Monday, 6 August 2018

The Pacific Islands desired eligibility reforms will never happen

Charles Piutau has been seeking to
switch to Tonga in time for RWC 2019
Recently a handful of articles have appeared asking for reform to the eligibility laws to allow former internationals from Tier 1 nations to represent more than one nation.

This is something that Samoans and Tongans have wanted for years pretty much ever since the rules tightened in 2000 and it is not hard to work out why. They both have a number of outstanding players who would have been eligible for them either by birth or heritage had they not represented New Zealand or in some cases Australia, who are now mostly based in Europe with inactive international careers. Over 16 years ago it was the likes of Andrew Blowers, Alama Ieremia, Dylan Mika who really wanted change in time for them to play at RWC 2003. Now it is the likes of Victor Vito, Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, or Sitaleki Timani who are in the same position (although unlike previous players there is the possibility once every four years of them switching through Olympic 7s).

There is a reasonable argument to make in favour of this. Adding that calibre of player to the RWC would immediately boost the depth and on field quality of the tournament. However, there are also arguments to be made against it that the Pacific Islanders do not seem to have fully considered.

First of all many of the articles from Samoans on this issue have been misrepresenting reforming eligibility to the benefit of Tier 2 nations generically, or simply poorer nations generically.

Dan Leo tweeted "about time @worldrugby made a ruling on eligibility that truly favours Tier 2/3 Nations". Pacific Rugby Players Welfare tweeted in regards to the one nation rule "hinders poorer nations [...] and only serves interests of already established rugby nations". The headline on read "push for rugby eligibility law change to aid poorer nations".

That is simply not true. It is a reform that primarily benefits nations like Samoa, or possibly also Spain, both of which are teams who select a considerable (usually at least over 60%) amount of players with heritage through parents or grandparents from a nearby Tier 1 nation.

For other nations though whose players are usually entirely raised and developed through their own system, it not just has no benefit but it actively puts them at a disadvantage to their competitors.

It is of no benefit to for example Georgia, if the introduction of a number of All Blacks to the Samoan team bumped them down their RWC pool. Or Uruguay, if the team they had invested a lot of planning and resources into developing were pushed out of a RWC at the expense of a Spanish team that had just drafted in a number of former French players with Spanish grandmothers.
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Looser eligibility laws would in fact be
a hindrance to one of the poorest rugby
nations in the world in Madagascar

Also moving somewhat down to the rankings. It is also of no benefit to say for example Madagascar, which according to the IMF is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, or another relatively not well-off country like Uganda if they were either relegated or denied promotion to the Africa Gold Cup by a North African team who has been able to bring in a number of French internationals.

In sport there will always be winners and losers. There are small nations that would miss out due to those proposed eligibility changes just as there would be some that gain.

Pacific Rugby Players Welfare has said as part of their argument for this that "better results at RWC = increased sponsorship money". Yet by the same token that also means somebody (likely another Tier 2 nation) getting worse results at RWC and less sponsorship money. That is just the way sports works.

In the end there is some validity to both sides of the argument. Samoa would argue that its a waste to have such talent outside international rugby and they can make the RWC stronger.

Whilst on the otherhand a country like Uruguay would argue for the international game, which is the sport's key vehicle to grow and attract new fans, to try and Rugby League its way to a stronger RWC through ex-Tier 1 players at the expense of Unions who have actually gone and put significant time and resources into improving their own development programs is short-term thinking, which will only serve to discourage further growth and investment into the sport and its reach globally in the longer term.

There is no clear right or wrong answer in this debate though. The question of what the eligibility law ought to be can never be settled and people will always argue strongly one way or the other depending on their personal judgement over whether it should be tighter or looser.

However regardless of what people think should happen. There is simply no way the Samoans or Tongans have any chance of being granted the reforms they want. Even the SRU themselves have acknowledged that "as a matter of fact, it's probably almost impossible".
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The proposal Samoa suggest is similar
to the one NZRU CEO Steve Tew put
forward to the IRB Council in 2010

We know this as a similar proposal backed by New Zealand "to allow players of Pacific or other ethnic backgrounds to switch from tier one to tier two nations after a 12-month wait" was already put to vote on the IRB Council back in 2010 and rejected. There has been nothing to suggest the landscape has changed since then.

The World Rugby council is comprised of 48 votes, which includes three each to each Tier 1 nations, two to Japan, one each to Canada, USA, Romania, & Georgia, plus two each to the six regional associations. If you are wondering why none of the Pacific Island nations has any votes it is presumably on the basis they failed the minimum criteria "to demonstrate good governance" which is required to be eligible for council membership.

Of those votes, there are five guaranteed in New Zealand and Oceania Rugby. Then maybe Africa perhaps and two or three others. But other than that, especially under the proposal the Samoans suggest they are struggling to find much support and there is plenty of opposition.

South Americans would certainly be staunchly against it. You would imagine both Georgia and Romania would be too. Whilst a team like Italy for example who have most to lose from such a change and would argue, with some justification, that it would be very unfair for them to have to play under a different set of disadvantageous rules to that of some of their closest competitors who are actually ranked above them like Japan or Fiji.
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Pat Lam on his way to a try to help
Samoa beat Wales at RWC 1999

You can certainly mark them all down to be strongly opposed, just as you can every other nation that could vote for a rule that could plausibly risk bumping them out of the RWC quarter-final lineup or out of the RWC automatic qualifying places. In fact, Samoa beating Wales and Ireland in the 1990s with the likes of Stephen Bachop, Inga Tuigamala, Pat Lam, Frank Bunce, Dylan Mika apparently played a role in the change to it being one nation back in 2000.

