One nations and qualify for the knockout stages.
As far as the US is concerned, we are about to embark on a very important stage in our development. At our recent board meeting, we committed to turn a nucleus of elite players professional, and to appoint a world class, high caliber Eagles coach for a 4-year term leading up to the 2011 World Cup. We’ve spent the year bringing on board some top sponsors and we are within spitting distance of generating enough revenue to make our first step into professionalism. And we will do it without, in any way, shortchanging the grassroots game which is the foundation of rugby in the US. The next 100 days will be vital as Nigel and his team attempt to squeeze another million dollars from the budget. By doing that we can make the next key step in bringing the US into top tier world rugby. Exciting times.