Friday, 11 January 2019

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

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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


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.

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USA after a very successful June series

 USA


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.

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Brazil staged one of the biggest comebacks
in rugby history for a first win vs Argentina XV

 Brazil


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.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Can Romanian rugby recover again from a horrible 2018?

A disconsolate Romanian team after the disastrous finish vs Uruguay
12 months ago the Oaks had just beaten Samoa, Canada away from home with 14 men, and finally beaten Georgia to win the Rugby Europe Championship for the first time since 2010 (although bizarrely managed to mess up a match in Germany which cost them a first Grand Slam since 2002), and looked to be on course to open the RWC 2019 in Japan, which would have been a fitting stage as a possible farewell for several superb servants to the Oaks from the U19 2005 group or the Ursache brothers.

However a horrific 2018 for Romanian rugby has ripped all those plans to shreds. They now enter what is their centenary year in 2019 with the RWC having been stolen away from them by the eligibility fiasco, considerable discontent in relationships between the fans and the FRR as a result of that (Romanian rugby supporters club recently launched a petition for resignations at the Union), their reputation attacked by a campaign of lies and conspiracy theories from a furious Spanish online mob (which were lapped up by certain English speaking rugby media too), and are now without a coach after the shambolic appointment of Thomas Lièvremont who left 3 matches into 5 year contract.

Whilst they finished the year on the field playing at a small ground in front of three figure crowds getting comfortably beat by the USA, and then losing in a calamitous 28 phase last play to Uruguay.

Video: The final play of Romania vs Uruguay in November

It should be noted that was with a second string pack, so not really a true reflection of Romania's standing at this point, but losing in that manner at home to a side like the USA or to sides who the Oaks always used to beat like Uruguay (the previous time Los Teros travelled to Bucharest they lost 36-10) in front of dwindling crowds may unfortunately have been a glimpse into their future. It is a future with now no RWC on the horizon they have been forced to confront 18 months earlier than anticipated.

A small crowd at a small stadium watch Romania vs USA this November
Some optimists in Romania have commented that age grade rugby is not necessarily a reflection of senior rugby and cite the existence of a professional league which not all competitors have. There may be some truth in that, but ultimately it remains wishful thinking when you look just to the extent of how bad the state of Romanian youth rugby is in.

In the World Rugby U20 Trophy this year expectations were not high for Romania given they qualified only as hosts and had lost to the Netherlands in March. However (with some mitigation for injury) they still managed to shock people as to how awful they were, shipping 50+ points to teams like Namibia and Hong Kong (both of whom were thrashed on the final day by Portugal and Uruguay), and ended up bottom after 71-14 thumping vs Canada. Simply passing the ball down the line was a struggle for them.

This year Romania placed 11th in Europe at U18 and 12th at U20 level. In world terms when you consider teams not present at either of the World Rugby U20 tournaments they were certainly not top 20 and possibly not even in the world's top 25.

It was exposed far worse this year owing to the fact Romania were in the U20 Trophy for the first time since 2010, but really the struggles at age grade are nothing new. The only time in this decade Oaks have got to the final qualifier for the U20 Trophy was for 2016 where they lost 24-3 to Spain. That effectively saw them ranked 9th in Europe, but other than that for the past six years they've been outside Europe's top 10 age grade sides finishing 11th to 13th.

Indeed 2018 was possibly not even the worst Romanian age grade year. In qualifying for the 2015 U20 Trophy Romania lost 13-10 to a Belgium side whose other results in the tournament were a 38-5 loss to Portugal and 27-0 loss to the Netherlands. That side and most of the others in the past few years would have likely had some heavy defeats if were they in the U20 Trophy just as they did this year.

Romania's European ranking finishes at REC, U19/20, & U18 level over this decade. Whilst it is not a precise measure, it shows the U20s finishing 11th-13th in Europe in five of the past six years, whilst the U18s have not finished higher than 11th this decade. That is 3-5 places worse than the most usual 8th their senior team has placed. Previously in 2005 the Oaks notably had an top 10 in the world U19 team, a group that has been the core of their team for the past several years, now they struggle to reach top 10 just in Europe.
Unfortunately contrary to what some seem to be believe there is far more evidence that results at age grade level, especially in the context of a longer 10 year time frame, development of youth players are in general a far better indicator of future likelihood of success (or at least success with homegrown players) than merely having a (relatively low level) professional league.

Obviously of course it is not the same with the annual fluctuation as teams change every year, and you can point to teams who have bad years, or perhaps on average finish slightly above or below their ranking at senior level with countries with largest depth usually the more consistent.