As NZRU CEO Steve Tew said at the time of the vote in 2010: "the reality is there is a group of northern unions that is very nervous about strengthening the island nations".

Whilst Oceania Rugby president Harry Schuster who said "we are devastated" at the rejection of the proposal also mentioned who was opposed: "the Celtic unions mounted the strongest opposition, they were just looking for excuses to stop our proposal because the fact of the matter is, they are so scared of how powerful we'll become if it goes through".

The only way any of those Tier 1 nations could maybe be possibly be convinced if the proposal were to allow loose eligibility rules to apply to their advantage too. If Wales for instance, were allowed to pick Shannon Frizell if his All Blacks career does not end up being a lengthy one.

However there is a reason why Pacific Islanders suggest switching from Tier 1 to Tier 2 nations only. The reason being totally loose eligibility laws on switching nations really would be a disaster and only serve the interests of Tier 1 nations. We already have seen uncapped Fijians play for England or France after qualifying on residency, if the rules on switching nations were relaxed that could extend to full internationals too. Nemani Nadolo could get taken back by Australia, Scotland could have lined up an international like Leone Nakarawa as a project player, or Josua Tuisova switch to France.

Safe to say that is not something the Pacific nations, nor any other Tier 2 nation would be backing and would cause disgust from many rugby fans. Hence why the only rule that keeps getting suggested is to allow solely unused Tier 1 players to switch to Tier 2 (with varying criteria of different stand down periods or caps), and that simply has zero chance of gaining a majority of the World Rugby council vote.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

The sudden stop to the stream of young Fijians moving to France

If you think back to the middle part of this decade there were very large numbers of young Fijians, mostly either still teenagers or just turned 20, signing for a host of different Espoirs squads in France.

There had been some very young players signed from Fiji in the the previous decade, but they were usually signed mostly on the basis of contacts of already successful Fijians in France.

For example Sireli Bobo reportedly recommended his nephew Ilikena Bolakoro to Biarritz before he joined them aged 19 in 2007, and then also was behind bringing Virimi Vakatawa to his next club Racing 92 aged just 17 in 2009. Also in 2007 Saimoni Vaka moved to Agen at age 19 reportedly due to the link between Rupeni Caucaunibuca and the club.

However the move that arguably kickstarted the phenomenon of young U21 aged Fijians moving to France was Napolioni Nalaga, who signed from Nadroga to Clermont after being spotted at the 2006 U21 World Championship which was held that year in the Auvergne region of France.
Napolioni Nalaga

Nalaga's peak was probably the first period of his career where his impact was incredible. Over his first season and a half after breaking into the first team when Julien Malzieu and Aurélien Rougerie were called up to international duty in 2008, he scored 39 tries in 37 Top 14 matches for Les Jaunards and was awarded the prize for best player in the league in 2009.

It was that surely gave Clermont the idea in 2010 to set up a formal partnership with Nadroga Rugby Union. For the next few years following that a handful of players all aged 19-20 were signed to the Clermont Espoirs squad, with the project succeeding in bringing through several players to the first team such as Kini Murimurivalu, Noa Nakaitaci, Peceli Yato, Uwa Tawalo, Alivereti Raka, and Seta Tuicuvu.

At a similar time Metuisela Talebula signed for Bordeaux-Bègles aged 21 in 2012 of the back of a sensational start to his Fiji career and also had a lot of early success. Also a year later Toulon discovered a Nalaga type winger of their own in Josua Tuisova who quickly broke into the first team.

Soon after that it seemed every club in France wanted to follow the lead of Clermont and search Fiji for another special young talent to join their Espoirs squads and a stream of players aged between 17-21 started arriving.

The height of this came around 2013 to 2016. Over that period remarkably at least 40 Fijians (by my count) were signed by 21 different professional French teams (that is just from what I could find, it's possible there could be more who signed then simply disappeared without a trace after a season, and likely many others who had trials without getting a contract).

All the major Top 14 players like Clermont, Toulon, Bordeaux-Bègles, Stade Français, Montpellier, La Rochelle, Pau, Lyon signed one or more Fijian to their Espoirs over that period. Even the likes of lowly Pro D2 sides like Albi or Provence were getting in on the act, whilst Brive announced they were following Clermont in setting up their own Academy in Fiji in partnership with Ratu Navula College (a proposal they have since abandoned).

However only three years on from its height, this trend seem to have suddenly come to an almost complete halt.

In the summer of 2015 at least 18 young Fijians joined Espoirs squads in France, 15 of which were to Top 14 squads. Last summer the only arrival that could be found was Freddy Duguivalu who joined Perpignan in Pro D2. This summer there has not been a report of a single Fijian aged under 21 moving to any professional team in France. Up until very recently you could find a Fijian in almost any Espoirs squad, now you can hardly find any.

As of writing not a single U20 eligible (born 1998 or under) Fijian player can be found in a professional tier team in France. That is remarkable if you consider there were at least as many as 20 such Fijian players as recently as 2015. That is a dramatic change in a short space of time, and there are a mixture of possible reasons behind it.

First of all very few of those Fijian recruitment strategies have gone nearly as well for anyone else like they have done for Clermont. Of the at least 26 Fijian espoirs to move to Top 14 clubs in France between 2014 and 2016, already 20 are no longer at the clubs that originally brought them to France, most not going to similar level clubs, but either down to low budget clubs in Pro D2, Fédérale 1, or simply released and gone home. By comparison from the Georgian U20 aged players signed over the same period there are roughly twice as many who are still at their original club even though fewer overall were signed, plus some like Beka Gorgadze who have moved to stronger clubs.

