The Roar
The Roar


The rise of the Tier 2 rugby nations

The Pumas and Springboks will fight it out for bronze at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. (AFP PHOTO/GORDON HARNOLS)
Roar Guru
15th September, 2014
3264 Reads

It’s safe to say that Tier 1 nations, those who compete in the Six Nations and Tri Nations (before Argentina joined the Rugby Championship), have dominated rugby union. Whether in Test matches, the Rugby World Cup or the IRB Rankings, it is made up of Tier 1 countries.

There have been a few moments within the last twenty-five years where smaller nations at the time managed to punch above their weight – Samoa in the 1991 and 1999 World Cups and when Fiji shocked the Welsh in Nantes in 2007.

Argentina during the 2007 World Cup was the most notable example. They managed to confound expectations by finishing in third place, defeating three Tier 1 nations: Ireland, Scotland and France on two occasions.

But during the last few years the Tier 2 nations have started making waves whether it be improved performances in the Rugby World Cup, defeating Tier 1 nations in Test matches during the international window or exposing their players to the top rugby leagues in the world.

Such is the case it has compelled the IRB to give Tier 2 nations chances to play Tier 1 nations on a regular basis.

One Tier 2 nation who certainly made excellent strides in recent years is Japan. The Brave Blossoms under head coach Eddie Jones have come a long way, as the Australian has developed his team so to prepare the hosting of the 2019 World Cup.

“In terms of where we want to go in rugby, hosting the World Cup in 2019 is massive, so to qualify for the next World Cup [in England next year] will start momentum towards that,” Jones spoke to the IRB back in March.

“Japan’s been to every World Cup and we haven’t won a game in 20 years, so we want to qualify and then win games.”


Though Japan have notched just one victory in a World Cup (against Zimbabwe in 1991) and two draws (against Canada in 2007 and 2011) the Brave Blossoms have made great strides. In the June internationals last year the Japanese managed to defeat Wales 28-13 in Osaka.

Granted, the opposition may have played without 15 first team players due to British and Irish Lions commitments, but Japan played with intent and threatened continuously during the game. Their victory in Osaka that tied the two game series 1-1 was a huge boon to Eddie Jones and Japanese rugby.

The following summer during June 2014, the Brave Blossoms achieved another impressive victory by defeating a near full strength Italy side 26-23 in Tokyo. Their victory allowed the Japanese to reach an important milestone by breaking into the top 10 of the IRB world rankings.

It just highlighted how far Japan has come under Eddie Jones and how they are on the up.

Japan do have emerging talent coming up especially in their backline, such as 21-year-old winger Yoshikazu Fujita and 22-year-old Kenki Fukoka – the latter really impressed observers against Scotland late last year.

Moreover, over the last few years there has been a gradual increase in Japanese players competing in Super Rugby, whether in New Zealand or Australia. Hooker Shota Horie has become a popular figure in Melbourne, as he regularly plays for the Rebels along with centre Male Sa’u, while in New Zealand scrum half Fumiaki Tanaka brings experience to the Highlanders down in Dunedin.

Highlighting the growth of Japanese rugby the Reds have acquired flanker Hendrik Tui from Japan for the 2015 Super Rugby season.


However, despite these forward steps in Japanese rugby, what would culminate it is undoubtedly a Super Rugby franchise in Japan. To have a team in Super Rugby is vital, as in conjunction to the World Cup, can inspire the future.

Moreover, having a Japanese franchise make their debut in February 2016 will allow more Japanese players to compete in such a quality competition and give themselves three years to improve until Japan host the World Cup in 2019. Whether SANZAR awards the 16th franchise to Japan or Singapore is another matter.

While Japan rises in the Far East, within North America the USA and Canada are showing improvements as well. Although both countries weren’t able to knock off a Tier 1 team like Japan did, they have competed. For the Americans they battled hard against the Irish last year narrowly losing 15-12 in front of 20,000 fans.

As for the Canadians, they were so close to defeating Scotland in June was it not for a harsh red card against Jebb Sinclair. As a result the Scots rallied to defeat Canada 19-17 and deny the Maple Leafs an historic victory.

But what the Americans and Canadians lack in defeating Tier 1 nations they make up in having several players plying their trade for some of the northern hemisphere’s biggest clubs. With Canada they have a mixture of backs and forwards playing in Europe.

Veteran lock Jamie Cudmore plays for Clermont in the Top 14 while prop Jason Marshall represents newly promoted La Rochelle. Two of Canada’s best players, captain Tyler Ardron and winger Jeff Hassler play for Welsh club the Opsreys in the Pro 12. Meanwhile, fellow Canadian winger D.T.H van der Merwe plays in the Pro 12 for Edinburgh.