However you will not find many national teams who have not had a single year at U20 level where they have managed to rank either equal or better than roughly where their senior ranking is at least once within the last 10 years. If you can it's probable you have found one with a number of heritage or residency players, or other players outside the national age grade system for whatever reason (Fiji for instance has produced numerous elite players like Nakarawa, Botia, Tuisova, Raka who were never part of their U20 setup). In any case where there are instances it is not common.

Whereas if you look at nations with profeessional leagues it is not really much of an indicator of where a side may rank at all. Italy had pro teams for years, but (up until very recently) little success in significant numbers of homegrown players to feed into them. They had pro teams well before Argentina yet that on its own has not stopped them being ranked behind them for years.
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Georgia, the REC team with the strongest
recent record in producing young talent,
win a fourth REC Grand Slam in 5 years

It is also Georgia, the team with the strongest record in producing young players who have dominated the REC, not Romania or Russia with professional leagues. Similarly a professional league couldn't guarantee the Russian qualification to RWC 2015 over Uruguay either. Whilst much further down an obscure professional league has hardly seen Sri Lanka surge up the rankings in Asian rugby.

You could correctly point out the likes of Argentina, Fiji, or Georgia all have had professional player pools abroad (especially France). However that was not that happened by chance, it is down to them producing the talent in the first place to earn reputations as known areas for French clubs to scout.

That is not to say that professional leagues are important in keeping talent in the sport and taking teams to the next level. However minus a successful development system to underpin it simply on its own they do not possess the magic and dramatic improvements that some people seem to think they do.

By the start of the next RWC cycle it will have been over a decade since 2009 when Romania last had an U20 team that was possibly in the top 16 in the world. Every player from before then will be past 30, with their special group of U19s from 2005 that was in the world's top 10 all 33.

There is of course certainly still the possibility that some very good players could emerge from Romania even out of poor age grade sides. Indeed there are countries far worse than them who you can name a few decent talents. However rugby is a team sport dependent on a collection of players.

The stark reality for Romania is it will require an almost unprecedented level of overachievement at senior level relative to accomplishments at junior level for Romania as a team to be able to simply maintain the level they have been for the past 5 years once all the 2005 U19 side is retired.
Top 14 winning prop Tudor Stroe

A number of band aid solutions exist. They can try and persuade some of their current generation to continue into their mid 30s and reach another RWC. Or persuade French players in the Top 14 of Romanian parentage like Tudor Stroe or Atila Septar (if he were to play Olympic 7s qualifiers) although there is not the quantity of such players that Spain have. Or continuing to add residency players as they have been doing in this RWC cycle owing to the lack of young talent. Although the experience with Faka'osilea and an increase to 5 years residency makes that perhaps less easy and appealing. Also hope for easier qualifying with RWC expansion to 24 teams.

Those are all things could buy time for Romania and help at least soften a decline as they attempt to rebuild, but ultimately at some point the lack of youth coming through is likely to catch up with them.

It will take a miracle if in 10 years time Romania are still 8th best in Europe and top 18 in the world. Not least because they will have the enormous challenge of attempting to regalvanise the sport to attract top talent and interest with a side on the decline and outside the RWC with less WR support as well.
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Sport in Romania in general has been
declining for years including their legendary
Gymnastics team whose level has nosedived

No easy solutions exist especially when you consider Romania have been on the decline in sport in general for some time. At the most recent Olympics in 2016 they qualified only 97 athletes (down from 172 in 1992) and fell to what was by far their all time low on the medal table at 47th. They do not produce as many footballers who star in major leagues and reach World Cup knockout stages like they did in the 90s. Most recently their famous Gymnastics team has completely fallen off a cliff over the past few years and now struggle to qualify for events.

There appears to be issues in Romanian sport that reach deeper far beyond just rugby and what can be achieved with relatively small things in the broader scheme of things like who the next national team coach will be, or minor adjustments to the format of the SuperLiga. For example according to figures from Eurostat the low levels of participation in sport in Romania are a total outlier in the EU. They also have the lowest percentage of the population in the EU for attending live sports events too (something their tiny crowds for rugby can certainly back up).
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According to Eurostat figures participation in sport in Romania is by far the lowest in the EU
Can Romanian rugby avoid the fate the Gymnastics team recently suffered? If we are being honest the long term future looks bleak and the RWC disqualification was a cruel hammer blow on top of existing problems. However if they can manage to somehow recover and stay in the top 20 in 10 years time it will be an incredible achievement given the difficulties they face. Hopefully though they can manage to recover from a terrible 2018 and the sport doesn't see a team with such history crumble away.
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The performance vs Spain was one of
Romania's worst with all their top players
for several years and soon afterwards
led to Lynn Howells resignation

Timeline of Romania's year to forget


February: Lose 22-10 to Spain in what was a dreadful performance from the Oaks. This was also the first REC match Romania lose with all their front line leading players involved to a team other than Georgia for several years and seems likely to force them towards the RWC Repechage qualifying route.


