Sunday, 7 April 2019

The big difference between Spanish and Portuguese rugby

If you were to name the top few prospects coming from Spain you would get names from almost every major region coming from several different clubs. Madrid (Lucas Paulos, Gonzalo López), Catalonia (Samu Ezeala), Valencia (Alvar Gimeno), Valladolid (Martín Alonso, Juan Martínez), Basque Country (Kerman Aurrekoetxea), or Andalusia (Josh Peters, Tomás Munilla).

Indeed looking at the recent 26 man U20 squad it featured players from 16 different clubs spread in various parts in the country. If you were to add the U18s, the extended squad, along with the clubs abroad who have signed players to offer possible opportunity to further develop in professional rugby to the list of clubs contributing players for Spain grows even longer.

This puts Spain notably in direct contrast to some other Tier 2 nations more focused around certain areas including their big rival at age grade level Portugal. Whilst Spain's age grade sides have featured players from many clubs including those in lower divisions, Portugal's team was nearly entirely from (24 out of 26 players with RC Montemor the exception) just those from the main domestic league.

Portugal U20 this year have just one player from the country's second biggest city Porto with the vast majority of the team all based in or near Lisbon. The starting XV they fielded for the Rugby Europe U20 Trophy qualifying final was all within an hour's drive of each other (according to Google).

Map illustrating the location of clubs providing players to Portugal & Spain's U20 teams this year

Another nation which has even an more narrowly based talent pool is Uruguay. Every year their squad is provided for by the same few clubs all less than an hour drive of each other. If you look at their U20 squad from last year, 16 of their 26 man squad were provided by just two clubs. The sole exception in being some distance away from Montevideo was Dolores Rugby Club in Soriano (a club whose success has been in producing the props of this year's Los Teritos group Ezequiel Ramos and Reinaldo Piussi).

Map illustrating the location of clubs providing to Uruguay's U20 squad in 2018

There are obvious advantages in terms of feasibility of regular training camps and preparation in countries like Portugal and Uruguay with such a close playing base and very few players moving abroad. That has very likely been a factor of them overachieving especially at junior level in picking up some notable scalps you would probably not expect their senior team to be able to do.

After disappointment of another loss this weekend in Rugby Europe U20 Trophy qualifying to Portugal (who could not have wished for more ideal slippery conditions to play perfectly in their favour), some in Spain may complain of the lack of preparation they can afford relative to their Iberian rival.

However longer term moving forward to senior level their position looks to be the stronger and with a higher ceiling for potential progress than those more tightknit closely prepared squads. To get to the highest level requires identifying best talent from as wide a range as possible, plus some having the ambition to move abroad, even if it comes with a trade off with less training time as a squad.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

World Rugby's proposed "Nations Championship" is a terrible idea for "the global game"

The World Rugby crew of Brett Gosper,
Agustín Pichot, and Bill Beaumont
Initially when the New Zealand Herald reported leaked plans for their so called "Nations Championship" the concept was widely denounced by almost every rugby fan and especially those from Tier 2 nations.

There was no way that could possibly go ahead in response to the uproar it caused, but afterwards it then became clear Agustín Pichot's vision included two changes to that proposal which were relegation and Fiji not USA in the Rugby Championship and this was released in an official World Rugby video clip.

Remarkably despite relatively limited alteration all of a sudden World Rugby were selling what was initially a PR disaster in relation to Tier 2 nations and spinning it as for the good of "the global game". However many issues still remain and it's time to go through a few of them here ...

World Rugby are being incredibly dishonest that this is for "the global game"

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont claimed it would "accelerate the development and competitiveness of the global game". WR CEO Brett Gosper also recently appealed to those in the 6 Nations hesitant about the idea to think of the "global game". A few other known rugby media figures (mostly those with high levels of ignorance regards Tier 2 nations or low levels attention to detail in the plan) have been fooled into fully buying this line as well.

In actual fact this is not at all about "the global game" and it is incredibly dishonest and deceptive for WR to repeatedly claim it as such. You would think judging by some of the comments from WR that they had done a lengthy consultation with all the Unions from top to bottom and had the wide support from across Tier 2 nations before coming back with this proposal. The reality is quite the opposite.
Image result for sanzaar
SANZAAR are the chief supporters
of the Nations Championship

A World League was the initial idea of Agustín Pichot and then largely been built and backed by the SANZAAR Unions who wish to milk more money out of international rugby to maintain an increasing unaffordable centrally funded model. That is primarily what this is about.

It has been almost entirely created and decided on by Tier 1 Unions. Outside of that there are WR Council members and Regional Associations who have had no input whatsoever. For example both the Georgian Union and Rugby Europe have said they had no consultation at all on this and learnt of the proposals through reported leaks and then with World Rugby's video much like everybody else.

It's hard to imagine that was any different elsewhere. Yet at the same time WR are claiming a concept that they never consulted or involved Tier 2 Unions on will be great for them and even now selling it to the media on that basis. It's total nonsense. If they truly cared about "the global game" beyond Tier 1 they would have involved them in the process. That is quite simple.

World Rugby still fail miserably on the global calendar

Still World Rugby has been a total failure in getting a globally aligned calendar split between international and domestic windows. This is relevant as it effects Tier 2 nations the worst and above all those who in this Nations Championship are scheduled to play a Southern Hemisphere international schedule whilst much of their squad are based in Europe on a Northern Hemisphere club schedule.

In the case of Fiji in the top division for instance this would include all but one of their first choice starting XV. It would impossible for them to be at 100% throughout all those 11 matches.

Image result for fiji rugby
It would be impossible for a team of players
mostly based in Europe to be 100% over
the entire Nations Championship schedule
The European season will run from September to June, there will be internationals in July, Rugby Championship in August and September, plus more internationals in November. That is elite level rugby 12 months a year without any off season. WR say player welfare is a "central consideration" yet they have just designed a schedule that for any European based player in a Southern Hemisphere competition is physically unworkable and something will have to give.

No way could Fiji be 100% for all this. It would be asking too far much for Pacific Island players, who are often from more humble backgrounds than players from most other nations, to make such a significant sacrifice to their value in Europe for full availability throughout an entire season of this competition.

