The Wallabies travel to Cardiff on Saturday to play Wales in a crucial World Cup group match. But if you look for Cardiff on a map of France – because we know France is host nation for the Cup, right? – you’ll be looking for a very long time.
This Cardiff is, of course, the capital of Wales, a country where girls are called Myfanwy and Gwynneth and the boys Huw and Rhys, where people come from towns called Llandudno, Llangollen, Aberystwyth and Machynlleth, where the language has lots of consonants and not many vowels – ysgrifenyddes, for example, means a female personal assistant – where lots of leeks are eaten and the men love singing.
This is where the Australian rugby team mysteriously finds itself – while the rest of the World Cup rages some distance to the south-east, over the English Channel, across the length and breadth of France.
Why is this the case, you might logically ask. Well, the reason is simple, and also unsettling. When five years ago France and England were vying with each other to host the tournament, the French – in a desperate late bid for votes – promised games to Scotland and Wales. This international rugby version of porkbarreling got them over the line. The Australian Rugby Union apparently raised no objections, despite the concerns of Wallabies manager Phil Thomson.
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One of those games traded to Wales is this Saturday’s fixture against the Wallabies. Which means a game the Australians might reasonably have expected to win on neutral turf – in Toulouse or Lyon, say – will now be played in front of hordes of passionate, some unkind souls might say feral, Welshies at Millennium Stadium. It’s therefore become a decidedly more tricky proposition. All because of grubby rugby politics, deal-making and vote-buying.
The new ARU boss, John O’Neill, who happened to be working for the Football Federation of Australia at the time the decision was made, is hopping mad about the arrangement, saying it made a mockery of the notion of competitive neutrality in the Cup, and was blatantly unfair to the Wallabies.
“Why the hell are we playing in Cardiff on Saturday?” O’Neill asked this week. It’s a question we couldn’t have put better ourselves.