Since professionalism became a reality during the nineties, we’ve seen the gap between the so called tier one and tier two nations become almost as wide as Jamie Roberts’ chin, and the World Cup usually throws this fact into sharp perspective every four years.
However, in the opening few weeks of this edition, a few signs have indicated that the status quo is on the cusp of changing, and many think it is time that the IRB acted as more of a catalyst to perhaps narrow that gap.
Just over four years ago fans witnessed one of the biggest shocks in the history of the tournament as Argentina marched into a semifinal match, and although they lost, the Pumas made everyone at the top table of rugby sit up and take notice, and in the process are now included in the new Quad Nations next year. Although it hasn’t been on the same level, and there have not been any upsets yet, there are small signs that the tide is turning.
To the untrained eye, the score lines may not indicate that, but break down a few of the games and you start to find factors that repeat themselves.
It’s probably a fair assessment to say that Georgia played very well indeed in the first half against England, and gave the Scots a real scare, as did Romania. Elsewhere, Tonga may have had a poor first half against the All Blacks, but were a close match for them in the second in terms of scoring. And Samoa proved they are still more than in touching distance with the top teams in the world when they went down to Wales.
So, with this in mind, why don’t some of the top nations actually take on these teams and live to the mantra of “World in Union.” Easy. Money. It isn’t viable for the big nations to host these teams during something like the Autumn Internationals because they don’t draw crowds, which means pockets aren’t being lined.
This means either a solution is found for the time between World Cup or this gap remains and, for all intents and purposes, rugby remains strictly a sport where the established survive and the developing continue to develop. For all the talk of the IRB helping development through the sevens circuit and its inclusion in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games – which will, without a doubt, help in the long run – it does need to step in and do more.
So, what can be done and where do the IRB step in?
In his blog for the BBC website, John Beattie suggested expanding the Six Nations, or even having a promotion/relegation system. As much is this is a great idea on paper (and I hate admitting that about John Beatties blogs), does anyone truly believe that national leagues would be happy with that? The Rugby Players’ Association would have kittens if they found out clubs would be missing star players for more time.
Maybe the solution is something that was very briefly discussed by the sport’s governing body a few years ago, which is pairing first tier and second tier nations in between World Cups.
The best way to explain this is to use an example. Let’s take Georgia and pair them with England between now and the 2015 World Cup. Each year the two sides would play a match outside of the club season – maybe as a warm-up to a Southern Hemisphere tour – and maybe even a few games against club sides, or even the Aviva Premiership champions (fingers crossed Harlequins!). So, before England head south to take on New Zealand and cause headlines for all the wrong reasons (both on and off the pitch) they take on the Georgians. Additionally, the top players who are not released by their clubs for tournaments like the European Nations Cup or Pacific Nations Cup could then spend some time with the team, gradually building experience and familiarity, something which has been arguably missing in the last twenty minutes of many of the big games in the World Cup for the lower-ranked teams.
Obviously the IRB would need to help convince several stuck-in-the-mud Board members (if England have any left by the end of the year) that it would be commercially viable perhaps even good for PR. In that case, why not link it to a charity such as Help for Heroes? Lots of money raised for charity and the IRB and Unions look good by helping develop rugby. Maybe that last idea needs developing, but at least it’s an idea.
Yes, teams are getting annoyed at the lack of time between games, but that isn’t likely to change in the short term. Long term plans need to be put in place so that the game can indeed grow, and not stagnate around the usual suspects. I could write all evening about why second tier teams are falling behind and what they need to do in their own countries to improve, but change needs to start at the top.