Wed, Nov 28, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Rugby union chiefs gather to plan for the sport's future

AFP , LONDON

Rugby union chiefs are set to announce on Friday whether the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand will be a smaller event than it is at present, a move that could have huge implications for the sport's international future.

A special meeting of the council of the International Rugby Board (IRB) in Woking, south of London, will opt either to retain the 20-team format used at the recent World Cup in France or cut it down to 16 nations.

A spokesman for the global governing body said on Monday the council's decision would be made public on Friday.

Before this year's event, where South Africa beat England in last month's final, concerns had been expressed that 20 teams were too many because of the number of mismatches that had taken place in the previous five editions.

However, one of the outstanding features of the 2007 World Cup was the way in which unheralded sides like Georgia came close to beating established nations such as Ireland with other "minnows" adding greatly to the spectacle of the tournament as a whole.

IRB chairman Syd Millar said last month in Paris that the issue of World Cup numbers was still up for discussion.

"New Zealand tendered for the Rugby World Cup on the basis of 20 teams but we have to review after each World Cup and we will do that," he said.

Many smaller nations say it was vital the World Cup stays as it is as this gives them a reason to improve and makes the event a truly global competition.

Yesterday, a three-day forum began in Woking where issues such as an integrated global season, the frequency of World Cups and the international future of countries such as Argentina will be discussed.

There have been repeated criticisms of European nations such as England and France going on, what is for them, off-season tours of the southern hemisphere with under-strength sides in a bid to defuse "club versus country" rows.

And such has been the huge growth in importance attached by all the game's major powers to winning the World Cup, which currently takes place every four years, that during the run-up to the sixth edition in France some coaches appeared to treat Tests as mere "warm-up" fixtures in a sport where international fixtures are still highly-prized by fans and sponsors alike.

The Australian Rugby Union have proposed adding a new event to the calendar, a World Series, which would be contested by the sport's top 10 nations in the two fallow years of the current four-year cycle -- the years without a World Cup or a tour by the British and Irish Lions.

But there remains the question of what to do with Argentina.

The Pumas finished third at the World Cup despite not playing in a major annual international event such as the southern hemisphere's Tri-Nations or Europe's Six Nations, a situation widely regard as embarrassing.

"I cannot see that rugby's conscience can put up any longer with excluding Argentina," Francis Baron, chief executive of England's Rugby Football Union told Britain's Sunday Times.

Most of Argentina's leading players are with European clubs and so would like to play in the Six Nations. But officials say there is no room for them.

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