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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 September 2007, 06:39 GMT 07:39 UK
Last splash for rugby's minnows?
By Phil Harlow

SIX OF THE BEST - World Cup thrashings over the years
Australia ran up a cricket score against Namibia in 2003
Australia 142-0 Namibia
England 111-13 Uruguay
New Zealand 101-3 Italy
England 101-10 Tonga
New Zealand 145-17 Japan
Scotland 89-0 Ivory Coast

How many points is it possible to score in 80 minutes of rugby union?

We may well find out on 15 September when New Zealand, the odds-on favourites for the World Cup who beat Italy 76-14 on Saturday, face Portugal in Pool C.

That is the same (almost entirely amateur) Portugal who lost 19-16 to London Welsh in a warm-up game in July. Ouch.

"If we were to get 150 or 200 points against us, it doesn't mean a thing," Portugal team manager Rui Alvarez told BBC Sport.

"The players are as confident as they can be. We approach every game the same - if we stick to the game plan and are honest with ourselves then we'll enjoy it.

"If the score is in our favour then great, but if it's not it's still OK. We play for the fun of it and we want to stick to the true spirit of rugby."

The romantic idea of the underdog taking on the favourite is an attractive one for sport fans everywhere, but modern rugby's emphasis on power means the chances of a genuine upset - say, Senegal beating France in the opening match of football's World Cup in 2002 - become smaller by the day.

"The gap between the professional and amateur game is getting wider all the time," Namibia coach Hakkies Husselmann told BBC Sport.

"If you don't keep pace with the top guys then you fall behind, and the longer it goes on the further you fall behind.

You wouldn't put a professional boxer in the ring with an amateur

IRB spokesman

"The bottom line is that you need money - and that is a major concern for us."

While fans may wince at the thought of even a second-string All Blacks cutting loose against Os Lobos (Portuguese for 'the Wolves'), the issue of mismatches at the sport's showpiece event is a serious concern for the International Rugby Board (IRB), the sport's governing body.

606: DEBATE

Portugal v New Zealand jumps off the page as the best example of a mismatch, but every pool will produce horribly one-sided matches that will do little for rugby's credibility.

"Big scores don't do us any favours in terms of PR," IRB spokesman Greg Thomas told BBC Sport.

"You wouldn't put a professional boxer in the ring with an amateur and we have to review the World Cup with that principle in mind."

The review is likely to conclude that the World Cup should be reduced to 16 teams, rather than the 20 of the last two tournaments.

The IRB is also coming round to the idea that a second-tier tournament before the main event would help the lower-ranked countries develop and help sort out the wheat from the chaff before the mainstream World Cup.

Namibia coach Hakkies Husselmann
It's hard when you can't get all of your players here at the same time because of work

Namibia coach Hakkies Husselmann

"If we had a 'B' World Cup with, say, three or four spots up for grabs, we'd have a terrific tournament in its own right, with the best teams reaching the World Cup."

The concept got a definite thumbs-up from both Portugal and Namibia, with both unions seeing it as a means of providing a vital stepping stone on the road to a World Cup.

Professionalism has profoundly altered rugby, with the established - and financially powerful - Test teams able to employ small armies of video analysts, physios, masseurs, specialist coaches and so on. It all helps put fitter, stronger and more skilful players on the pitch.

New Zealand pulled their top players out of part of the Super 14 competition for an intensive conditioning programme, while England enjoyed several weeks of warm-weather training, ironically in Portugal.

In contrast, Namibia's pre-World Cup preparations have had to fit around work schedules with sessions frequently undermined by missing players. In 2003, the Namibia coach arrived in Australia a week after his players.

"Most of my players are amateurs and still work in the day," Husselmann - who played in Namibia's 142-0 thrashing by Australia in 2003 - told BBC Sport.

"We were training three times a day - at 6.00am, midday and 6.00pm, which makes life difficult.

"It's hard when you can't get all of your players out because of work, but we tried to make a special effort for sessions with scrums and line-outs."

Portugal and Namibia may be travelling to France more in hope than expectation, but does that mean they do not deserve a place at the top table?

"Qualifying for the World Cup is the biggest thing that has ever happened to Portuguese rugby - it's a dream come true for us," said Alvarez.

"I absolutely disagree with anybody who says Portugal should not be at the World Cup. The tournament has rules for qualification and we followed them - who has the right to say we shouldn't be there?

"In the long term, this will be great for rugby in Portugal. We have already noticed an increase in the number of young people coming to the clubs and in the attendances at matches and all our matches now are live on TV.

"The real achievement for us was in qualifying for the World Cup. Of course we will give everything, but the only team we have a chance against is Romania."

The prospect of Portugal's lawyers, teachers and students taking on some of the fittest, strongest and most powerful athletes on the planet inevitably raises the unhappy worry of injuries, but Alvarez says his players will not dwell on the disparity in physical conditioning.

"The players will not have that in their minds," he said.

"If you go into a match worried about injuries, you'll get injured."

The IRB has tried to support the lower-ranked countries, providing coaches and arranging warm-up games, but Thomas acknowledged that more was needed to be done in the long term.

"We accept that we need to increase the competitiveness of the game. We want more teams capable of winning the World Cup," he said.

"We've now got a lot of educational and training schemes running all across the world and we have senior unions helping junior unions.

"It all comes down to finance but the World Cup profits have allowed us to roll our sleeves up and really get involved in developing players and teams from the lower tiers."



SEE ALSO
Rugby union positions guide
05 Feb 07 |  Laws & Equipment
Portugal edge last World Cup spot
24 Mar 07 |  Rugby Union
Australia annihilate Namibia
25 Oct 03 |  Rugby World Cup


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