Undoubtedly the anti-Clermont of recruiting Fijian espoirs has proven to be Bordeaux-Bègles. Perhaps buoyed by the success of Metuisela Talebula at the club, between 2014 to 2015 they signed six Fijian espoirs aged between 17-21. Now zero out of those six are still at the club for next season, with only one making the field for a Top 14 match off the bench for 7 minutes.

One possible factor is difficulty some of those young players may have had adapting to French language and culture. It is not easy for anyone to move abroad away from friends and family at such a young age, but even more so for players who have travelled from half way across the world from Fiji.

Despite brilliance on the pitch relationships have often at times been frustrating between French clubs and Fijians, going back to Rupeni Caucau in the past, to Timoci Nagusa (who reportedly failed to appear on time for pre-season yet again recently) today. There have also been a handful of disciplinary incidents involving Fijian players in France. After one in 2017 that involved Waisea Nayacalevu and Josaia Raisuqe, and saw the latter sacked by Stade Français, Pacific Rugby Players Welfare representative Joe Rokocoko referenced issues with depression and homesickness as problems for some young Fijian players in France.
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The Bouclier de Brennus visits Nadroga
after Clermont's triumph in 2017

Another key factor appears to be financial. It is not cheap to scout half way across the world in Fiji, apparently even Clermont have been considering the cost of running their operation in Fiji and they are the ones who have had by far the most success with it. Since their relationship with Nadroga they had been adding a new Fijian to their Espoirs near every year, but for the last two seasons now they have not added any, with the previous two players they brought in 2016 not lasting beyond a season. However they did recently renew their partnership with Nadroga so that is far from finished and there may still be more in the future.

All in all it seems many clubs are deciding that the investment in Fijian talent of that age does not offer the value they thought it would. What is proving to be a more successful recruitment strategy is instead of rushing to find a 19 year old talent, waiting to allow the player to gain a bit of experience closer to home either for Fiji or in competitions in New Zealand or Australia.

For example Filipo Nakosi, rated as one of the best wingers in the Top 14 with Agen last season and now signed to Toulon, moved to France slightly older at 23 in late 2015 after having played a couple seasons of Mitre 10 Cup rugby with Northland.

Elsewhere Peni Ravai, joined Aurillac at 27 in 2017, and last season moved up to the Top 14 and been and effective ball carrying impact sub for Bordeaux-Bègles. Whilst two of the stars of the Top 14 Levani Botia and Leone Nakarawa also only moved to Europe at 25, both already as fully capped Fijian internationals in both 15s and 7s.

This year the players to have been signed to Top 14 clubs from Fiji have been Eroni Sau to Perpignan and Peceli Nacebe to Bordeaux-Bègles (who has since been loaned to Brive), both who impressed in the NRC playing for the Fijian Drua where they were standout players. Fiji Warriors lock Tevita Ratuva who also played NRC last year for Brisbane City has moved to Bordeaux. Whilst Clermont's Fijian signing for next season is Apisai Naqalevu, who first moved to France with Dax at 26 in 2015. That seems to be what the trend has swung towards. Away from the 18 to 20 year old Espoirs and more to the 22 to 28 year old Fijian players with a bit of experience either in the Mitre 10 Cup, NRC, or with Fiji Warriors selections.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

The impressive ambition of a young generation of Dutch players

As a rugby nation the Netherlands has not had much success over the course of the professional era. Their only ever test against a Tier 1 nation finished 110-0 vs England in 1998. They were also briefly in the second tier of European rugby the Rugby Europe Championship in the early 2000s, but were soon relegated in 2002 finishing with a points difference of -273 and average losing margin of 55 points.

After that for the next decade the Dutch became the yo-yo team between the third tier and fourth tier of European rugby. Between 2004 to 2015, they lost 20 from 21 games in the Rugby Europe Trophy and were twice relegated, whilst won 14 from 16 in the fourth tier to always go straight back up.

However after such a weak record over the first 20 years of professionalism, and nearly going bankrupt in December 2014, in the past couple of years things have begun to look brighter for the Oranje. In fact they could be said to be arguably one of the most improved sides in international rugby.

As recently as 2012 the Netherlands were losing 58-3 to their neighbours Belgium, were relegated to play the likes of Malta, Croatia, or Israel in Europe's fourth tier, and had a World Ranking of 47.

Now over the last couple of years or so in the Rugby Europe Trophy, the Dutch have won 7 of their last 9 home games having previously won 1 in their last 10, and snapped a 14 match losing run away from home to win 4 of their last 6 on the road. In 2017/18 they won four out of five games in the competition for the first time in their history, the only loss coming away to Portugal. In March this year the Netherlands reached an all time World Ranking high of 26th, 21 places higher than they were in 2012.

Perhaps the most interesting development in Dutch rugby over the past couple of years though, has been the very recent emergence of a group of young talent who have travelled abroad to try and make it at a higher level as professional rugby players.
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The two most successful Dutch
players Tim Visser and Zeno Kieft

In the professional era the Dutch have only had three players to have played professionally. Most notably of course Tim Visser (251 appearances over 12 seasons for Newcastle, Northampton, Edinburgh, & Harlequins, plus 33 caps for Scotland), who was followed to the UK briefly by his brother Sep Visser (8 appearances for Edinburgh), and also Zeno Kieft (68 appearances for La Rochelle). Now in just the past two years twice as many young Dutch players have joined professional clubs as did so in the previous 20.