And even if Fiji did hypothetically get full availability of players. Half their team would be going from one of the toughest most attritional leagues in France to months of exhaustive long haul travel up against some of the best in the world. So that would not be remotely close to 100% either.

You may recall between 2012-2015 cycle Argentina fielded weakened sides every June window to rest European based players who were part of the Rugby Championship squad. In the context of a league with relegation Fiji would have to do similar but maybe target certain games to win like Japan or Italy. That would lead to scenario similar to a Tier 2 team at a RWC faced with short turnarounds fielding a weakened team against a top side in order to rest players for a more winnable match. Those matches also tend to be the worst and most forgettable of the tournament.

What we have here again is more evidence of World Rugby's lack of thought towards "the global game". The Southern Hemisphere schedule was designed purely with the SANZAAR Unions in mind. If it was about "the global game" then a globally international calendar would have been a priority.
Image result for Charly Malie spain
The REC is unable to be full strength
for a 5 match European tournament
let alone a longer multi continent league

Also if availability for Fiji would be a challenge, then it would be even worse in the second division for a team like Tonga and others. At least Fiji would have the draw of playing against some of the best in the world. The chance of Tonga or Samoa getting all their players to sacrifice their value in Europe and forgo an off season to play on the Southern Hemisphere schedule committing to the long flights around the world that a league spanning 5 continents would entail is very slim.

Likewise some of the lower ranked teams involved are teams with players that are still amateur. Spain or Belgium cannot reliably remain full strength throughout a 5 match REC tournament in one continent let alone a longer season across multiple continents. Not just through pro club commitments, but in some cases work commitments especially for longer away trips.

RWC will become the devalued 15s equivalent to the 7s version

Image result for rwc
No matter what WR claim, they would
devalue the RWC as a secondary event
with this Nations Championship

There is no question from this that the Nations Championship in effect becomes like an annual World Cup and renders the 4 yearly version a far less popular secondary sideshow event. If you are crowning in World Champion every year in a Grand Final then entire appeal of the RWC is lost or at least significantly reduced.

It would end up carrying the same prestige and value as winning the 7s Rugby World Cup does when there is already the World 7s Series circuit played every year. If you have such a World Series style international circuit in place then that replaces the World Cup as the top event rather than add to it. Instead the World Cup becomes more of a novelty than a showpiece.

For the Tier 2 nations this is particularly bad news. Whilst currently they can at least every four years take part in the sport's major showpiece event. A huge experience and career high point for many players. Now the RWC would become the lesser event next to the Nations Championship and the opportunity to play on the sport's biggest stage would be reduced to 12 teams from 20.

The relegation pathway is a con

The main way World Rugby have been selling this as great for Tier 2 nations is the proposed relegation (which there is obviously good reason to believe there won't be anyway) that offers a pathway. Whilst this may be preferable to the initial report of no relegation this still remains a bad deal though.

First of all reportedly any relegation would be delayed until 2026. Then not only would it take years of waiting for a playoff to actually take place but the cards would be stacked against those coming up.

This means from 2022-2026 those at the top of the second division will have been stuck there hardly get any opportunity at all to play any higher ranked opponents for several years outside a devalued RWC.
Image result for georgia usa rugby
Teams like Georgia or USA have to wait
years until 2026 for a possible playoff
which would be held only every two years

and they are put at risk of entire careers
potentially passing by having scarcely played
higher opposition outside a devalued RWC

It would be a big ask for that Division 2 winner, having so scarcely played any stronger opponents in years, to then go and win a single one off match (probably away from home) up against an opponent who had far more experience playing years at a much higher level and also far better resourced and prepared through years worth of much superior funding (in trying to get this idea the green light WR have guaranteed Tier 1 all their 6 Nations and Rugby Championship top division sponsorship revenues up to 2033 even if relegated).

So under this proposal for whoever tops the second division by the time they got a playoff in 2026 it could be as long as 4 years since they last got a chance to play a higher ranked team outside a RWC. Then with the relegation playoff being held relatively infrequently only held once every two years if they lose that single one off match, or lose just once or twice and came second in the second division, this could very easily grow to 6 years, to 8 years, and to over a decade or more.

Indeed people talk about possible risk of relegation for Tier 1 nations (which in reality for most of them ranges from very small to virtually negligible one hence why SANZAAR are okay backing it with Japan and Fiji involved). But really the risk for those Tier 2 nations in the second division of this Nations Championship seeing their already limited once or twice a year opportunities to play Tier 1 further reduced or even totally wiped out is a far greater one.

In November we have seen Georgia, Tonga, USA, Samoa all play Tier 1. Only two can get a playoff in 2026 so it is guaranteed at least two of those teams would go at least as long as 8 years without playing a Tier 1 test outside RWC. Entire international careers could pass by in that time. It would crazy for those Unions to take that gamble all for a relegation system that is weighted against them.

The sport internationally already suffers from an existing "tier" system that serves to promote an incredibly static world order in its top 20. In the professional era the same 9 Tier 1 nations have held 98% of the RWC quarter final positions and rarely fallen outside top 10 in the rankings. Whilst also the 20 team RWC has never had more than one team change from the previous edition.

Given the rarity of these playoffs, along with the financial and competitive disparities between the divisions, the Nations Championship would further entrench this static world order to an even greater degree than it is now. In terms of potential upward mobility the Nations Championship would be the international rugby equivalent of the English Premiership ... but even worse.

The league format leads to dull, demoralising, repetitive international rugby

There have been demands for more higher ranked competition especially for the best Tier 2 sides. However this manages to do so in the worst possible way in only doing so for two sides.

Ideally teams schedules should be relatively balanced. So unless you are number one that includes fixtures against higher ranked teams to test themselves against stronger opposition, even contests with similarly ranked teams, and also lower ranked teams which can often afford more opportunity to possibly test new players and allows that opponent to test themselves against stronger opposition as well.

If it is too weighted either one way towards better or worse and is like that year after year then for fans the schedule can get dull, demoralising, and repetitive and that is exactly what this Nations Championship format does. It is one thing adding Japan to the Rugby Championship for example, but then to maybe play some lower or similar ranked sides the rest of the year, but this just puts them at risk of being in the Italy position of poorly balanced fixture lists.
Image result for angelo esposito rugby
Angelo Esposito has 1 win in 20 tests
which is the joint worst international win
ratio for any player over the last 100 years

Italy this RWC cycle so far have an overall win percentage of 15.78%. Clearly the worst of any top 30 nation. Several modern era Italians are high up on the list of most international losses and lowest career win percentages (Edoardo Padovani for example has one win in 20 caps). That is a result of their fixture list featuring against sides 10+ ranking places above them more often than they do against those ranked either a couple places above or below them. They have played the All Blacks and Wallabies much more than they have Georgia or Tonga.

