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Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 7°C
ïΩìcèÅ The United States have conceded 78 points in their two games, scoring just 16.
# mind the gap
World Cup has become damaged by too many lopsided clashes
Time for World Rugby to properly address the gulf in class between Tier 1 and Tier 2 teams.

IN THREE OF this weekend’s five Rugby World Cup pool games, damage limitation will be the name of the game.

Mismatches are inevitable at a World Cup, but some of the clashes thrown up over the next few days will do little to excite the neutral supporter.

Australia v Uruguay, New Zealand v Namibia, France v Tonga.

Yikes.

So far there have been 13 games in Japan where a Tier 1 nation has taken on Tier 2 opposition. The count stands at 12-1, with Japan’s defeat of Ireland, one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history, the only instance where the Tier 1 team failed to win.

A scan of the stats of those 12 games outside of Japan v Ireland makes for grim reading.

The smallest winning margin for the Tier 1 team has been 16 points, Argentina’s 28-12 defeat of Tonga. The biggest margin has been New Zealand’s 63-0 demolition of Canada earlier this week, a game in which the All Blacks left a handful more tries behind them.

From those same 12 matches, the Tier 2 team stayed within 20 points only twice. They lost by more than 30 points seven times, and on eight occasions they scored less than 10 points.

The most points scored by a Tier 2 team against a Tier 1 team has been 22 (Italy 47 Namibia 22). Argentina are the only team to have scored less than 30 points against Tier 2 opposition (Argentina 28 Tonga 12) – again, this is not including the Japan v Ireland game.

Canada (v New Zealand), Russia (v Ireland) and Samoa (v Scotland) have all been held scoreless.

japan-rugby-wcup-scotland-samoa Aaron Favila The Samoa team pray following their 34-0 defeat to Scotland. Aaron Favila

The average winning margin across those 12 games has been 34 points. The total score stands at 507-98.

You get the picture.

While nobody is expecting the Tier 2 – or ‘developing nation’ – teams to push their more illustrious opponents to the brink each time, the tournament has far too many games which are simply not competitive from the outset.

On rugby’s biggest stage, full-time professional teams are playing extremely one-sided games against sides that contain amateur players.

Ireland scored 35 points without reply against Russia, yet it was a performance that saw Joe Schmidt’s team heavily criticised due to a large number of errors and some poor execution. The general consensus was that Ireland were ‘not good enough.’ After a 35-0 World Cup win.

Italy, tanked 49-3 by fellow Tier 1 side South Africa on Friday, scored 47 points against Namibia, and beat Canada 48-7. And this is an Italian team that routinely struggle for results in the Six Nations.

Some of these issues are down to simple areas like fitness, an unavoidable barrier between full-time and part-time professional teams. The United States gave France some real problems before falling away in the final quarter. Fiji were beating Australia until the Wallabies turned it up a notch and scored four second half tries.

The challenge facing World Rugby is how to successfully bring up the standard of the developing nations. It is simply not enough to let them test themselves against the big Tier 1 sides every four years, and hope that somehow the gap will close.

Whatever about New Zealand racking up big scores against Tier 2 sides, teams like Samoa and Fiji should be better placed to give most Tier 1 opponents a good, competitive game.

Canada, Tonga, Samoa and Japan have been at every World Cup since 1995. At what point do we stop referring to these teams as ‘developing nations’?

World Rugby needs to do more.

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Remember too that in many of these games, the Tier 1 side is not fielding their strongest team.

Joe Schmidt changed his entire tight five for the Russia game. England beat Tonga 35-3, and then recorded a comfortable 45-7 defeat of the United States just four days later after making 10 changes to their starting XV. Is that growing the game?

japan-rugby-wcup-russia-samoa Jae Hong Russia have a points difference of -80 after three games in Japan. Jae Hong

Looking at how to best solve these mismatches is akin to starting the GAA Championship structures debate: everyone has an opinion.

In July, World Rugby scrapped plans for a Nations Championship which intended to see the top 12 teams from both hemispheres play each other once annually. This would have opened the door for teams like Japan and Fiji to play 11 games against the world’s best teams every year, but the plan was binned due a lack of support from some unions.

Some would like to see the introduction of a secondary qualifying World Cup for the Tier 2 teams, with only the top Tier 2 sides then potentially entering the main event – this would also solve the separate problem of the ridiculously condensed pool schedules facing some teams in Japan.

Gary Gold, the United States head coach, said he would like to see the number of Tier 1 v Tier 2 games increase via the form of annual tours, most likely in early summer between the Six Nations and Rugby Championship. 

“The tier two nations, whether that’s Georgia or Japan or ourselves or Fiji or Samoa and Tonga, do need to be playing more Tier 1 teams on a more regular basis,” Gold told The Independent last month.

“Getting the scraps off the table once every two or three years isn’t going to do a lot to improve that.”

We are seeing the evidence of that in Japan.

Between this World Cup and the last, Tonga played 21 Tests. Only four of those games were against Tier 1 opposition. In Japan they have been tasked with playing Tier 1 opposition three times across a 14-day period. 

Namibia have been pitted alongside Italy, South Africa and New Zealand in Japan. You have to go all the way back to the 2015 World Cup for their last encounter with a Tier 1 nation, a 64-19 loss to Argentina.

Where is the sense in that?

The current schedule also does nothing to help those countries who are showing signs of genuine improvement, such as Japan, whose reward for an excellent tournament could end up being nothing more than a return to the wilderness, playing the occasional Test against second-string Tier 1 teams. 

Their defeat of Ireland was one of the moments of the World Cup, but the overall aim needs to be closing the gulf in class between the Tier 1 and Tier 2 teams in general.

That would be a real cause for celebration.

Murray Kinsella joins Sean Farrell and Gavan Casey from Japan to give his blunt assessment of Ireland’s performance against Russia


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