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Which golden generation is on schedule to rise from the 'easy side' of the World Cup draw?

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Roar Rookie
6th September, 2023
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This World Cup is a once in a generation opportunity for a mid-tier rugby nation, ranked sixth or lower in the world.

First, it’s been blessed with a route to the semi finals where no top five country stands in its way. And second, this has happened when the team is at the peak of its generational cycle, when most of its best players are at the zenith of their career. They have plenty of experience but they’re not too old.

Which is that team – or teams? Read on to find out…

First though, let’s get Eddie Jones’ perspective, as quoted in a recent Roar article. “If I look at all the teams in the World Cup, most teams are at the end of their cycle. Look at the Irish team, a very good team, but a lot of players at the end of their careers. New Zealand are the same [and] South Africa to a larger extent. Those teams, while they can grow, they can’t grow as quickly as we can.”

If you read my previous article in this series, you’ll know that there is the usual mixture of truth and subterfuge in Eddie’s statement. Yes, quite a few teams, including South Africa and New Zealand, are moving down the curve towards the end of their generational cycle. But a lot aren’t, and certainly not Ireland who have a great age profile.

How about Australia? Are they really in a great position for quick growth?

Fiji’s Vinaya Habosi celebrates after scoring against England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

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We’ll come to that in a minute, as we go through the teams on the weak side of the draw in order of where they are in their generational cycle. And we’re starting off with a much better story than Australia’s…

Fiji – The first Drua golden generation brings a powerful new hope

Fiji. A team with twelve players aged 24 or under and another eight aged 25 or 26. An average of less than ten caps per player across the whole squad. They should be nowhere near their peak.

Yet they are now seventh in the world, ahead of England, Australia & Wales, and conquerors of Twickenham.

No less than 18 of the players are from the new Super Rugby team the Fijian Drua, including all five halves and ten of the 24 and unders. Did you watch four cap 23 year old Drua fly half Caleb Muntz kicking all his goals and calmly running the cutter in London? It’s easy to see the value that quality coaching (from Aussie Mick Byrne) and opposition can bring to players without a European club – something the Pacific Island nations have missed in the professional era.

Having so many players from the Drua is great for cohesion when you play few tests and are used to having players living far and wide, often unavailable for camps and even matches. If they keep on developing players like this, World Rugby will have a new, phenomenally popular, tier one nation on its hands.

Get Fiji into the Rugby Championship ASAP.

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Australia’s Issak Fines-Leleiwasa. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Australia – Eddie accelerates the ‘Rennievation’

The closest thing that Australia has to an available golden generation would be the players coming through the Under 20s programme from 2018 onwards. Many of these were capped by Dave Rennie, and now Eddie Jones has selected no less than 16 players under the age of 25 and only eight players with World Cup experience.

With so many inexperienced players from so many clubs and a new coach playing new tactics the cohesion score is catastrophic. Eddie’s right that Australia are in a position to quickly improve, but it’s in a very low place and the World Cup is upon us.

This team is a long way from its peak but if it stays together it will have a much better chance in its home World Cup in 2027 and even USA ’31.

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Georgia – youthful experience already bearing fruit

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Australia’s first opponents decided to invest in youth prior to the last World Cup and the squad contains a golden generation of sixteen players aged just 24-26 with a surprising amount of experience.

Six of them have between 36 and 75 caps and seven of them played in the Japan World Cup. Another six even younger players have 68 caps between them, meaning that Georgia are on average less than a year older than Australia – but boast nearly twice as many caps.

Ok, most of those caps are against tier two nations but in the past year they’ve beaten one third of the Six Nations (Wales and Italy) so the Wallabies will need to be on their game.

The odds are against Georgia. But they really have done all they can to empower their young golden generation to succeed in this World Cup – and the next two.

They already have big caps advantages over group opponents Australia and Fiji and have selected fifteen players from Black Lion, their version of the Drua, who play in the European Challenge Cup and Currie Cup. That has to be good for cohesion. One of the Black Lion players is 21yo first five Luka Matkava who kicked the winning points against Wales.

Come on URC, you know what you need to do.

