All's well that ends well right? The way the Rugby World Cup finished, with the All Blacks in rampant form, providing copious amounts of entertainment as they played rugby how Barcelona play/ed football - the right way. This ensured that the last thought or memory many fans would have had was a positive one as they were treated to rugby at its finest.
The memory of a slick All Blacks team at their very best will linger until the next World Cup. This came after results like Japan's upset victory over South Africa or the impressive campaigns of Georgia, for example, which showcased the rise of the 'minnows'. Unlike the Cricket World Cup at the start of the year which was partnered with constant discussions around the place of the minnow at a World Cup, rugby embraced the minnows and we were treated to improved showings from the likes of Japan, Georgia, Canada, Namibia, Romania and the big bad United States of America.
We might not have seen a fairy-tale run from one of them, but we certainly saw improvement and even the most one-eyed All Blacks fan would like to see rugby expand its reach. Improvement from the minnows is only a positive as rugby tries to get a greater share of the world's sporting market.
In that regard this World Cup was good and this could be why many people have labelled it the 'greatest' World Cup ever. Japan and Argentina showed that they are deserving of their inclusion in Super Rugby and Argentina have quickly shown how being in the Rugby Championship has been hugely beneficial to their national program. The next step, should Japan get their Super Rugby team off the ground and show signs that they will be able to stick around for a few years, is for Japan to also be included in the Rugby Championship. This would set international rugby up with two big annual competitions, culminating in the World Cup every four years.
The recent signing of Ayumu Goromaru by the Queensland Reds is also interesting here. A greater international flavour in Super Rugby teams (limited to one or two per team) will only make Super Rugby more fun and expose players, should they be good enough, to a higher level of professional rugby. They can then take this back to their own country and raise the bar in their backyard.
I find it hard to get all in on this 'greatest World Cup' conversation however. The bottom of the rugby world is improving and the All Blacks were once again exceptionally good, yet the middle pack was reasonably mediocre. South Africa and Australia still look to be the greatest threat to the All Blacks' dynasty and while they both provided stiff opposition in this World Cup, we will probably see the very best of them at the next World Cup. They are involved in Super Rugby and enjoy consistent rugby against the All Blacks so there's never going to be any dramas here - it will just take some more time to bridge the gap between them and the All Blacks.
The fortunes of the major European teams and Samoa, Tonga and Fiji however don't fill me with joy. The All Blacks would probably have beaten any team put in front of them at this World Cup, but the fact that the Six Nations teams were unable to fire any shots is a serious problem. Sure, luck went against Wales and Scotland, but they say you make your own luck and the All Blacks had all the luck in the world. I wonder why.
Perhaps the greatest issue with international rugby, or rugby around the world, is professional rugby in Europe. Unfortunately, this involves the Pacific Islands and they have become intertwined in the kerfuffle going on in the North. I have always loved how Samoans, Tongans and Fijians are able to play rugby in Europe and earn more money in doing so than they would have if they had stayed in New Zealand or Australia or their own country. The opportunity to play rugby and provide for your (big) family can't be looked at negatively.
There is no cohesion here however. Whereas the All Blacks have everything, from ITM Cup to Super Rugby aligned with the All Blacks, the ownership of European clubs doesn't allow this in Europe. Imagine if France had absolutely everything lined up to give their national team the best chance to win. Imagine if England had figured out a way to include Steffon Armitage in their squad instead of shunning him because he plays in France. European rugby is a mess and while the All Blacks are able to absorb player losses thanks to the never-ending 'who's next' line, Europe can't quite figure out the balance between club and country.
With the majority of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji's squads playing in Europe, I was pretty damn positive about how they might go at this World Cup. Instead, we saw the opposite and since the struggles of Europe's teams are partly due to the influx of foreign players in European rugby, we've got an extremely confusing situation on our hands. If Europe limits the number of foreign players, which in theory will force them to develop better local players, then Pacific Island players won't have the opportunity to further themselves as people and rugby players which in theory should benefit their national team. Even though it didn't this time around. Super Rugby could benefit from this with more players taking less money because they have to, although Super Rugby isn't exactly struggling for talent.
If Europe's leagues and national teams don't address this problem then it's hard to see them getting better.
This Rugby World Cup reinforced opinions about the strength of rugby in our backyard, which is great for kiwis but personally I would rather see the All Blacks dominate a rugby world in which there are five or six teams who can consistently threaten that dominance. If anything, this World Cup served to remind us all that rugby in Europe at all levels is in a pickle and it's extremely complex. This is the biggest issue that rugby, as a game, needs to look at and find some sort of compromise.
While the minnows at this Rugby World Cup showed improvement, they will still struggle to play consistently against the bigger and better rugby nations. Will we see the All Blacks go to Georgia, Romania or Canada? Probably not, hence this will be a slow process and during the time it will take for these nations to find new levels of performance, we need the foundations of rugby to hold strong. In all honesty New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are doing their bit and it is now up to Europe to put their best foot forward as rugby looks to spread its wings.