There is a good case to be made that this has not been at all good for the morale of both players and supporters than if they did have a better balance. The same applies similarly in the opposite direction for Georgia in the REC winning five Grand Slams in six years at a lower level but only getting one off opportunities (and always away from home) against Tier 1.

The proposed third division can only have been created by a total imbecile

Whilst the top two divisions of this Nations Championship are bad enough for Tier 2 teams, spare a though for those such as Canada and Brazil, as the third division is something you can only conclude must be have been created by somebody with approximately zero knowledge of rugby at that level.
The proposed 54 team three division "Nations Championship" ("Belgiumwe" and "Namibiawe" were deleted)
The proposed second division includes five European teams (even though there are certainly better teams left in the third division than the fifth best European team) and five from the rest of the world.
Image result for brazil canada rugby 2019
Brazil and Canada are listed to go down
to a much lower level under WR Nations
Championship proposals which risk
ruining progress towards a 24 team RWC

As a result this would very likely mean at least one of Canada or Brazil get moved down from the Americas Rugby Championship to a much lower level third division which apparently will be a 4 team home and away regional conference.

This is unbelievably stupid. Canada in 6 matches vs Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, & Cayman Islands could score 500+ points. Meanwhile we would see one of the most improved teams in the sport Brazil take a significant step back from competing with USA or Uruguay back down to just playing Chile, Colombia, and Paraguay. Namibia are also left in the African group they dominate.

World Rugby mention "potentially moving to 24 teams in 2027". This would be an overall positive idea we have written about before. However in pursuing the Nations Championship under this format WR seem to be intent on doing significant damage to the chances of the lower nations being credible.

Under this format it's possible that if Canada for example were to lose a playoff against the bottom team in Division 2 (maybe Uruguay or an other), then they could possibly head into such a RWC up against some of the best in the world with the bulk of their fixtures the past few years having been against the likes of the Cayman Islands. The same goes for Namibia, Brazil, and other possible RWC candidates in the third division which would be guaranteed to provide at least two teams to the tournament.

They also rip up the REC and RET in favour of creating mismatches as well. Rugby Europe said they had no consultation it certainly shows when you look at what they have done to that tournament.
Image result for portugal  rugby
WR's mad plan for the third tier of
European rugby would see many more
mismatches such as this one last weekend

This year we have seen the most uncompetitive Rugby Europe Trophy to date with apart from the Netherlands a young Portugal side routing everybody. Evidently last weekend there was a big gulf between 13th and 18th in Europe, yet the geniuses at WR decide to change it to a European competition involving 16 teams (4 pools of 4 teams) below the top 11. This is utter madness.

Among those teams they list are places with very little interest in rugby and what are basically park teams. Yet they have them possibly playing sides Germany or Netherlands, who whilst below current RWC level, would still utterly slaughter very low level teams like Andorra, Malta, or Israel. Again this is a concept that would set another recently improved nation like the Netherlands backwards.

Seriously anyone hoping to see RWC eventually to 24 teams and more nations like possibly Brazil continuing to improve and get to the biggest stage should oppose this total abomination.
Image result for Bill Beaumont
Bill Beaumont claims the Nations
Championship was done "with great
care" and "global game at the forefront
of our thinking" which is evidently a
lie when you look at their third division

Bill Beaumont had the nerve to claim on the WR press release that the Nations Championship proposal "has been developed with great care, extensive evaluation and with the global game at the forefront of our thinking". If you needed any more evidence how much of contemptibly brazen lie that is then just take a look at what a complete mess they have made of that third division.

And no it does not matter that it may be just a draft as the main point remains regardless. An organisation which had put one iota of serious thought or care towards "the global game" would not have put Canada in a group with the Cayman Islands, relegated an improving nation like Brazil backwards, displayed bizarre and absurd scenarios such as Hong Kong getting relegated to the North American group, Latvia getting promoted to the second division, or made stupid typos like "Belgiumwe" and "Namibiawe" on their officially released video.

CONCLUSION: World Rugby are a joke and the Nations Championship must be stopped

So just as a reminder according to Bill Beaumont "everyone, not just the established teams, will benefit, accelerating the development and competitiveness of the global game".

Yet it seems the plan to "accelerate the development and competitiveness of the global game" is to put several Tier 2 nations at risk of possibly matches against higher level opponents for years on end. Or to actively put improving countries like Brazil backwards into a division with Paraguay. How the hell is that "accelerating the development" of the global game? It's the total opposite.

We also have quotes from Christian Mueller, the vice-president of Infront Sports and Media, WR's chosen partner for this project. According to the BBC "it believes the proposed Nations Championship would allow rugby union to grow in new markets, such as Germany and the United States".

Yet the plan in regards to the national teams of those two nations appears in the case of Germany to put them in a laughing stock of a European third division with park teams, or the USA risk barely playing any higher ranked opposition for possibly years whilst stuck in a second division with only one other team in their time zone. How exactly does that "allow rugby to grow" there?

In another interview Mueller was saying "rugby has to look beyond its strongholds" whilst advocating a proposal which ... simply looks after its established Tier 1 strongholds.
Image result for brett gosper
Brett "33 million fans in China" Gosper
is one those spinning Nations Championship
as an idea that is great for "the global game"

It is hard to know whether it is flagrant dishonesty, pig ignorance, or if they are simply delusional but everything World Rugby or their buddies at Infront Sports have commented about this concept being about "the global game" is not just wrong but laughably so on the same level as their "33 million fans in China" claim. Gosper even came out and claimed even amidst the outrage of the initial report that "fans were resoundingly positive about concept". That man has an attitude towards reality worthy of Donald Trump.