Firstly in 2016 lock Koen Bloemen and number 8 Kevin Krieger were among a group of Dutch players given trials at Montpellier which led to them successfully winning contracts, both of which have been subsequently extended. Krieger who is described by his national team coach as "a beast" for who "the sky is the limit" has been gradually growing into a similar build to that of his clubmate Louis Picamoles, and already at just 19 years old become a starting player for the Dutch senior team.
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Stan van den Hoven received superb
reports in NZ with Bay of Plenty U19

Then in 2017 another lock Stan van den Hoven, a 2.03m 113kg giant at 18 and who was part of that group but did not get a contract at Montpellier, moved to New Zealand. He clearly impressed mightily, as he not only made the provincial squad but was named U19 player of the year at Bay of Plenty (in a team that had four New Zealand U20 squad members), plus was also selected to train with the New Zealand U20 squad, and part of the Chiefs Development squad. He got a superb review from one of his coaches who noted whilst on arrival he was "very raw in terms of subtleties of the game", he made incredible progress as his "commitment to improve" was "something that I have never seen before in a player" and that "no doubt Stan van den Hoven is a name we will hear a lot more about in the future".

Also soon to be joining him in New Zealand is dynamic back rower Dave Koelman, who last season was awarded a scholarship deal to play in England and was part of the Leicester U18 Academy side that were English champions. He apparently had an offer to stay at Leicester, but instead opted to further his rugby education and take up an opportunity to play at North Harbour instead.

Video: Dave Koelman's ball carrying playing for Netherlands U18 a year young in 2017

Whilst most recently after the Rugby Europe U20 Championship two more Dutch players signed contracts with Aurillac, one of the top 8 Espoirs teams in France. First announced was another back rower Jesse de Vries, and then fly half Jasey van Kampen, who had just spent a year at Le Havre in the lower Fédérale leagues who he joined specifically to work with ex Gloucester fly half Ludovic Mercier as coach.

Video: Jasey van Kampen's sensational match winning fly half performance vs Romania

Others who may join them in the future include Siem Noorman, the youngest member of the senior national team having made his debut at 18 last year and scored 3 tries in 5 matches in the Rugby Europe Trophy this season, another who was part of that first trial at Montpellier and who has talked of his desire to play professionally. Or also the talented prospect at scrum half Lorenzo Groos, who like Koelman still has years left to play at U20 level.

For that many players from one single U20 side from a Tier 2 nation to move to professional clubs abroad is highly unusual. The fact it they are from the Netherlands of all places, and that one of those players is a fly half which is a position of such rarity for any player outside Tier 1 to reach a high level, just makes it even more so.
Koen Bloemen and Kevin Krieger
after their first match with Montpellier

To put it in context, the only other Tier 2 nations this year with more U20 players signed to professional clubs is Georgia, and they had an U20 team beating 6 Nations sides and competing with some of the best U20s in the world, plus have a well established link to France with around 60 players currently contracted to Top 14 or Pro D2 clubs. Netherlands U20 this year came 4th in the Rugby Europe U20 Championship (although they looked a more talented group of players than that placing, which was nevertheless still their highest ever, would suggest) and only had one player in Kieft back in 2010 ever sign for a French team in the professional tier.

So what are the possible reasons behind this?

First of all obviously some of these Dutch players have shown a lot of potential and displayed some impressive individual performances. However the step towards the professional level is not that simple, and a lot more than that is needed to make it. Many other talented players from European nations have not taken that step. Indeed the Rugby Europe U20 Championship winners and World Rugby U20 Trophy runners up Portugal, who have the best age grade setup of any European side outside the main U20 Championship, have seen zero of their leading talents this year or last, such as hooker Nuno Mascarenhas or full back Manuel Cardoso Pinto, recruited by professional teams.

One of the things you also need is ambition to move in the first place and to form connections. That ambition as part of Rugby Nederland's "route naar de top" (route to the top) strategy is pretty clear. Summed up in an article in de Volkskrant the Union's philosophy is for young players to "gain experience in strong English and French competitions is the best way to get better quickly" and to work towards their goal of promotion to the REC and ultimately becoming a contender to qualify for the RWC.
The group of U18 players to trial at Montpellier in 2016

This has been backed by their coach Gareth Gilbert, a big South African who was also a former international player and coach for Botswana. He alongside his colleague Istvan Gyori even travelled with the group of players that trialled at Montpellier two years ago that led to Bloemen and Krieger winning contracts.

Another group were invited to trials at Montpellier last year as well although none on that occasion got contracts. The articles on the Dutch players at Montpellier say they were scouted at the Rugby Europe U18 Championship in 2016. However scouts do not typically tend to have a keen eye on those tournaments, and no other team involved has had groups of 6-8 players getting trials in France. What seems more likely is Rugby Nederland made some sort of connection with Montpellier to arrange those trials as part of this strategy.

It was also Rugby Nederland who part organised a scholarship for two players to travel to England to play at Stamford College, which led to Dave Koelman getting an opportunity with Leicester (the other part the players used crowd funding in order to take the opportunity). Whilst Stan van den Hoven received a full international scholarship to train at the "Inside Running Academy" in New Zealand, presumably something also at least part organised by Rugby Nederland as there were also a couple other Dutch players there as well, which led to him impressing enough to get selected to Bay of Plenty U19 and later the New Zealand U20 training squad.

