The International Rugby Board (IRB) has been accused of being more concerned with rules and regulations than actually growing the game in the wake of Cyprus’s exclusion from the European qualifiers for the 2015 World Cup. By KEN BORLAND.
In the last four-and-a-half years, Cyprus have stormed through the lower echelons of European rugby, winning 19 consecutive Tests – more than any other team in the history of the game – on their way to the top of Nations Cup Division 2C (effectively the sixth division).
But their ultimate dream – that of playing in the World Cup qualifiers – has been denied them due to the fact that the tiny, football-mad island does not have enough rugby teams.
Quite how the country – in the midst of a financial crisis much like Greece’s – is meant to develop more rugby teams when the IRB are closing down their opportunities is difficult to fathom.
Cyprus’s problem is that they have less than the four teams (the IRB don’t count the British Army sides based on the island, which is ridiculous) required for associate membership of the IRB. And a country has to be an associate member for at least two years before they can become full members. Only full members are allowed to participate in World Cup qualifiers.
“The IRB certainly don’t want to stand in the way of Cyprus, we will assist them and try to encourage rugby there. We have 117 members so we don’t want to exclude anyone. But the rules are to ensure quality control and they are the criteria agreed by the members,” IRB spokesman James Fitzgerald told the Daily Maverick.
“Cyprus can’t be included in World Cup qualifiers until they’ve been associates for two years and then they have to apply for full member status.
“They don’t fulfil the criteria in terms of the number of teams – for national 15s rugby you need at least four teams. They are moving towards that, but that competition won’t start until September. To be a full member, you need 10 teams.”
Critics of the IRB decision have pointed out that both Greece and the United Arab Emirates were given full membership due to “extenuating circumstances”.
“Greece fulfil the core criteria but have had financial problems, therefore they were given consideration as a special case,” Fitzgerald explained, while the UAE were fast-tracked due to the collapse of the previous Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union and the strategic importance of the region.
These rules don’t take into account the fact that Cyprus rugby is in a stronger state than in countries like Slovenia and Luxembourg, both of whom will take part in World Cup qualifying. Because Cyprus are four levels below serious potential European qualifiers like Georgia, Russia, Romania and Portugal, there is little chance of them keeping anyone out of the showpiece event, but they should at least be allowed to chance their arm at the highest level of the game.
The qualifiers start in four days’ time on 4 May 4 so even if the IRB relent in the face of public pressure and give Cyprus membership, it is probably too late for them to take part in the 2015 tournament.
The IRB will be meeting this week and South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins, who is the vice-chairman of the IRB, believes the game’s governing body can make exceptions to their rules.
“There’s a crucial meeting and I’m certain it will be up for discussion. Cyprus form a part of Fira, the European governing body, and they do have a representative in the council, Octavian Morariu, a Romanian.
“Countries can be exempt from the regulations if there are extenuating circumstances. Every law can be bent, I like to think, if there’s a very good case for it,” Hoskins told the Daily Maverick.
“We’ve made exceptions before in South Africa, for instance with clubs that didn’t have five teams but their rugby was so good that we let them play in the premier leagues. Some clubs have so few players, but because of the quality of those players they should not be penalised.
“If countries make a good case, a compelling argument, then rugby’s attitude is pragmatic,” Hoskins said.
“The Cyprus Rugby Federation regrets that the IRB has taken this decision which we believe will have severe and detrimental effects on Cyprus rugby, especially due to the economic and continuous crisis that has affected the nation recently,” Lawrence Vasiliades, the president of the CRF, said.
Hopefully a plan can be made because rugby will certainly be the loser if one of the great fairy tales of the game’s history is allowed to wither away, denied the chance to compete on the highest stage. Cyprus in the World Cup qualifiers would be a wonderful advertisement for the IRB’s efforts to develop the sport all over the world. DM
Photo: Cyprus national rugby team (Cyprus rugby federation)
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine