When Georgia's rugby team plays England in Perth on Oct. 12, thousands will be watching on big screens in downtown Tbilisi. In the former Soviet republic, rugby is now second only to football in popularity, especially since the national team beat arch rivals Russia to qualify for the Rugby World Cup. But most local teams don't have stadiums to play in, the players pay their own way to matches, and "if they swap shirts at the end of a game," says sports journalist Paata Tortadze, "they may find themselves without kit the next week."
In places like Georgia, rugby is still largely an amateur sport. But in its traditional bastions of England, France, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa it has, since turning professional in 1995, become a multi-billion-dollar industry. So the fifth World Cup, which kicks off in Sydney on Oct. 10 ,will be a big tent that welcomes rugby's developed and developing nations alike and that applies to the fans as much as the players. Just how big that tent is may come as a surprise to those who don't know a fly-half from a loose head prop. All sorts of figures are jostling for attention: the projected 2 million ticket sales; the 4 billion people in 205 countries expected to watch on TV; the $28 to $35 million the Australian Rugby Union hopes to make from the event; and huge winning bonuses hundreds of thousands of dollars each that some players can look forward to.
For the fans, the 2003 World Cup will be the longest party ever. The Olympics are crammed into a fortnight; soccer's pinnacle event takes a month. The Rugby World Cup unfolds over six weeks as 20 nations contest 48 Tests in 10 cities. The Nov. 22 final will be held at Telstra Stadium, which the world will recognize as the centerpiece of Sydney's 2000 Olympics. And how appropriate. Australia at those Games showed how a small player in world affairs could, through determination and planning, change the way others saw it. Now rugby long pigeonholed as an élitist sport played and supported by the alumni of exclusive schools looks set to claim conclusively a prize it only recently resolved to pursue: mass appeal. "The world's about to see how big rugby's become," says Nick Farr-Jones, captain of Australia's 1991 World Cup-winning Wallabies. "It's crossed boundaries. It's become an inclusive game."
In no small way, the World Cup has fueled that transformation. First held in 1987, it's grown bigger at each installment. How much bigger? At the '87 Cup, France and Australia played a semifinal that is widely regarded as among the best matches ever played, with France winning with a majestic try at the death. The venue for that match was the modest Concord Oval in suburban Sydney, and a mere 17,000 people were there to see it. Five times that number will pay to see the equivalent match at this Cup, not least because they recognize that the standard of rugby has soared. "So many countries are strong this time," says Reuben Thorne, captain of New Zealand's mighty All Blacks team. "Whoever wins will be a bloody great side."
The All Blacks have two fine wingers in their Cup squad, but they'd still love to have a healthy Jonah Lomu, who as the most devastating ball-runner the game had seen ignited the '95 Cup in South Africa and put rugby in a spotlight that hasn't dimmed. Since the game's birth in 1823, countless players have combined imposing size and strength with a sprinter's speed, but none in the prodigious quantities that Lomu, age 19 in 1995, brought to bear. Lomu's apogee occurred in the semifinal against England. It's been suggested that as he was performing the pregame Maori war-dance, the haka, his opposite that day, Rory Underwood in a moment of folly enraged Lomu by winking at him. It's history that Lomu went on to score four tries and Underwood lost skin and pride in various futile attempts to stop him. A kidney ailment will keep Lomu out of the Cup, but the All Blacks have a new generation of Goliaths in the current squad, men like Tana Umaga and Brad Thorn.