This has been the World Cup for the underdog. Or has it? When Karne Hesketh crossed for Japan to score the winning try against South Africa back on day two of England 2015 many in the rugby world believed the established order may be under threat. Earlier that day Georgia upset Tonga who had quarter final ambitions, Canada came very close to defeating Italy and Namibia’s amateurs earned their country’s first point in Exeter, 12 years after their record 142-0 defeat to Australia. These are the sub-plots that mercifully make the host’s unprecedented early exit not the only talking point. But a scroll through the results makes largely for similar readings, with tier one countries racking up very comfortable wins against tier two opponents. True, the absence of huge cricket scores that were seen in previous World Cups suggests that the gap is gradually closing.
It is clear that to avoid a ‘Group of Death’ scenario the pool draws will inevitably be corrected for next time, meaning the tier one nations will be spread more evenly throughout the groups. Despite Japan’s heroics, with three wins out of four, they still were pipped to qualification by Scotland by virtue of more bonus points gathered, including the one at Kingsholm when they put Japan to the sword 45-10. This game came only four days after that memorable afternoon in Brighton; what chance did the Cherry Blossoms have of repeating such a performance with that kind of turnaround. In fact Japan became the first team to win three pool matches and not qualify for the quarter finals. Talk about odds stacked against you.
Aside from Pool B the race for the quarter final spots were entirely predictable. We all knew one of the ‘big three’ was going to be eliminated from Pool A, maybe we just didn’t quite believe it would be the hosts. How the public’s interest will be sustained then when the quarter finals onwards will be played in London and Cardiff only and with no England team is debatable. Lucky that the astronomically priced tickets were sold well in advance.
I have looked at this issue of tier two development in previous articles, and performances from teams like Georgia make clear the case for expanding competitions like the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship. For the sport as a whole to advance these changes need to be made and made now. The rewards won’t come immediately; if Georgia were included in the Six Nations they would likely struggle for a few years. But they are very keen to be included because ten years or so down the line they will be able to compete regularly against the likes of England or France. Argentina can testify this following their inclusion in the Rugby Championship.
My coverage of Tonga for Last Word on Sports introduced me to the Pacific Nations Cup, a tournament that wouldn’t need to exist if tier one nations played a more diverse range of opponents. The ludicrous fact that New Zealand manage to travel to England every year for the autumn internationals yet do not make a mere five hour flight to their near neighbours in the Pacific Islands.
There is a whole associated issue about a perceived adverse treatment of tier two nations, that came to a head last week following the five-week ban handed to Samoa’s Alesana Tuilagi for essentially running into a tackler with the ball. However for me I believe a concerted effort by World Rugby and tier one nations to better integrate smaller nations into international schedules, supported by moves such as a Japanese Super Rugby franchise will help address this imbalance. Sadly, our only way of measuring any progress will be after Japan 2019, when another four years may have been wasted.