One of the Dutch regional Academies also has a formal partnership with a school in South Africa that has seen some players, one being Jasey van Kampen, spend a year there on a full scholarship after being selected by former Springbok full back and now Sharks scout Brent Russell.

This group of players seems to have the desire, support from family, and backing from the Union to make the sacrifices needed travel overseas away from friends and family at a young age to pursue their dream of making it as professional rugby players. For some other European Tier 2 nations, especially Portugal, neither that ambition or support seem to be there at all to anything like the same degree.

Neither of the most succesful Dutch players to play professionally have contributed much to the national team. Tim Visser played for Scotland and Zeno Kieft hasn't played international rugby for years (although he said in an interview this year "the door is always open" for a return at some point).
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Kevin Krieger playing against Poland in March during a win
that took the Netherlands to their World Ranking high of 26th

When Visser made his debut for Scotland back in June 2012 that was a totally different time though, the Netherlands were ranked 47th, lost 10 of their last 11 games, and were down in the fourth tier of European rugby, plus unlike these players he did not progress through the national Dutch academies and age grade system (which incidentally has tied nearly all of them to the Netherlands as they had U20s as their designated second team last year), nor had the assistance in moving abroad.

These young players are much more connected to the national Dutch development program, and seem committed to the overall national team project and the goals it is working towards.

It will be interesting to follow the progress of these players over the coming years and see whether they will be able to fulfil their ambition to successful careers at professional clubs playing at a high level, and whether Rugby Nederland's strategy will further the upward trend the team has been taking lately.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Could Algeria become a future challenger in the Africa Gold Cup?

The Rugby Africa Gold Cup this year looks highly likely to see Namibia ease through to their sixth consecutive Rugby World Cup appearance. Unlike four years ago when the Welwitschias were ravaged by terrible preparation and internal disputes which very nearly cost them. Under Phil Davies they now seem to have got their act together, whilst virtually all their opponents look totally ill prepared and with internal problems themselves this time.

Unfortunately this tournament has not been a good advert for African rugby. So far the standard of every team apart from Namibia has not been very good to say the least. The only intrigue is the battle to see who gets the Repechage spot to face Canada, Hong Kong, & Germany in November but it's hard to see any of them winning a game there on this evidence.

However in searching for some of the teamsheets this led to discovering the Algeria Wikipedia page in French, that is detailed and obviously been written and edited by someone following them closely.

Reading an article from Rugbyrama (which a lot of the Wikipedia page seems to be based upon) it says rugby was non-existent in Algeria up until 2007 when some players in France decided to start a project to bring the sport back to the country.

Their first unofficial international match was in March 2007 an 8-7 away win over Tunisia. It took a further 8 years for the Algerian Rugby Federation (FAR) to be formed for them to play their first official match in 2015. In December 2016 they officially became a member of Rugby Africa and competed in the Bronze Cup (the third and bottom tier of African rugby) for the first time last year, winning promotion to the Silver Cup after beating Zambia.
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Algerian international Malik
Hamadache playing for France XV
against the All Blacks last November

However they still as of yet are not an official member of World Rugby so do not have a World Ranking (they hope to finally become one at some point this year). It is for that reason players who have so far represented them are not cap tied which has allowed Pau tighthead prop Malik Hamadache, who made his debut for Algeria in 2010, to remain on the selection radar for France.

However one thing that was notable is the amount of French players of Algerian heritage there are right now in the Top 14 or Pro D2. Especially at tighthead prop where there is Malik Hamadache (Pau), Mohamed Haouas (Montpellier), Yassin Boutemmani (Perpignan), Karim Kouider (Béziers), Sofiane Chellat (Massy), or the first choice France tighthead Rabah Slimani (Clermont), one of the leading scrummagers in the world.

Indeed a fantasy French Algerian XV is actually very good and would have a strong chance of doing very well in the context of African rugby or indeed against almost anyone outside Tier 1.

1. Hamza Kaabeche (Lyon, Top 14)
2. Issam Hamel (Racing 92, Top 14)
3. Rabah Slimani (Clermont, Top 14)
4. Swan Rebbadj (Toulon, Top 14)
5. Johan Aliouat (Biarritz, Pro D2)
6. Frédéric Medves (Blagnac, Fédérale 1)
7. Saïd Hireche (Brive, Pro D2)
8. Jonathan Best (Béziers, Pro D2)
9. Sadek Deghmache (Perpignan, Top 14)
10. Johan Bensalla (Valence d'Agen, Fédérale 1)
11. Julien Caminati (Castres, Top 14)
12. François Herry (Nevers, Pro D2)
13. Maxime Mermoz (Toulouse, Top 14)
14. Sofiane Guitoune (Toulouse, Top 14)
15. Kylan Hamdaoui (Stade Français, Top 14)

That team has a strong tight five and outside backs, along with a highly experienced veteran back row that in fact all already played international rugby for Algeria. The sole position with no significant high level experience is fly half.

Of course the likes of Slimani, Mermoz, or Guitoune can never play for Algeria (unless they were to use the Olympic loophole) and others unlikely to, so fielding a team that strong is fantasy.

But there is clearly a base of Algerian qualified talent that appears to be much broader and at a higher level than that of other North African teams. So it raises the question of whether they could be a team that could improve the level of the Africa Gold Cup and offer a sterner challenge to Namibia in time for RWC 2023 (which would essentially be a home tournament for them if they were to reach it) if they were to persuade a number of those players who do remain eligible for selection to represent them. That certainly seems to be their aim.