For Tier 2 nations this "Nations Championship" idea is awful and manages to be even worse than the status quo and the relevant Unions must do everything they can to make sure it does not go ahead. Also the fact WR seem to be trying to cynically use Tier 2 nations and talk of "the global game" as some sort of a media spin doctor effort to try and create pressure on 6 Nations doubters to sign up makes it even worse and their insulting dishonesty and lies on that point needs to be called out.

If this gets through and as a result we see for example this generation of young talents such as Beka Gorgadze, or Hanco Germishuys told they will spend the bulk of their prime years stuck in a second division never playing Tier 1 outside a RWC at least to 2026 (by which time they will be 30). Or that we see that total farce of a third division format introduced. It would be hard to forgive the blazers who to protect SANZAAR torched the growth of the sport all whilst lying about it being for "the global game".

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Is there a worthwhile future for the REC clubs in the Challenge Cup?

Prior to 2014 the Challenge Cup featured six clubs outside the three main European leagues. This was a point of frustration for many as there was a feeling they were selected poorly. They included four Italian clubs along with two others, the Bucharest Wolves, along with often a mid table Spanish side as the top side didn't have the money or desire to compete, or for one season a Portuguese selection.

For selection sides like Bucharest Wolves assembling with little preparation for two week blocks to take on much more cohesive club sides was not ideal. The Spanish side wasn't even the best in Spain. Whilst Georgian and Russian representation was being omitted despite usually beating Iberian opponents internationally and the latter clearly having some stronger clubs than those that were competing.

Meanwhile the Italian clubs were remarkably poor. Calvisano were the Italian league champions in 2013/14, yet still lost home and away to the Bucharest Wolves. Even Bizkaia Gernika in 2012/13, despite qualifying on the back of a sixth place domestic league finish still beat Rovigo home and away.
Image result for Енисей-СТМ
Enisey-STM players celebrate their
win 19-12 over Worcester in 2016

The change in 2014 which introduced the Continental Shield and opened up the Challenge Cup to a meritocratic qualifying basis was much welcomed. However it hasn't quite turned out as has hoped.

Initially the Russian clubs which were full of internationals and strengthened by experienced players from across Eastern Europe backed up what many had thought. In their first European campaign in 2015/16 Enisey-STM took two scalps from major leagues in Brive (10-7) and Newcastle (24-7). Away trips were trickier, their worst loss was 55-7 in Newcastle, but in light of this season you would take that as a worst result.

The following season they also beat Worcester (19-12) and the Dragons (38-18), whilst only had one loss over 40 pts in their last match away to Worcester (57-14). Their average scoreline over the first two seasons was 14-32. They were winning more often than they conceding over 50+ points.

This was in the context of being new and inexperienced in the competition and with the disadvantage of playing matches in what is their off season and some of the "home" matches being played miles away in Sochi. It was hoped this could be a platform to potentially continue to achieve more credibility and experience on the European stage over the following years.

That has not happened though and their fortunes in the 2018/19 season took a dramatic nosedive. Instead of conceding 50+ pts just once a season, they conceded over that in every match bar one, with even Zebre thrashing them. Whilst they took some scalps in the matches hosted in Russia initially, this season they lost 82-21 to La Rochelle and 65-9 to Bristol. Finally their campaign finished atrociously conceding 17 tries in a 107-19 slaughter in Bristol after an early red card.
Image result for timisoara rovigo rugby
Timisoara beat Italian clubs with ease
to qualify for the Challenge Cup in 2016
but their time actually in the competition
has ended up being utterly forgettable

Meanwhile Timisoara who also at the time had several experienced internationals looked in the qualifying competition like they could possibly perform similarly to Enisey-STM. They were beating Italian clubs in the Continental Shield by clearer margins than the Bucharest Wolves did. Rovigo and Calvisano were the top two teams in the Italian league in 2015/16 and the Romanians beat the former 45-13, and the latter twice home and away over two legs 64-40.

Unfortunately once they reached the Challenge Cup in 2016/17 Timisoara did not at all fare well. Not only were results bad, but they ended up with a sizeable fine for a cancelled match due to snow. There has only been bad news for the club ever since then, with talk of unpaid players and low morale, their main backer reducing investment, and players have been leaving.
Image result for timisoara snow rugby
The snowy pitch that cost Timisoara
yet another €30,000 fine from EPCR

They couldn't qualify for the 2018/19 Challenge Cup on merit getting knocked out by Heidelberger RK, but got through after the Germans were kicked out for ownership conflicts. It was widely expected that they would struggle badly, but in getting hit by yet another fine for a snowy pitch, and then taking 59-3 and 111-3 humiliating hammerings against the Dragons and Bristol it still managed to be a total horror campaign even despite the incredibly low expectations.

The Italians incidentally in the Continental Shield have also done much to alter the view of how having four of them in the old format was certainly not selecting the best possible teams. In the 2016/17 tournament Enisey-STM beat Mogliano 97-7 over two legs, whilst Krasny Yar beat Mogliano 48-24, and Rovigo 42-11. Even German champions Heidelberger RK could beat the Italians and in the 2017/18 season scored wins over the both the top two clubs (Petrarca Padova and Calvisano).

Whilst the Continental Shield also initially seemed a good concept, it has been underwhelming. If you look at the EPCR site you could be forgiven for not realising it existed given the little attention it gets. It has been cut down in size with clubs from Spain, Portugal and Germany all withdrawing due to (likely) financial reasons and possible lack of desire to really compete at Challenge Cup level.

This year there were only two competitors outside of Italy in the Continental Shield, and one of those (a selection side from Belgium the "Belgian Barbarians XV") was hardly prepared at all and was a bit of joke getting annihilated 68-12 and 89-7 home and away to Rovigo.
Image result for enisey stm bristol
The reported crowd at Enisey-STM
vs Bristol at Sochi was a mere 100

These recent results call into question whether there is worthwhile future for the Continental Shield and teams outside the main three European leagues competing in the Challenge Cup right now.

If there was more money to be made either from TV, sponsorship, and a growing fanbase from competing then this would be a non-question. However there does not appear to be much evidence this is the case given the amount of teams who have withdrawn from the Continental Shield. Enisey-STM playing in Sochi drew an attendance reported as small as 100 and was not televised. The probability that Challenge Cup participation right now is a loss maker for these clubs is pretty high.

