Should Tier One countries really 'babysit' the minnows?
OPINION: Is it the job of Tier One nations to develop and support Tier Two countries into genuine threats to their own competitiveness?
They all would quietly decline to answer that whilst probably thinking no, it isn’t. Their interests lie in their own jurisdiction where they set out to grow and further the game for the betterment of their national interests.
That is because international rugby is not a professional league that aims to level out parity between teams with oversight and intervention.
There are no salary caps to level the playing field, or measures to distribute players around fairly. This is about largely free and unbridled competition to find the best in the world.
Without intervention natural laws of power take over and we get the concentration of power with the few. This is nothing new in sport, the English premier league has the big clubs and then everyone else. In society at large, the distribution of wealth across the world is fiercely uneven between the top and the bottom.
The question at Rugby World Cups always gets raised, how can Tier Two countries be more competitive? Well, the only answer is to add more tier two or tier three level countries into the mix.
‘Closing the gap’ with tier one is an unattainable and near-impossible task when the tier one countries are advancing forward all the time with self-sustaining resources, financial and non-financial.
Based on one-sided score lines the ‘more must be done’ rhetoric is trotted out, but what must be done exactly?
More fixtures is a common answer but is an unproven solution.
Take Italy for example, which receives plenty of Tier One fixtures as a member of the Six Nations.
They host top Southern Hemisphere teams in the November window.
The number in their ‘W’ column barely moves, while the losses pile up.
Despite being categorised as Tier One, Italy performs as well, or in this case as poorly, as any Tier Two nation would.
Georgia’s pool at this World Cup included Australia, Fiji, Portugal, and Wales.
They haven’t been able to win a game and this schedule is friendlier than what they would face in the Six Nations.
Replacing Italy with Georgia would not make the Six Nations more competitive.
Georgia might get better with Six Nations competition but you won’t see it on the scoreboard.
They would go well to win a few games over a decade.
Conversely, Fiji beat Australia in pool play.
They did so with far fewer Tier Pne fixtures over the last four years.
It wasn’t playing more or less internationals that proved a difference.
Simply put, more fixtures against tier one alone won’t do anything for tier two nations in terms of improving scorelines and competitiveness. It will only highlight the natural gap between the strong and the weak rugby nations.
A lot is being done already, a number of the Tier Two teams receive significant funding from World Rugby to grow and further the game.
The success of those initiatives can’t be measured solely on results against powerhouse rugby nations.
In a way, the nations that need help and funding from an external source are destined to remain at the bottom.
More help and more funding only anchor them to where they are with inflexibility and dependence, because it is a sign that progress in building a self-sustaining system is not being made.
Nothing can ever be force-fed to success if you aspire to reach the upper echelons of the market.
A poor business can’t just succeed because it has unlimited financial backing.
At some point, it has to turn a profit on its own.
This doesn’t mean that World Rugby should turn the taps off, but that ultimately the game has to become self-sustaining in whatever territory it aspires to be in.
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Not every emerging nation is in the same place either and it is folly to put Fiji in the same category as Romania.
The results of Japan and Fiji over the last two World Cups justify discussion of inclusion into an expanded Rugby Championship.
Fiji’s playing base is spread between France and Super Rugby Pacific. The players are exposed to a high level of competition and they produce natural athletes. They are well supported at home. Fiji hosting the Rugby Championship teams would be a worthy blockbuster.
If big broadcasting money rolls into Fiji, they have to be equipped to manage it and a fair share has to make it to the players.
Japan hasn’t been able to maintain the on-field success it achieved at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but they bring a large audience, capable infrastructure, and a domestic professional league to underpin their continued growth.
The Brave Blossoms will be well supported in Japan and sell out stadiums regardless of how competitive they are. The cultural diversity adds a unique flavour that the Rugby Championship could benefit from.
There have been some standout showings at this World Cup from others. Uruguay have been competitive, Portugal too.
But the international game isn’t supposed to be interfered with to manufacture close results. It is by design about natural selection.
When there are no regulations in place to even the playing field, power will always accumulate with the few. That is human nature, it is present everywhere and you would have to heavily regulate and upend the international game to fight against it.
You would have to hamstring the top nations from moving forward, and further dilute national representation by allowing more player movement. Is that really desired?
Even so, at the top, we have more teams that can win it than ever before. Progress has been made to close the gap between tier ones.
Ireland and France both went out in the quarter-finals last time and have powered through to become the top two men’s sides in the world. This is backed by tangible results at junior and senior levels.
New Zealand and South Africa who have six World Cups between them have both lost pool games for the first time ever.
Wales and England aren’t favoured but are traditional rugby nations that are tailored to knockout rugby. They are both undefeated in Pools C and D.
For 16 years the Rugby World Cup has been won by two countries. If there is a new winner in 2023, how is that not progress as a more competitive game?