That would also raise the question of how a nation with essentially zero homegrown talent (an Algerian domestic league was only formed last year) would be received by possible rivals who have developed their own talent. And whether this is simply taking the short term Rugby League route to strengthening international rugby and discouraging towards those investing resources into longer term development.

But whatever your thoughts on that, a Union going from literally nothing to challenging for a World Cup spot would certainly be an unusual story to follow. It will be interesting to see how Les Lionceaux fare in their upcoming Africa Silver Cup matches against Senegal (8 July) & Ivory Coast (11 July) in Toulouse. If they win both those they would be favourites in a playoff (likely against Madagascar) to gain promotion to the top tier of African rugby only three years after their first official test match.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Thoughts on the RWC disqualification of Romania, Spain, & Belgium

Over two months on from the controversial end to the 2018 REC, on Tuesday finally World Rugby confirmed the outcome of their investigation into ineligible players. After the earlier precedent set by Tahiti's disqualification it was one that many had expected as the most likely.

The investigation involved all REC teams involved in RWC qualifying. Although the mostly retaliatory accusation against Russia over former Kazakh international Anton Rudoy was never going to be an issue. He has been in Russia a long time and clearly fulfilled all the necessary criteria to change his allegiance via the Olympic 7s qualifying loophole.

Germany also came under question. It is thought the player involved was former Wales U20 international Jamie Murphy. Whilst the U20s were Wales' second designated team when Murphy played for them in 2009, unlike the case in involving Mathieu Bélie and Bastien Fuster however, in that particular year France's second designated team was "France A", so there were no possible opponents for his eligibility to get locked.
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Victor Paquet

The others could not escape though having all clearly fielded ineligible players. Romania with former Tongan 7s player Sione Faka'osilea. Spain with former France U20s Bélie and Fuster. And Belgium with five unnamed players (although at least one is thought to be hooker Victor Paquet) with heritage just from great-grandparents one generation out from what is allowed.

There is a lot of sympathy to be had for the players and fans from Romania and Spain. They have done nothing wrong and seen their goal of reaching the World Cup disappear away from the pitch and all the effort, sacrifice, and work gone into it go to waste. As two teams with squads on the older side for many of their players this was also their last chance to play on the sport's biggest stage.

Unfortunately in both cases the administrators (contrary to the claims made to the investigation) have simply fallen foul of human error and messed up.
Image result for sione faka'osilea
Sione Faka'osilea

The Romanians claimed to have "explained" Regulation 8 to Faka'osilea. The player would surely remembered he played 7s for Tonga so if that were really the case they must have either given a rather shoddy explanation or the player totally misunderstood it.

Romania also claimed to have checked with the Tongan Rugby Union Chairman, and searched ESPN and Wikipedia to find out if Faka'osilea had played for Tonga. This part also seems a bit odd.

Firstly if they needed to check if Faka'osilea had played 7s for Tonga then surely wouldn't the first thing to do be to ask the player himself if he had done so? That would be have provided a better answer than going to two notoriously incomplete and unreliable sources or a Union that is one of the worst in terms of providing information and unable even to run their own website or active social media feed.

Secondly Faka'osilea made his international debut on March 4 last year and his Wikipedia page was only created on March 20. Also ESPN don't have profiles of Romanian SuperLiga players so are unlikely to have had a page on him prior to March either. Thirdly if the FRR had searched Google a bit better they could have found his page on "it's rugby", the article in 2014 from Baia Mare announcing his signing, or an article from 2015 on the blog "Est XV" all of which also noted he was a Tonga 7s international.

In all likelihood it is doubtful Romania actually "explained" Regulation 8 to Faka'osilea at all or went to any lengths to check if he had played 7s for Tonga. All they probably made sure to check was if he had played for Tonga or Tonga A and simply forgot about 7s. Indeed it is not all that surprising they might have forgotten about 7s as the abbreviated form of a game is a complete non entity in Romania.

The report also shows Spain attempted to scramble their way out of disqualification claiming France shouldn't have been able to change their second designated team to France U21 in 2007 to France U20 in 2008 (when World Rugby changed the age of their junior competition) and that the chosen team should have stood for four years.
Image result for mathieu belie bastien fuster
Mathieu Bélie

This was actually quite a clever attempt by the FER to save themselves but this was ultimately rejected by the report. WR had clearly allowed France to change to U20 years ago when U21 got pushed aside. If Spain had indeed studied the rules closely to attempt to find a loophole to field Bélie and Fuster they would have surely checked with World Rugby first.

In reality this was just them desperately looking for anything to try and cover for their oversight. It is not the first they have made eligibility oversights in recent times either. Former France 7s player Fabien Grammatico played for them back in 2015. David Mélé also previously of France 7s very nearly played for them this year as well but for an injury.

World Rugby were obviously correct to judge these were ineligible players. It is hard to see how the appeals that are being launched will have much success in getting more lenient sanctions either.

This is a big shame for both teams, especially Romania who would have certainly been able to qualify without Faka'osilea anyway. Their demise is particularly sad as RWC 2019 was likely to be the last tournament for many of their longest serving players which they have now missed out on through such a needless and unnecessary blunder. Also for the tournament itself it would have been far better to have had the strongest most competitive team possible there.

Whilst Spain would not have got so close to qualifying without their ineligible player Bélie, who was crucial for them at fly half and probably one of their best of all time, they will also probably be genuinely annoyed at how World Rugby has for so long allowed the designated second team to be used so inconsistently in the first place, and at France for designating their U20s.