Image result for Timisoara Northampton
Timisoara's 111-3 annihilation against
Northampton may be the last we see of
them competing in the Challenge Cup
For now it is hard to see any real point from the Romanian perspective at least to continue putting resources towards a series of thumpings and fines for snowy pitches. This is particularly relevant for a club like Timisoara who have reportedly been struggling to pay players and seem in little position to either produce or recruit the amount of talent to compete.

Some have suggested a return to the selection squads like Bucharest Wolves. They were not great (average scoreline in their 2014/15 campaign was 44-13), but at least did not suffer to the degree Timisoara have and get fines for snowy pitches. But again given the state they are in frankly Challenge Cup should not be the priority for Romanian rugby right now. There is also a reasonably strong chance such a side would be much worse in 2020 than they may have been 5 years ago.

As for the Russian clubs their downfall has been slightly more puzzling given a lot of their team getting thumped this season are the same players who were a lot more competitive only a couple years back. However one possibility is fact they are mostly the same team could be part of the problem.

They are not lacking experience, but the core of their squad looks very old and could just be over the hill now at this level. They went into each match this season with a starting XV with an average age of 30 or 31. Half of the XV against Zebre is aged over 32 with a handful veterans over 35.
Image result for enisey stm zebre
Enisey-STM have an ageing squad with
an average of 31 that has barely changed
from their debut Challenge Cup season

At that age a couple years difference can be noticeable and several of those players are probably nearing retirement. This is a side 3 or 4 years older than the average professional team, the rotational Bristol team that pasted them had an average age over 5 years younger.

This brings us onto a similar theme. It has escaped so much attention as Romania as it has not to the same degree or been as badly exposed, but Russia too over the past few years have also had a relatively poor time of late at junior level and been struggling to find the quantity of new young talent from those sides to come through and been relying on a core of older players.

Hence why at national team level they were giving a debut to a 34 year old scrum half (who was the 17th member of their U21 side of 2004 of which remarkably 8 players were still active in 2018). Also possibly hence why we see Enisey-STM enter the Challenge Cup this year with what is an ageing squad that has still barely changed since they first entered the competition back in 2015.

Again to reiterate the situation for Russia is not as dismal as it is for Romania but the general theme remains the same. They have neither been able to produce the level of talent to feed into their domestic teams, nor have they been able to recruit it from overseas either.

So what about the teams that have been considerably more successful in producing talent?

Georgia are notably the clear standouts in this regard, but it's also clear their domestic setup is not producing teams to the level to be competitive at the Challenge Cup. The Didi 10 champions from last season Lokomotivi Tbilsi have recently been playing in the Continental Shield against Italian opposition. Three of four matches those were close contests. If they were going to be competitive at the higher level that opposition would pose no problems.

Obviously the Georgian the domestic level is likely to be weakened with a considerable number of their players abroad, but that doesn't tell the whole story though due to the large percentage of those being props. There still actually remains some decent young talent which is feeding into the Didi 10. We saw this with the U20s and in the upset from the young fully Georgian based Georgia XV team vs Argentina XV in the summer (which didn't even include many domestic based international squad members).
Unlike some other leagues, there has not
been a really dominant team in Georgia
with the top talent spread across clubs and
5 different regular season winners in 5 years

But there has not been a really strong club side in Georgia owing to how dispersed across the Didi 10 that talent is. There are no one or two teams who stockpile the best talent and dominate unlike some other leagues. In November there were 8 domestic based players in the squad across 6 of the teams. Over the past five seasons five different teams have topped the regular season table.

That is in complete contrast to Romania and Russia in recent times. The SuperLiga final has been Timisoara vs Baia Mara in five of the past six seasons. In Russia it has been Enisey-STM vs Krasny Yar for eight consecutive seasons. Also been similar in Japan, up until this year Panasonic and Suntory shared all the past 8 Top League titles between them. That has made their league much more boring, but also meant a side like Enisey (previously at least), or Panasonic and Suntory (on paper clearly the strongest clubs from a Tier 2 nation) can be able to compete with low end clubs in elite leagues.
Image result for Georgia XV rugby
Georgia XV showed there is some talent
in the Didi 10 with their upset win over
Argentina XV in the Tbilisi Cup last year

Also of course need to remember the Georgians have only been having top tier level youth teams for four years. It will take time for that to feed into the depth of the league which has virtually zero overseas recruitment to boost it. Although clearly the fact they continue to produce a good level of talent, puts them in a better position to potentially field a reasonable side in the competition in future if not yet.

The other REC teams to consider are the Iberians, who both remain largely amateur, and in some cases lack ambition, and have been reluctant to compete in Continental Shield with the costs involved.

A bit of talk has happened in Spain about forming a more professional league. However for now mentions of professionalism is just talk, and they are still miles away from being talked about as possible competitors at Challenge Cup level and the impression you get is don't even want to be either.

So unfortunately being realistic it is hard to see really anybody representative from the REC nations be competitive in the Challenge Cup in the immediate term. The window where the Russian clubs could pick up wins appears to have passed, the Romanians too will unlikely get any better and those have been countries where the strongest REC clubs have come from in recent years. The Georgians maybe have potential upside, but not yet, especially with no club hording all the top players.

Hopefully there will still be a future for REC clubs to be more competitive in the Challenge Cup at some point. It's just right now that seems even more of a long term goal. In the meantime it may be of better use to focus more resources elsewhere with a possible view of coming back when in a stronger position. This season with Timisoara getting fined for snow and embarrassed by Northampton, or Enisey-STM in their off season travelling over 5,000km to Sochi to get thrashed by Bristol in front of 100 people. It simply seems now there is little value in the Challenge Cup for these clubs in just repeating that.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Why has the 6 Nations now completely cut off Georgia at youth level?

Image result for Georgia u18  rugby ireland
Georgia U18 after beating Ireland in 2015
You may remember in the 2012-2015 cycle all the 6 Nations competed with the rest of Europe at U18 level in Rugby Europe (then FIRA) competitions. These were held in the usual format of divisions of 8 three matches per side.

Notably these U18 competitions were the start of Georgia's youth program bringing improving results. They notably got a win over Ireland in 2015 (after a couple years of near misses against them), and also beat Italy three times in 2012, 2013, & 2015.

