World Cup-winning All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has blamed World Rugby for failing to stand up to the Six Nations and force through its Nations Cup proposal, thereby depriving teams like Tonga of the regular exposure to first-tier rugby they require.
First-tier teams are playing a lot more Test rugby than they used to. The three most successful nations in Test match history are now meeting each other two or three times a year, and the Six Nations teams are hosting them annually as well as making their own tours Down Under.
All this is a far cry from the amateur era when New Zealand and Australia only toured the Northern Hemisphere every few years – and invariably for just a couple of Tests – while summer tours Down Under by individual Home Unions were equally rare.
The major teams have surged ahead in the professional era, leaving the others behind. Perhaps the Nations Cup proposal was not the answer, but the initial proposal did at least include promotion-relegation, a vital pathway if the second-tier nations are to have any incentive to improve at all.
Tier-one nations scored 206 points to 36 in their four encounters with tier-two teams earlier this month. The idea of a closing gap between the first and second tiers is an even bigger myth than the one involving the hemispheres.
International rugby is played in divisions, which is why we refer to tiers, and those divisions are the primary factor in determining the standard of teams. The only way to remedy this is to fully integrate the second and third tiers. Until that comes about, international rugby is not a level playing field.
Perhaps the best news to come out of the World Cup warm-ups was the combined 100,000 spectators who attended Scotland’s series with Georgia – 45,000 in Tbilisi and 55,000 at Murrayfield. This suggests there ought to be more fixtures involving Six Nations sides and the Lelos in the future.
Australia, meanwhile, were given a solid work-out by Pacific neighbors Samoa – a team they lost to at home earlier this decade, but still RA suggests such fixtures will not become regular in future due to an already congested schedule (including New Zealand three times a year, South Africa and Argentina twice each, summer tours, plus those vitally important tours to Europe the Wallabies never seem to be up for).
Suggesting the Pacific Islands are too small to compete at the top level is like suggesting New Zealand and the Celtic nations are too small to compete with America and Russia. Fiji have more players than any of the Celtic nations, and Tonga have as many as Russia.
Moreover, it is the national sport in the island nations and has the full backing of the local communities. Getting their top players involved in professional competitions abroad, without compromising national allegiances, is the key.
Increasing the number of fixtures between first-tier and second-tier nations is also crucial. That is precisely how teams like Australia and Argentina were brought up to speed, and it is the main reason the Celtic trio have been able to maintain relatively high standards for a century and a half. Italy has also improved since joining the the Six Nations. The year prior to doing so they conceded a century against the All Blacks at the World Cup and lost to Tonga.
New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the Pacific Islands should play an annual Six Nations of their own. Divided into two groups of three, it could be staged in two weeks. Failing that, at least make it a quadrennial tournament slotting in between World Cups.
And instead of touring Down Under, the European teams could play their own Euros. Why not start small? Football’s version was a four-team event until the 1980s and eight until 1996. Now it’s a 24-team event with an extensive qualifying tournament. The possibilities are endless.
Nations Cup holders Uruguay punch above their weight due to their close association with Argentina. Currently ranked inside the world’s top 20, they will be appearing at their fourth World Cup this year, having qualified directly. This is despite a modest 9000 registered players in a football-mad nation of just 3.5 million.
South Africa is playing a similar role with Namibia but there is nothing at international level apart from when they meet at World Cups. For Namibia, that’s like taking the big exam without the necessary lessons to prepare.
An expanded World Cup, as well as a return to more extensive qualifying, would be a major step forward.
There hasn’t bee a debutant at the tournament since 2011. A 24-team format would mix things up and give second-tier nations a realistic shot at progressing from the pool stages.
This is the format that first saw African teams come through in FIFA World Cups during the 1980s and 1990s.