The Americans have the fortitude of having several players in the Premiership ranging from forwards Samu Manoa, Phil Thiel, Eric Fry, 19-year-old prop Titi Lamositele, Hayden Smith and Cam Dolan.


Moreover, Scott LaValla plays in France for Stade Francais in the Top 14. In addition, team USA’s backs also play in the Premiership, with Leicester Tigers’ winger Blaine Scully and veteran Saracens’ full back Chris Wyles.

USA have made steady improvements over the years and rugby is slowing garnering interests at home such is the impressive crowds on show when USA play at home. What will certainly be a shot in the arm for American rugby is a lucrative Test match against the world champions New Zealand in Chicago.

Their clash against the All Blacks in November has already sold out at Soldier Field, which holds 80,000 seats, which will no doubt be a financial boost to USA Rugby.

With more players in the Top 14 and English Premiership, it means the quality of players within Canada and USA is growing showing the development of the sport in North America.

Meanwhile, outside the Tier 1 nations in Europe it is Georgia who have led the baton from the Tier 2 nations within the European continent. The Lelos made their mark in the 2007 World Cup where they nearly shocked Ireland when they took the lead after Giorgis Shkinin intercepted Peter Stringer’s wayward looped pass to score under the posts.

However, although Ireland fought back to defeat Georgia 14-10, it was a performance that opened people’s eyes regarding the Georgians.

Those within France knew about their prowess, as many of their forwards play in the Top 14, resulting in several props, locks and backrow forwards getting game time in one of the world’s best leagues.


It adds experience within the Georgian pack even though none of Georgia’s backs play either in the top northern hemisphere leagues – the English Premiership, France’s Top 14 or the Celtic/Italian Pro 12.

In addition, Georgia can produce a shock of their own, as they showed in the autumn internationals late last year where they defeated Samoa 16-15 thanks to a 82nd minute penalty. It was a surprising victory for Samoa had brought their best players including utility back Tusi Pisi, scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i, prop James Johnston and flanker Ofisa Treviranus.

Along with Romania and the Russians Europe do have Tier 2 nations that can compete if given the chance.

Among the Pacific Islanders they are steadily improving as well. The Samoans have gone from strength to strength in recent years defeating the Welsh in late 2012, beating Scotland and Italy in summer 2013.

Samoa will be eying the World Cup, targeting a quarter-final place, as they feel they can defeat likely rivals Scotland, seeing South Africa will likely take top spot in their pool. They have an abundance of talent especially in the form of the Pisi brothers, the exciting centre Alapati Leiua, Jack Lam and Kahn Fotuali’i.

Their historic Test against the All Blacks at the Samoan capital Apia on July eighth is a boon to Samoan rugby.

As for Fiji they are starting to build a fearsome backline under head coach John McKee. Nemani Nadolo has been in excellent form for the Crusaders in Super Rugby while in the June internationals he showed his worth whether scoring tries or kicking for goal.


The level of depth Fiji wield in the backs is shown with La Rochelle’s Sireli Bobo, Montpellier’s Timoci Nagusa, Clermont’s Napolioni Nalaga, Bordeaux’s Metuisela Talebula, Leicester’s Niki Goneva and the Chiefs’ Asaeli Tikoirotuma

Meanwhile, Tonga has competed well in recent internationals against the Tier 1 nations in recent years. Last November they battled hard in physically bruising defeats to France and Wales.

However, in late 2012 the Tongans famously defeated Scotland 21-15 in Aberdeen, which brought about the resignation of then Scotland head coach Andy Robinson. Though they are lowest ranked Pacific Islanders team in the IRB rankings they can surprise, which they famously showed in the previous World Cup against France in Wellington.

What will be a comfort to those Tier 2 nations is the IRB have allocated them fixtures against Tier 1 opposition for the autumn internationals so to prepare them for next year’s World Cup. Fiji will play Wales in Cardiff on November 15th before facing France the following Saturday.

Meanwhile, Samoa will travel to Rome to face Italy in Padova and then on November 22nd face England at Twickenham. Last but certainly not least, Georgia will be pleased to face Six Nations champions Ireland in Dublin on November 16th.

Many of the Tier 2 nations targeting next year’s World Cup to cause a shock to the rugby world and proceed to the latter part of the competition in the knockout stages. The hope is by doing so it will make the IRB stand up and notice their achievements.

Argentina is the prime example of how achieving history at a World Cup can get a Tier 2 nation upgraded into Tier 1. The Pacific Islanders will certainly be interested in making an impact at the World Cup. If they can reach the semi-finals like Argentina did then SANZAR, as well as the IRB, will listen like they did to the Pumas.


However, what should be a comfort to the IRB is the Tier 2 nations are rapidly improving, which makes the likelihood of Tier 1 nations losing to Tier 2 nations all the more frequent and good for the game in general.