However despite this being 6 Nations competing in a Rugby Europe competition, it was always clear who was deciding the rules. Even when the format had been that the bottom two teams had to playoff to reach the tournament again the next year. Yet when Georgia U18 beat Italy in 2012, the Georgians still had to go back to the playoff to qualify again anyway despite finishing outside the bottom two places. After they beat Italy again in 2013, they changed it so only the bottom team had to playoff.

In 2015 Georgia U18 came second beating both Ireland and Italy whilst Portugal U18 beat Scotland. This placed Scotland in the last place to playoff for their position, but we never got to see them to do so as following that with the Tier 2 sides as their strongest point in U18 rugby all the 6N teams quit.
Image result for Georgie u18  rugby
Georgia U18 pack down vs France

The one exception was France who still played with everyone else in the weakened remnants of the tournament. They also joined the others though in the "U18 6 Nations festival" in 2018 with a "France A side", and a "France B" side playing the rest of Europe and who were beaten by Georgia in the final.

Now for 2019 news has come that the French have gone too. This has now left Georgia completely cut off from any of the best teams in continent who they had been competing with better every year.

According to somebody who works at World Rugby "there are a variety of reasons" that 6 Nations decided to pull out of the competition with "the main one being the format was not the best for developmental purposes".

Yet this is odd and needs a bit more detail, as the format was three matches in a week, which is the exact same as their "U18 6 Nations festival". So what's the difference, why does the presence of the Georgians make it "not the best for developmental purposes" as opposed to not having them there?

Also it was already shown back in 2012 when they gerrymandered so that a 6 Nations team didn't have to playoff that the 6 Nations had all the power in the relationship with Rugby Europe. If there was a problem with the format they wanted changing, Rugby Europe doesn't exactly have the strength to get in their way. So the real reason for their departure remains a mystery, but it's not good especially for Georgia to be cut off from this competition, the experience either they, or the Iberians got against that level of opponent such as France was likely useful development moving up to U20.

On a related note Georgia also have also of course had wins over Ireland and Scotland at U20 in 2018 to go with their win over Italy in 2016. There had been talk of considering them for entry to the U20 6 Nations, and the Georgian Union even announced something along those lines shortly after hosting the 2017 U20 World Championship. Yet unfortunately absolutely nothing actually seemed to come of that announcement which suggests it was either done prematurely or by mistake.

Image result for fiji u20 new zealand
Even Australia and New Zealand play
Pacific Islanders annually at U20 level

At U20 level even the Pacific Islanders Fiji and Tonga have been able to play continental competition against New Zealand and Australia. Argentina U19 play an annual fixture against the South American U20 Trophy qualifier (usually Uruguay). However Europe, which has had eight of the top 14 teams in the world at U20 in the past three years, continues to shut its doors to those outside the 6 Nations.

This is an example of what is proving such a problem for European rugby's growth. We basically have the 6 Nations who are in practice the continent's governing body in terms of all the big decisions who have zero responsibility for the rest of the region. Rugby Europe who are left to look after the rest are utterly powerless against the 6 Nations in representing interests of other European nations.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Rugby in Eastern Europe in a terrible state

The emergence and continued rise of Georgian rugby has been one of the best stories in the sport over the past 15 years. However not only are they somewhat of an anomaly as a nation who went from absolutely nowhere to quickly reach RWC level, but they also buck another unfortunate trend as rugby in Eastern Europe currently seems to be otherwise in poor health right now.

Romania's severe struggles at junior level for the past several years and horrible 2018 have been well documented on this site. But the Oaks may be the most high profile team but are far from alone as several other lower ranked nearby nations have been going through tough times themselves.

Around 5 years ago Moldova looked to be a team on the up with some of the characteristics of a very early Georgia. They started the European Nations Cup in 2000 in the very lowest division playing the likes of Israel and Bulgaria, and rose up the levels and got very near promotion to the REC ahead of Germany in 2013/14, and did so with a big pack which notably included their first two players Vadim Cobilas and Dmitri Arhip to have gone onto have successful careers in major professional leagues.
Moldova have spectacularly crashed
from a World Ranking high of 25th to
now 56th in space of just four years 

To say their fortunes have dipped since then is an understatement as they have turned out to be the Kazakhstan of this current RWC cycle. As a Union they have totally crashed. In 2018 they continued to an ongoing 11 match losing streak, were relegated from the RET, and now in the fourth tier of European rugby they recently lost 80-6 to Sweden (a team they beat 57-8 back in 2014), and their World Ranking has plummeted from a high of 25th in 2014 to currently 56th.

At junior level their results are horrendous as well. Their U20s have not competed in a Rugby Europe tournament since 2015, whilst their U18s last year lost to Hungary (41-5), Israel (31-7), & Croatia (46-0) to rank 27th out of 27 European nations who competed at U18 level (in 2017 they also ranked 29th out 30 European nations who competed at U18 level beating Bulgaria in a last place playoff).

The only positive for Moldovan rugby this past year is an impressive new tighthead prop in Cristian Ojovan achieving a 4 year professional contract at Aurillac. He should hopefully have a good long career for another decade, but you can't expect many more players are likely to emerge into the professional game with the current state the Union is in and some of the continent's worst youth teams.

Meanwhile Ukraine were in the REC as recently as 2012 but have also fallen badly. They went from winning all their games RET in 2015, to losing them all and getting relegated to the fourth tier in 2016.

The most well known Czech player Jan
Macháček with Montferrand in 2001
Another team who used to be in the REC is the Czech Republic who spent six seasons in the competition between 2003 to 2008 with a few players with Top 14 experience such as Jan Macháček, Miroslav Němeček, Lukáš Rapant, and Martin Jágr.

The last of those players retired a couple years ago and saw little coming through to succeed them. After lock Martin Wognitsch left Angoulême in the summer it meant there were no Czechs left in professional rugby in either of the top two divisions in France for the first time this Millennium. Also since dropping out the REC they then were relegated from the RET in 2014, and despite having gotten their place back in 2017 look well set to be relegated again this year.

Elsewhere Poland have still not produced another player to feature in a major professional league since Gregori Kacała in the 1990s and do not appear to be a contender for promotion to the REC any time soon. They recently got trounced 49-0 at home by the Netherlands in November.
Image result for Jonas Mikalčius
Lithuania wing Jonas Mikalčius had his
career ended by a serious knee injury

In the Baltic states, Lithuania have just seen their star prospect Jonas Mikalčius' career ended at 23 by a serious knee injury soon after he had just earned a move to the English Premiership with Harlequins, whilst Latvia's only pro players Uldis Saulite and Jurijs Baranovs at Enisey-STM are both likely near retirement.

