Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tier Two is the Future - November Review

Georgia defeated Canada and Samoa but lost against the USA in November
The IRB sanctioned International Window has closed for November but there are nonetheless more test matches to be played. This coming weekend will feature Wales v Australia and the Barbarians v Fiji which will bring an end to the month that has seen well over thirty matches played across Europe, North America, South America, Africa and Asia. 

The geographical spread of where the matches have been played and who exactly has been involved is a strong indication of the evolving state of the global game. The Tier One rugby nations each played no fewer than three test matches while the Tier Two was given a better set of matches than ever before as every tier Two union was involved in at least two test matches. 

After having faced the Maori All Blacks Canada faced Georgia, Romania and Portugal in Europe while the USA took on Georgia and Russia. They were ideal tours for both teams and gave them both genuine chances of winning all their matches. The USA did so but the higher ranked Canadians suffered narrow losses against both Georgia and Romania. 

In defeating Georgia the USA Eagles created history and the extent of the accomplishment was made clear the following week when Samoa lost in the Georgian capital. It was the first ever time that Samoa had played in Georgia and only the second ever match between the nations. The previous match had been in Rugby World Cup 2003 when Samoa ran out 46-9 winners in Perth. Georgia is one of the most improved teams in the world over he past decade while Samoa in 2013 is a stronger side and a higher ranked one than the team from 2003. 

Like Georgia Romania also had a set of matches to remember as not only did the Oaks complete a win over Canada but they also did so against Tonga who failed to win a match. Tonga was outclassed by both France and Wales in its other fixtures while neighboring Samoa was defeated by Ireland and the French Barbarians  which meant that Fiji was the only Pacific Island nation to win a test  on tour. Fiji defeated Portugal and Romania but was knocked-over by Italy in a match that angered Fijian supporters and players due to the refereeing

Fiji finished the month with an improved IRB World Ranking while Tonga appears to be set to drop out of the Top 15 before the World Cup and Samoa could struggle to remain in the Top 10. Tonga is presently ranked 12th ahead of Italy, Japan and Canada who round-off the Top 15. Of them Japan joined the Pacific Islanders in facing Tier One opposition as Japan faced both New Zealand and Scotland and proved to be more competitive against the Scots than Samoa was against Ireland. 

Japans two other test matches were against European opposition and the world´s leading Asian team and the host nation of Rugby World Cup 2019 easily defeated both Russia and Spain. With Portugal also failing to compete strongly against visiting Tier Two opposition it provided further reasoning for the suggestion that Georgia and Romania are notably better than the other ENC sides at this point in time and that they are very likely to be the teams who qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015 as Europe 1 and 2. 

Georgia and Romania are both official members of the Tier Two community which otherwise includes Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and the USA. The eight nations are confirming their status as being superior to all other nations ranked lower including Russia which has had generous November schedules over the past two years considering it has been unable to host any of the matches itself. Since qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2011 Russia´s results have slipped placing it closer to Portugal, Uruguay and Namibia than to the USA, Romania and Tonga.

Georgia, on the other hand, continues to appear to be the next country to possibly break into the top tier. Unlike Samoa, Georgia´s players, are entirely born and raised within the nation itself. Samoa´s extensive use of New Zealanders has seen it achieve highly comemorable results on the field but there is reason for concern due to roughly half of the players being Kiwis. Unlike Georgia, it could be said to not be sustainable. 

Samoa now faces a period similar to that of Argentina from 2004-2007 when it pushed for inclusion in the Six Nations or Tri Nations and was only included in 2012. Argentina had defeated every European nation during the period between Rugby World Cups 2003 and 2007 but was still finding it hard to be treated as equals. Samoa´s loss in Tbilisi is therefore a result that will complicate Samoa´s push to pehaps enter the Rugby Championship. 

Georgia is advantaged by being European but with there being no promotion / relegation between the Six Nations and the ENC it is, like Argentina previously, left out in the cold. Perhaps he most notable aspect of Samoa´s visit to Tbilisi was that it was the first time a team ranked in the Top 10 had played a test match in Georgia. Indeed, despite geography, no Six Nations team has ever played in the country. 

Herein lies the gap between the top two tiers. The real difference comes in terms of policy as Tier Two nations have increasingly strong relations. Canada and the USA both play against European nations in Europe and at home. Argentina is a nation that tries hard to build bridges and in 2013 Argentina did what European nations fail to do - play a test against Georgia. The match in San Juan was ideal for both teams at the time and it is mandatory that Georgia is given future chances closer to home. 

The Americas remains the last region to be allocated a Rugby World Cup but this should change in 2023 with Argentina getting IRB approval to host a World Cup based in large part on the venues that were renovated for the 2011 Copa América. The message it would send to other Tier One nations is that you need to pull your weight and not just schedule the most profitable fixtures year after year. It would also, crucially, confirm the stated IRB policy that it does not want World Cups to be co-hosted or sub-hosted. Ireland´s possible 2023 bid does not have enough stadiums, meaning it is likely that Wales could, yet again, be included.

The two crucial points are in need to urgent attention from the IRB with Tier Two unions in great need of hosting and playing away against Tier One unions on a more regular basis. Indeed Argentina gets nothing from facing Brazil, Chile and Uruguay but does so on an annual basis. Surely Georgia can host not only Canada and Samoa again but also Italy and Scotland?

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