Georgian players perform the national anthem during the Summer International test match between Georgia and USA at Mikheil Meskhi stadium on August 19, 2023 in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

Georgian players during their national anthem. (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

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Argentina – their chance to go deep

This golden generation should be right at its zenith. So many big players are aged between 28 and 32 and have played a lot of tests together.

At sixth they are ranked highest on the weak side of the draw and with England, Australia and Wales in disarray they have every chance of equalling their 2015 and 2007 semi finals. There, they could play a team that has had to give everything in a titanic quarter final so who knows what could happen.

Argentina have beaten all three of these teams in the past two years as well as New Zealand and Scotland. But they struggle to win two big games in two weeks and will need to reverse this and overcome the unfamiliar pressures of favouritism against teams that for once they really should beat.

Samoa have a real chance

Samoa in the 90s were a much-needed breath of fresh air, joyously qualifying from their pool in their first three tournaments in the 90s.

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Sadly they have failed to do so since, but finally they have been given a fair crack of the whip. Ten mainly young players have graduated from the brand new Moana Pasifika franchise and high quality, experienced players of Samoan heritage who have played for other nations are now able to represent their spiritual home. Meanwhile, extending the residential qualification period to five years has hampered their competitors Japan and the Celtic nations.

They now have a wonderful mix of well trained youngsters and hardened pros with ten of their first fifteen from the Ireland game aged 28-32. They and Argentina pose major threats to England’s progression.

Samoa’s Jonathan Taumateine. (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Japan – ageing Samurai legends

The heroes of 2015 and 2019 are getting on now with the eleven remaining vanquishers of Ireland averaging 32 years of age. Not surprisingly recent results have not been great – which could be a much needed relief to beleaguered England.

On the other hand, it would be unwise to discount players and a coach who have previously produced World Cup performances that greatly exceeded anything they’d delivered in the previous few years.

England – in the gutter and still falling

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Although their average squad age is more than two years younger than South Africa’s, England’s golden generation is even older. No less than twelve of their players have caps not just from the 2019 World Cup but the 2012-15 Stuart Lancaster era. With four of them debuting even earlier!

England rely so heavily on veterans because their efforts at successfully integrating replacements has been pitiful. Can any Roarer name anyone debuting in the last six years who is consistently performing at tier one test level? And even their tactics haven’t moved on from the kick and rush that so failed Eddie Jones in 2021 and 2022.

Where is significant improvement going to come from this year? Or for that matter in the next four under this coaching team?

Wales hitting rock bottom

Warren Gatland’s 2019 semi finalists were an ageing team so new coach Wayne Pivac rang the changes in 2020… and lost to every team they played apart from Italy and Georgia. The new broom was put back into the cupboard and Wales held onto its golden generation en masse, through to its most geriatric.

Warren Gatland

Warren Gatland. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It got to the stage that their 2023 Six Nations squad featured no less than seven players who debuted between 2006 and 2011 plus two more from 2012. That’s easily the oldest core of any 2023 squad. By then Pivac was gone, even Italy and Georgia having turned the tables, and none other than Gatland had ridden to the rescue.

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Poor old Gats came back to a right mess, with the WRU desperately cutting costs and players in revolt. Soon experienced stars were quitting test rugby and plans were rewritten and rewritten. He’s been left with the team at the bottom of its curve, a donut squad age wise with eleven over 31 and ten under 25.

Verdict

The exciting thing about the ‘weak’ side of the draw is that the three most established teams with the best records – England, Australia and Wales – are near the start or end of their generational cycles. Meanwhile Argentina and Samoa are at their peak and Georgia have quietly built up the experience of their young golden generation.

Then you have the structural improvements for Fiji, Samoa and Georgia who now have clubs in international competitions and, in the case of Samoa, access to a core of quality former All Blacks and Wallabies. These are new developments and their impact will grow over time, but they are already beginning to tackle historic disadvantages.

On paper there are several evenly matched teams in both pools and there should be a lot of very competitive games. Argentina have the best mix of World Cup pedigree, form and age profile so they must be favourites to make a semi final, but even they are inconsistent and behind them it’s anyone’s guess. Come October we could well be scouring the tie breaker regulations to determine qualifiers.

Bring it on!

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