Although there has been some more positive news for rugby in Hungary who had their first ever player to reach pro level this year in Bence Róth with Bourg-en-Bresse in Pro D2.

Whilst Russia for the last few years have not exactly made huge progress or produced a bunch new young players to come through either. Although the mood of course has been changed there since receiving a surprise RWC qualification, which has boosted the Bears as they achieved two of their best results for years against Canada and Japan off the back of it. They will hope to build off an appearance on the sport's biggest stage more successfully than they did post 2011 and improve their production line of talent at youth level (which has not been great but also not as bad as Romania).
Image result for gonzalo lópez bontempo espana rugby
Spain U20 thrashed Romania 70-6
in a friendly match last month

Overall though East of Germany the picture does not really look particularly positive for rugby in Europe right now aside from Georgia. Most of the other European sides who appear to be making the most progress, certainly in terms of youth development, are all in the West.

Since Georgia U20 have had a place in the WR U20 Championship, it has been the Iberians Portugal and Spain who have been the ones usually playing it out for a spot in the U20 Trophy and look the best at U18. The latter in particular look to be in a better position to potentially see more homegrown talent of the level to play professionally in France in future compared to others. Along with that Belgium and the Netherlands also have improved in recent years into REC or potential REC level teams.

At junior level all those Eastern European RET teams have shown nothing. Romania had an awful year U20 wise yet still beat Ukraine 76-13, who had in turn beaten Poland 42-13 the match before that. Not results offering much encouragement for new players coming through.

It would be great to see a side from Eastern Europe become the "new Georgia" in terms of a 100% homegrown side rising out of nowhere and very meagre resources. However at this point not only is little progress towards that happening, but rugby in some of these nations seems to be in a dire state going backwards. Hopefully entering into a new decade this pattern can somehow reverse itself.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

When will Portugal become a serious REC competitor again?

The beginning of Portugal's fall to REC relegation candidates first started following the disappointing RWC 2015 qualifying campaign of 2013/14. That was the last attempt at reaching the big stage for most of the generation that took them there in 2007 (apart from Gonçalo Uva who was the last of that team to retire this year), but it didn't go quite as hoped and coach Errol Brain got sacked half way through it.

His assistant Frederico Sousa took over as coach for the next year, but Portugal could not recover their RWC campaign. In fact they were even less competitive and he got sacked after 8 tests. However short that time in charge was though Sousa still managed more matches than all of his next three successors.

João Luís Pinto only lasted 7 tests in 2014/15 with his last being an away defeat to Kenya. After him came Frenchman Olivier Baragnon, but his time in charge ended up similar to that of Romania's recent appointment as he quickly fell out with the FPR and got sacked after just 3 tests. So by the time of the REC campaign in 2016 where Portugal were on their fifth coach within four years in Scotsman Ian Smith.

This was a team who previously had the same coach Tomaz Morais for over 70 tests and the best part of a decade from 2001 to 2010. Now results were diminishing and they were burning through a number of coaches. Following the 2016 REC under Ian Smith where Portugal were relegated for the first ever time and a period of instability and worsening results a change of approach seems to have come about with the appointment in September 2016 of ex GD Direito coach Martim Aguiar.
Image result for Luís Cassiano Neves e Martim Aguiar
Martim Aguiar unveiled as the new
Portugal coach in September 2016

Notable about Aguiar's appointment was in the opening press conference is the comments of FPR president Luís Cassiano Neves. He talked of no "immediate pressure" of results for Aguiar but the main focus and goal being qualifying for the RWC in 2023.

So suddenly Portugal went from quite a change of appointing a coach virtually every year to talking of no pressure on the coach and of focusing on a project to reach a tournament 7 years away.

In practice what this idea of "building a project" for 2023 basically seems to be be though is throwing so many young players into the team that recent selections have not far off resembled a University team and almost accepting remaining in the RET for the time being.

Over the past two years under Aguiar Portugal have fielded a greater quantity of young players than any other international team and have done by a comfortable margin too. That is of course in spite of being a team that plays relatively fewer tests than most top 20 sides over that period as well.

According to ESPN Scrum statistics Portugal under Aguiar's 17 tests in charge have used 22 players aged 20 or under (by comparison next highest is Georgia who have fielded 13 over that period, and all 10 Tier 1 sides combined have fielded 25). On average 9 of his starting XV has been aged 24 or under.
Image may contain: 4 people, outdoor
Portugal U20 2017

If you look at the average age of their matchday squad that played Romania in November the average was just 23. That's over two years younger than any of the top 22 international teams fielded that month, and four years younger than the general average age of 27 for an international team.

It's only 15 months since Portugal reached the final of the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2017 for their best ever finish in the tournament and they have wasted no time bringing those players through to the senior team. Already 16 of that squad are now fully capped internationals which has flown past the previous record of 12 for most players from a single U20 squad reaching the full national team within a year.

Portugal have been awarding full international caps to their successful 2017 U20 team at a record pace

However when you look closer that is not the first time Portugal have been doing this. Their U20 Trophy squad of 2013 is in fact the joint record holder for most players to have become full internationals with 18, whilst the squad from 2015 has produced 17 full internationals.

So a large quantity of young players have come into international rugby, but a number of those are just coming in for a handful of caps and then make way for the next batch coming in. As of yet it is hard to see what project Portugal are building whilst the team keeps changing.

Aguiar's team went into a REC promotion/relegation playoff against Romania selecting a 23 man squad with an average age of 23, and an average 7 caps with 17 of 23 not yet on 10 caps. Romania had a 23 with precisely 700 more caps in total. Florin Vliacu had more than Portugal's starting XV between them.
Image result for Samuel Marques portugal rugby
Samuel Marques is one of a handful
of French-Portuguese players who would
offer valuable experience and quality but
have not played for them for years now

Meanwhile experience in the form of players in professional leagues has largely been missing. With the exception of Francisco Fernándes and Jean Sousa who were called up only for the Germany RWC qualifying match, all the other heritage players like Julien Bardy, Mike Tadjer, Samuel Marques, Aurélien Beco have not been seen for years now. Even the two homegrown Portuguese players José Lima and Pedro Bettencourt who play professionally in France and England have not been seen throughout the past year.