Next year Los Leones will watch from home a World Cup that will feature dozens of former U20 internationals such as the likes of Nemani Nadolo, Amanaki Mafi, CJ Stander, Chris Vui, Henry Speight, Ross Moriarty, or Brad Shields who now all represent different countries to the ones they did at junior level. In fact over half the teams in the tournament are likely to field such players including even possibly France themselves if they recall Scott Spedding or Noa Nakaitaci.

Spain were just unlucky that the one particular nation which provides them with all their heritage players happened to be one of the few that nominated U20s as their second team.
Image result for Telusa Veainu tonga
Telusa Veainu is one of eight players
in the Tonga squad who would have
been ineligible had New Zealand
designated U20s as a second team

By the way you can be very sure Tonga are incredibly thankful New Zealand never did likewise even though their "Junior All Blacks" team has been inactive even longer than "France A" has been. If New Zealand had nominated their U20s instead then the Ikale Tahi would have lost eight members of their current squad including key players such as Ben Tameifuna and Telusa Veainu.

However whilst many would agree that being able to essentially nominate U20s as your 'A' team to lock eligibility has always been daft and World Rugby were right to belatedly stop that as of this year. The rules nevertheless were still in place and Spain benefited from not following them.

Image result for khatchik vartanov
Russia are unable to call upon
Khatchik Vartanov after his
appearances for France U20
Russia also have heritage players from France tied by U20s as well such as Oyonnax prop Khatchik Vartanov. You would imagine they would have been very keen to select him if he was available especially as he plays in a position where they possess little depth. But the Russians, already stung by their own ineligibility disqualification 15 years ago, followed the rules. Whereas Spain didn't in selecting Bélie, who was one of the most influential players in the tournament and created the match winning try in Krasnodar that all but ended the Bears hopes of reaching the World Cup (or at least had done until this situation arose).

Had there been a more lenient sanction on Spain that didn't involve points deduction it would have been quite unfair on Russia to have missed out thanks to knowing the rules properly. Also especially considering the precedent set in 2003, where the shoe was on the other foot and Russia were disqualified from the RWC for ineligible players and Spain progressed to the next stage of qualifying.

Video: Spain's ineligible player Bélie created the try that all but ended
Russia's chances of reaching the World Cup on the pitch.

Image result for ireland wolfhounds rugby
'A' teams have gradually become
very inactive over this decade
Moving forwards two things should happen as a result of this. Firstly the second designated team concept adds needless confusion and ideally should be scrapped altogether. Nowadays most 'A' teams are highly inactive anyway. Only selection for full national sides not development sides should lock eligibility.

Secondly World Rugby should create an official statistical database of international rugby. Currently most rely upon ESPN Scrum for the records of past matches and players. However their data is riddled with small errors for teams outside Tier 1 and mostly incomplete outside those ranked in the top 20.

Whilst there are hardly any sites to search for historical data on 7s matches and players at all (it is impossible to find out for example the precise number of matches and tries Rupeni Caucaunibuca scored for Fiji at 7s). If WR were to create an official statistical database it would not only help in cases like this for Unions to check a player's eligibility easily and efficiently, but it would also be good for fans looking for accurate information on the records of players outside Tier 1.

This situation has been a regrettable one and it is good to at last have the decision out of the way. Although the fall out from this will still probably keep rumbling on for the next year or so. There are still appeals from Spain and Romania to be heard. Next year's REC may feature a number of match ups that involve a lot more bitterness between the teams than usual. And Russia's appearance at the RWC next year will carry an asterisk alongside it as a fluke that was not earned on the pitch especially if they fail to make the best of it. Hopefully none of this will ever be allowed to happen again.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The increasing influence of Tongans in Japan

Japan and Tongan rugby has been linked together for around 40 years. The origin story began in 1976 when Toshio Nakano, a visiting teacher from Daito Bunka University and also manager of its rugby team, introduced Japanese abacus (soroban) skills to King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga. Apparently the late King was impressed and a friendship formed which led to Tongans going to study the abacus with Nakano on rugby scholarships.

In the mid 1980's three of the players who were amongst the earliest students to go and study at Daito Bunka University (Nofomuli Taumoefolau, Hopoi Taione, and Sinali Latu) became the first Tongans to play for Japan. Taumoefolau and Latu (both of whom also represented Tonga) went onto play in the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and were also part of the Japan team that recorded a first ever win over Tier 1 opposition against Scotland in 1989. All three of those players still live in Japan today and Latu's son has just this week signed for the leading Top League team the Panasonic Wild Knights.

GIF: Japan's first player from Tonga Nofomuli Taumoefolau scores vs USA at RWC 1987
A handful more would follow their path into the Japan team in the ensuing years. In the 1990's there was Sione Latu and Lopeti Oto. In the early to mid 2000's Luatangi Vatuvei and Touriki Mau. All of whom went from Tonga to Daito Bunka University. Various others of course did not reach national team level but went onto have Top League careers.

Eventually the contacts grew and Tongans spread across the country to various different Universities, with some also starting to move to Japan much younger whilst still only aged around only 15 or 16.

The first of these to represent Japan (Christian Loamanu, Katoni Otukolo, and Ryu Koliniasi Holani) were all players who moved to Shochi Fukaya High School and then onto Saitama Institute of Technology (which is also now where Taumoefolau now coaches). Loamanu became the first ever 18 year old to play for the Brave Blossoms in 2005, whilst Holani (also the nephew of Taumoefolau) made his debut three years later going onto win 44 caps and remains the most capped Tongan to play for Japan.

