The 2015 Rugby World Cup will be best remembered for the way that Tier 2 nations have dramatically reduced the gap between themselves and the world’s best sides.
Japan’s stunning victory over the Springboks will live long in the memory, whilst sides like Canada, Georgia and Fiji have all made an impression on the tournament. They have helped to prove that the gap between Tier 1 and Tier 2 sides is nowhere near what it used to be, and that sides previously considered minnows are now more than capable of battling it out with the best.
The concern though is that it will be all too easy for them to once again disappear into obscurity for the next four years whilst the Tier 1 nations continue to battle it out in the Six Nations and Rugby Championship. This situation cannot continue however if World Rugby are serious about growing the game, especially with Japan set to host the 2019 World Cup.
Tier 1 nations now have an obligation to give Tier 2 sides opportunities to play the best in the world on a more regular basis. We have already seen this beginning to happen with the All Blacks and Wallabies playing in the USA prior to the World Cup, and Samoa welcoming the men from New Zealand, however these instances are far too rare.
This isn’t necessarily a case of ripping up the current structure and starting again, but more about integrating Tier 2 nations into the current calendar. Yes having Georgia playing England at Twickenham will never draw the same crowds as when the All Blacks come to town, but there has to be a longer term view on this.
The more opportunities these sides are given, the more they can develop thanks to regularly playing top level opponents. Stronger national sides increase domestic support which eventually pumps more money into the game from new nations. Eventually everyone benefits, it just takes someone with a bit of vision to make it all happen.
By providing Tier 2 nations with this platform, not only will they be given the opportunity to improve as a team, but they will actually be in a position where they can genuinely climb up the world rankings. As it is, it’s near impossible for Tier 2 nations to break into the top 10 as they are so rarely given the opportunity to play sides above them, and therefore claim the necessary points tally.
There is also obviously the issue of money. Tier 1 nations not only need to start giving Tier 2 sides the opportunity to play them on a regular basis, but also ensure that the financial gains are split more evenly. As it is, teams will occasionally play host to a side like Samoa, only to keep up the revenue generated on the gate without reciprocating by playing a return leg in the Tier 2 nation.
Given the potentially hugely lucrative markets in North America and Japan, it seems ridiculous that Tier 1 nations aren’t touring these locations on a more regular basis. Not only would it help engage a whole new fan base, but it also has the potential to attract multinational sponsors who otherwise would not have been interested.
The only reason I can see for not giving Tier 2 nations more opportunities is that the Tier 1 nations are keen to protect their own status at the top table. Unfortunately this cartel style approach can only go on for so long, and now is the time for World Rugby to step in and break up the old boys club.