The question is how long will this RET phase of Portugal's inconsistent inexperienced selections continue for until they start to compete more seriously?

It's a shame for Portugal as on paper they have the personnel to certainly be a capable REC level team at the very least. But if you look at that selection against Romania, or even the one that got a surprise opportunity to reach the RWC Repechage against Germany this year, those were not ones that were genuinely making the best attempt Portugal could possibly manage at achieving their best results. Neither was the team they selected which very nearly lost to Poland last March.

When we the reach qualifying period for RWC 2023 in three or four years time, will Aguiar have got back into the REC having built an established core to his team through his talented upcoming generation of Portugal most successful ever U20s along with added experience from professional players in France? Or will there still be this revolving door of young players who come in for 5 caps and Portugal still be known as the nation with by far the worst senior side in relation to their juniors?

They have the well trained youth talent, but it is the high performance programs and professionalism that appear to be lacking. There has been talk recently of adding professionalism to the setup and possibly contracting players following possibly similar to how Uruguay have done (good news), and increasing focus on 7s (not such good news and from a 15s standpoint simply a waste of resources).

Monday, 31 December 2018

The Tier 2 teams of 2018

With 2018 coming to a close we look back at the top three nations who all had good years and recorded landmark achievements over the past 12 months.

Fiji celebrate their win historic over France


Fiji's first few matches of the year were not particularly remarkable and included a surprise home defeat to Tonga with a possibly tired team in June off the back of a long European season, and also a wide defeat away to Scotland in the first week of November with little preparation.

However the last two tests of the year were superb. First Fiji annihilated Uruguay putting them to the sword with ease at Hartpury College for a 68-7 win which was their largest ever against top 20 opposition, then followed that with a well deserved victory over France, their first ever win away from home over a Tier 1 side in the professional era. That result took them to an all time ranking high of 8th, only the second time a team outside Tier 1 has ever gotten that high after Samoa in their successful 2011-2013 period.

Video: Leone Nakarawa's offload to Josua Tuisova for one of Fiji's disallowed tries vs France

In addition to the national team performances, the U20s won promotion back to the main U20 Championship, the home based Fijian Drua won the NRC, and had several players such as Leone Nakarawa, Peceli Yato, Semi Radradra, Nemani Nadolo, Josua Tuisova recognised as amongst the best in the Top 14 or Champions Cup for their form with their clubs in France.

The mood around Fijian 15s rugby has never been so positive as it is now, they have arguably the strongest and most talented team anyone outside Tier 1 has ever had in the professional era and have a genuine chance with proper preparation time to try and achieve something special at the RWC. Hopefully in future there can be some momentum behind them getting those players better revenues and preparation time as part of involvement in major elite Tier 1 tournaments in the future.

Image result for USA Scotland rugby
USA after a very successful June series


In their first year under new coach Gary Gold the USA had without doubt their best ever year in the professional era. First they won an ARC Grand Slam in convincing fashion, then followed that up in June with dominant wins over Russia and Canada and a first ever win in living memory against a Tier 1 side in a thrilling match against Scotland in Houston, then in November finally ended a 19 year 17 match losing streak against Pacific Island opposition with a last minute win over Samoa.

There still of course remains a lot to work on for the Eagles which the Ireland result was a reminder of and fans should be way of getting too carried away. However having said that 2018 will be a year they will look back on fondly, not only for the Eagles improved results, but the launch of the MLR which unlike previous attempts at pro rugby appears more likely to hopefully stay around.

Video: Paul Lasike put in a series of powerful performances for the USA in his debut year of international rugby

USA are for the first time fully professional, and now have probably their best collection of forwards they have ever had (albeit still with no top class scrummaging tighthead), plus their best in the problem area fly half and goal kicker with back up options (albeit still not homegrown ones), and saw Paul Lasike burst through into the team phenomenally well from the NFL this year. It will be interesting to see whether the MLR throws up any new bolters from outside the squad who could make an impact to boost the team and increase options that will needed for a tough schedule at the RWC.

Image result for brasil argentina xv rugby
Brazil staged one of the biggest comebacks
in rugby history for a first win vs Argentina XV


The Brazilians had their most amazing year of progress yet in 2018. Numerous of their achievements this year would have been simply been pretty much unthinkable as recently as 5 years ago.

The Tupis opened the year with a first ever away ARC win over Chile in Santiago, which was particularly notable as while they had made progress in recent times their away record still was woeful. Also five years ago remember Brazil had one win over Chile in 20 attempts, now won three of the past four. They should have also taken the scalp of Uruguay for the first time the week after as well, where they led 18-3 at half time, and still led past 70 minutes but the match just slipped away from them.

Most remarkable though was their 36-33 upset of Argentina XV in Buenos Aires (not quite as good as the one Uruguay beat but still notably had Tomás Cubelli plus some other fringe Jaguares players), where they came from 33-3 behind at 58 minutes to score 5 tries in 22 minutes with a try at the death to win. For context in 2012 and 2013 Brazil lost 111-0 and 83-0 to Argentina XV, by the time Brazil scored a consolation try in their 42-7 defeat in the 2016 ARC, the Argentines had scored 236 unanswered points in matches against them. In 2017 the result was also 79-7. This year in two matches Brazil lost only 28-8 in the ARC (14-8 at half time), and before the historic first win.

In addition to this Brazil also upset Georgia XV in Tbilisi, and up against probably two of the strongest lineups they have ever faced in Racing 92 and Maori All Blacks kept both below 50 points, the latter of which was held in front of a record 34,000 home crowd and memorably monstered the Maori scrum.

Video: Brazil destroy the Maori All Blacks scrum

Indeed Brazil didn't concede over 50 points all year (the one truly dud performance was a 45-5 loss away to Canada), whereas in 2017 they conceded over 50 four times (all away from home). In 2013 Brazil lost 68-0 at home to Portugal, to now not concede over 50 against the level of opponent they faced this year is impressive progress especially for what is a very young team. It will be interesting to see whether they can continue to progress in 2019 and how they fare as hosts of the U20 Trophy.