Tongans have been present in Japanese rugby for more than 30 years. Reportedly now after such a length of time there is now a wider network of contacts and support making it easier for the students. Most are very well integrated and far more fluent in the language compared to a lot of the New Zealand born players in Japan. Quite a few of the past players to have come from Tonga to Japan have married and settled there after their playing career has finished.

However over the last 2 or 3 years there has been a very noticeable new surge of Tongan talent coming through the ranks. In total 21 players have moved from Tonga to High School or University in Japan and gone on to represent the Brave Blossoms since Taumoefolau was the first 33 years ago in 1985. Of those 21 players, 10 have featured over just the past two years since the last World Cup, with 8 of them making their debut in either 2016 or 2017.

GIF: Amanaki Mafi and Amanaki Lotoahea combine to create a try vs Wales in November 2016 
Presently only one of those Tongans is an established first choice starter. Amanaki Mafi, who burst onto the scene in late 2014 and since become widely regarded as one of the leading players in Super Rugby for the Melbourne Rebels. However there will almost surely be more by the time of the 2023 World Cup.

In March watching Junior Japan score notable wins over Tonga A and Samoa A in the Pacific Challenge, three of their most influential players were all Tongan. Faulua Makisi and Tevita Tatafu in the back row along with big hitting young centre Saia Fifita. Makisi and Tatafu have both now won places in Japan's National Development squad suggesting they could be on the near term selection radar of Jamie Joseph, whilst Fifita is likely to feature at this year's Junior World Cup (following on from the last Tongan back to do so Ataata Moeakiola, who in 2016 scored a hat trick against South Africa and was nominated for player of the tournament).
Image result for Asipeli Moala
Asipeli Moala scored a hat trick in
Japan U19s recent win over Ireland 

Whilst Japan U19 later in the month recorded a noteworthy win over Ireland with four Tongans in their starting lineup. One of which was the number 8 Asipeli Moala (from the same High School as both Makisi and Fifita) who scored a hat trick and named man of the match.

Meanwhile another Tongan Hosea Saumaki, also a past student at Daito Bunka University, has been in monstrous early season form on the wing for the Sunwolves in Super Rugby. Although he has already played for Tonga at 7s, Saumaki is thought to be considering switching to Japan through playing for them in the Olympic qualifiers at some point next year (he was in fact already named in the Japan squad for the June tests in 2016 with them possibly unaware of him having played 7s for Tonga).

Video: Hosea Saumaki's superb performance for the Sunwolves vs Lions in Johannesburg

At almost all levels of Japanese rugby right now there is a Tongan who is one of the best players in the team. What is obvious watching these Tongans is they are clearly not chosen by random. These are outstanding talents that High Schools or Universities in Japan must be scouting, in virtually every case from either Tonga College or Tupou College in Nuku'alofa.

Not only does there seem to be a larger amount of Tongans moving to Japan, but increasingly more coming over to High Schools at a very young age too, plus of a higher standard than those before as well. There were no Tongans in Japan's U19 team 5 or 6 years ago and there was only Holani in the senior team. It is unclear whether this increase is just down to University sides scouting more Tongans or if this is a more national team orientated project player type scheme from higher up at the JRFU.

No doubt some of these players have the potential to be major players for Japan in the future. However seeing Tatafu in particular, along with Makisi and Fifita, basically carry Junior Japan to victory over Tonga A in the Pacific Challenge it does raise the question. How do Tongans feel about this?

GIF: Saia Fifita and Tevita Tatafu smash past Tonga A defenders en route to a try
Whilst Tongans who move to Japan do not seem to be prevented from playing for the Ikale Tahi. In past years we have seen Emosi Kauhenga and Lotu Filipine (both Daito Bunka University) play at the 2007 World Cup for Tonga, and last November Sione Vailanu (Asahi University) and Shinnosuke Tu'umoto'oa (Daito Bunka University) both made their debut (although in general Tongan selectors over the years seem slow to pick players based in Japan). When the option arises, as we saw with Mafi in 2014, and may be about to see with Saumaki in the future, players have tended to opt for Japan. Tonga are certainly losing some highly impressive young talent to Japan right now.

Full list of players to have moved from Tonga and gone on to represent Japan
Nofomuli Taumoefolau
Daito Bunka University
Hopoi Taione
Daito Bunka University
Sinali Latu
Number 8
Daito Bunka University
Sione Latu
Number 8
Daito Bunka University
Lopeti Oto
Daito Bunka University
Luatangi Vatuvei
Daito Bunka University
Touriki Mau
Daito Bunka University
Christian Loamanu
Saitama Institute of Technology
Katoni Otukolo
Saitama Institute of Technology
Ryu Koliniasi Holani
Number 8
Saitama Institute of Technology
Piei Mafileo
Full Back
Nihon University
Toetu’u Taufa
Nihon University
Amanaki Mafi
Number 8
Hanazono University
Ataata Moeakiola
Tokai University
Tevita Tatafu
Number 8
Tokai University
Faulua Makisi
Tenri University
Mifiposeti Paea
Saitama Institute of Technology
Amanaki Lotoahea
Hanazono University
Fetuani Lautaimi
Number 8
Setsunan University
Sione Teaupa
Ryutsu Keizai University
Asaeli Valu
Tighthead Prop
Saitama Institute of Technology
* Three other Tongan born players have also represented Japan. Nataniela Oto (Daito Bunka University), Sione Vatuvei, Uwe Helu (both Takushoku University). However they are not listed as they all moved to Japan from New Zealand not Tonga.