If the Rugby World Cup is a global sporting tinderbox, then it took the Tongan and Argentinian fans to really set it alight. Although both teams lost their first round matches, the best images from the start of the tournament arguably belong to their fans.
Thirteen years ago, when the FIFA World Cup was held in France, I sat behind an Argentinian fan dressed in blue and white as an aardvark, a type of African anteater. It was the tournament’s opening game at the Stade de France and the teams playing that day were Brazil and Scotland. The memory of the Argentinian aardvark has haunted me for years. What did an aardvark have to do with Argentinian soccer?
But seeing the Argentinian fans on television dressed as pumas to support their rugby team against England, I had a realisation. What if Aardvark Man hadn’t been an aardvark? Some quick research shows that he had probably been Giant Anteater Man because – wait for it – giant anteaters are a native of South America. It was as if I had cracked the Da Vinci Code! And here’s the evidence.
Somehow though, the thought of the Argentinian football team being called the Anteaters doesn’t seem feasible. But Los Pumas is a handsome name for a rugby team and the sight of the Puma People really brought it home that yes, the Rugby World Cup had finally arrived and sections of the world are watching avidly, and many overseas fans have actually come to support their teams.
In truth, rugby struggles to be called a world game. But the tournament’s 20 teams illustrate that there is enough ‘world’ in the Rugby World Cup to justify the global billing, although, only one of the code’s five traditional super powers has any realistic chance of winning rugby’s biggest showcase. The same could be said of cricket and, obviously, much less so of baseball despite its premier tournament being called the World Series.
I thought it would be an interesting exercise to use Twitter as a gauge for global expressions of interest in the Rugby World Cup. The tool I use for these kinds of rule of thumb musings is Trendsmap.
Beginning with New Zealand, the #rwc2011, #rwc and #rugby hashtags are, unsurprisingly, the most popular on our Twitter landscape and among the Pacific Island nations to our north. But that changes as we move out across the Tasman.
Hovering over Australia, the #rwc2011 and #rugby hashtags were evident especially in the eastern side of the country but, at the time of this survey, overshadowed by Aussie battler Samantha (#stosur) Stosur’s historic US Open tennis triumph in New York.
The rugby family of hashtags is also blossoming in Southern Africa, the United Kingdom and Ireland. It is also visible in European centres like Rome, Marseilles, Paris, as well as in Madrid and Barcelona (where rugby must have a following, even if there is no Spanish team at RWC2011). Rugby tweets are also emanating from Cluj Napoca in Romania and the Russian capital, Moscow.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, rugby also rocks in South America, and not just in Argentina, with tweets coming out of Caracas, Bogota, Guayaquil, Lima, Santiago and even Mexico City. There is rugby country outside Uruguay and Argentina, even if the game walks in the long shadow of the round ball. There are also small clouds of rugby tweets floating out of North America, from San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, New Orleans, Orlando (Florida) and Round Rock (Texas).
Less predictably, there are visible hashtag clouds over Honolulu, Nairobi, Accra and the Bangladesh capital Dhaka. Meanwhile, Dubai, with its Anglo expat population, also features like an oasis among the Gulf nations.
Where is rugby invisible? The answer is the rest of the world. Surprisingly, Japan and Hong Kong are not on the tweet map, as you might expect, given Japan’s Rugby World Cup heritage and Hong Kong’s large expat UK, Aussie and Kiwi communities. But it hardly comes as a surprise that rugby tweets don’t feature in Asia, home to a third of the world’s population (except as mentioned, in Dhaka! Go figure!). Africa, apart from South Africa, Namibia, Ghana and Kenya, is also by and large absent, as is South America’s big Portuguese speaking power, Brazil.
On the big Twitter stage and a slow Twitter day, Rugby World Cup tweets are clamouring to be heard among trending topics like the new film, Warrior, and the death of New Zealand actor, Andy Whitfield and subjects like #themostcommonlies.
But the Rugby World Cup still has five weeks to run. There is still plenty of time and drama ahead for rugby fans to leave fleeting Twitter imprints that say the Rugby World Cup was here. Just don’t expect them to echo feverishly throughout the rest of the Twitter world, except in pockets of rugby country.
I often think of the Argentinian football fan in the blue and white giant anteater suit. It must have been hot under all that faux fur but at least it was a cold day. Funny to think that back in 1998, there was no way to tweet about it.