Ah the 5th November: the day us Brits commemorate the burning of a catholic dissenter with the lighting of fireworks (that’s the basic gist, right?). Safe to say the November series of internationals has yet to spark into life following the routine demolition job by New Zealand over Japan and the rather subdued and sloppy affair at Twickenham between England and Australia. That should all change this weekend though with Wales v South Africa in Cardiff and France v New Zealand. Another match that has the potential to explode is the battle between seventh and eighth in the world: Ireland v Samoa in Dublin. You may be surprised to hear it’s the South Sea Islanders who occupy the higher position in the IRB world rankings. Given that, you might also be surprised to learn that Saturday’s game at the Aviva is Samoa’s only fixture against a top-ten nation this month. In fact, of all the major international teams (based on rankings) the Samoans have the lowest amount of ‘Tier 1’ fixtures this autumn. This week, the blog asks, ‘is that fair’?
International rugby, like many things, has always been a case of the haves and have-nots. Traditionally the highest level of ‘union’ has been played by only a handful of countries. Of course this created a problem when rugby turned professional as there were, realistically, only two or three sides that could ever win a Rugby World Cup. At the same time, there were several countries that regularly took part in rugby’s premier competition but never had a hope of progressing to the latter stages of the tournament. To combat this, the International Rugby Board created the ‘tier’ system. The sports main players (i.e. those that play in the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship) form Tier 1. ‘Increased competition’ is the name of the game for Tier 1 countries with a view to all ten nations being ‘capable of reaching the RWC final’ in 2015. The majority of countries sit in Tier 3: this group consists of developing rugby nations who are still a long way off from being both professional and competitive at major international tournaments. Sat in-between these two classifications is Tier 2: a cluster of eight ‘emerging’ rugby unions recognised as the most likely to secure professional and competitive growth. The eight are formed of the Pacific Island teams (Samoa, Tonga and Fiji), the North Americans (USA and Canada), Romania, Georgia and Japan. In creating the tier system, the IRB correctly identified it was not in the best interests of Tier 2 development to include these teams in the annual Tier 1 tournaments. It was feared that they would suffer devastating defeat after devastating defeat. Instead it was decided that Tier 2 nations would compete against each other with the focus being on increased competition within the tier (as was the case with Tier 1). It was (and still is) hoped that these countries will eventually step up to the top table of international rugby.
Since its implementation the IRB strategy has had some success: Fiji reached the quarter-finals in RWC2007, Tonga bagged a famous victory against the French at RWC2011, and Samoa currently sit in their (aforementioned) highest ever world ranking position. On balance, it’s probably fair to say that the Tier 2 countries are collectively stronger than they were, say, ten years ago. However, there have been claims in recent years that these nations have been unfairly treated by the sport’s governing body. For example, in RWC2011 Tier 1 nations were given at least six days off between matches whereas Tier 2 nations were often given only three. This blatantly biased practice has thankfully been resolved for the next edition of the Rugby World Cup but it’s a telling sign of how the IRB still views Tier 2 participation in major tournaments.
Having had a look at the fixture list for Tier 2 nations this autumn (see table left) I can’t help but feel the IRB have successfully marginalised the emerging nations yet again. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe shoe-horning these nations into the established northern and southern hemisphere tournaments is the answer but the November Internationals become even more important because of that. These sides must be allowed to compete against the top nations outside of the RWC format if they are to test themselves, review progress and, ultimately, develop into the top teams the rugby world wishes them to be. As such, the fact that only six of the twenty-one fixtures are against a Tier 1 side (marked in bold in the table) is nothing short of a disgrace. If I were a Samoan fan I would be pretty miffed that the autumn menu consists of games against Ireland, Georgia and (the invitational side) French Barbarians. Samoa, as seen last year and in previous World Cups, are a match for any European team. They, more than any other Tier 2 nation, must surely be given the opportunity to show this. After all, they are the most likely candidate to achieve Tier 1 status first. The whole thing seems counter-productive to development.
The Tier 1 nations must shoulder some of the blame here of course. These established sides will, understandably, seek out the more testing (and more commercially lucrative) fixtures first. But they also have a duty to promote the global game and, as such, should be playing Tier 2 nations. Most of the Six Nations sides are hosting such games this month (England are not) but then most are only playing three games each over the five weekends of November. With opportunities for Tier 2 nations few and far between outside of the Rugby World Cup, their Tier 1 counterparts and the IRB must find that balance between commercial gain, elite development and progressing the sport on a global level. Above all, they must make the most of the November Test window. At present, I fear they’re not.
The blog returns next week after, what we hope will be, an explosive weekend of international rugby.