March: Lynn Howells announced his resignation following the REC, bringing his 5 year reign to an end on a low note of getting beaten pretty comfortably in Tbilisi by Georgia. Although that match was overshadowed by other goings on that day which throw the tournament into chaos. Spain choke badly in Belgium qualifying Romania for the RWC, but throw a tantrum accusing a Romanian referee of cheating them. Soon afterwards a Ukrainian rugby site points out Romania centre Sione Faka'osilea played for Tonga 7s a few years ago. Suddenly the Oaks presence at RWC 2019 is again under threat.

April: Lose 38-40 to the Netherlands in a stunning upset in their opening match of the Rugby Europe U20 Championship. They qualify for the U20 Trophy later in the year regardless though after they were named as tournament hosts, but coach Fergus Pringle is sacked. The U18s beat Belgium, but also lose 67-8 to France, and 33-7 to Russia. Meanwhile Timișoara lose to Heidelberg in the Continental Shield playoff but qualify for the Challenge Cup anyway due to EPCR disallowing the ownership of the German team.

May: Officially disqualified from the RWC along with Spain and Russia take their place. Romania also now miss out on what would have been their first ever tour to the Pacific Islands and with points deductions finish bottom of the REC forcing them to play a relegation playoff with Portugal later in the year.

June: With their tour cancelled the only internationals for Romania in June are two matches for Romania A against England Counties under Thomas Lièvremont who had been lineout consultant during the REC. They lose both matches 40-5 and 31-20.

August: The IRPA reports "many players including internationals have not been paid for months and morale is low". This is later confirmed by a Facebook post from Jack Umaga.

September: Suffer an abysmal and embarrassing World Rugby U20 Trophy on home turf, conceding 182 points in matches against Namibia, Hong Kong, & Canada finishing last with a humiliating 71-14 defeat. Later in the month Thomas Lièvremont is appointed head coach full time up to the 2023 RWC.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing, beard and outdoor
Thomas Lièvremont lasted just 3 matches
into a 5 year contract as head coach
November: Make sure of their REC place against a weak Portugal side, but then with a weakened pack are easily beaten by the USA, and lose to Uruguay for the first time with an intercept pass on the 28th phase of the last play. Also say goodbye to one of their top players of the past decade in Oyonnax flanker/lock Valentin Ursache who retires from international rugby after a 14 year career with the Oaks.

December: After just three matches into a 5 year contract Lièvremont departs following disagreements with the FRR over a future vision and members of his staff ending the year on a shambolic note both on and off the field. Meanwhile in preparation for next year's U20s start with a 70-6 loss to Spain in a friendly.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Lineout is a huge point of difference between Tier 1 and Tier 2

It should be noted lineout stats do not totally illustrate the full picture. A lineout won at the back offers better attacking possession but is more difficult, so a team that may in fact have a very good lineout in order to attempt that more often could have worse figures than one that only throws safely to the front. Also to what degree an opponent competes matters as well, with sometimes impressive lineout numbers built on an opponent preferring to focus on defending mauls, whilst also a lineout win in terms of stats can't differentiate between the quality and cleanness of the win either.

However whilst keeping that in mind the stats over a period of time (and simply watching many of the matches with your own eyes) do nevertheless seem to illustrate quite clearly the difference between Tier 1 and Tier 2 in this facet of the game. Almost universally at lineout Tier 1 nations are superior and in matches against Tier 2 have very often dominated in this area.

Take for example RWC 2015. The overall average lineout success at the tournament was 87%. For Tier 1 teams it was 90%, whilst for Tier 2 teams it was 83%. However the difference is even startker when you look at the 23 matches in the tournament between Tier 1 and Tier 2. In those it was 95% lineouts won by Tier 1 nations against 79% from Tier 2 nations.

Lineouts in matches between Tier 1 and Tier 2 at RWC 2015
Tier 1
Own
Opp.
Diff.
Tier 2
Own
Opp.
Diff.
France
93%
65%
+28
Namibia
95%
89%
+5
Ireland
100%
76%
+24
Japan
96%
96%
-
New Zealand
94%
71%
+23
Fiji
87%
89%
-1
South Africa
98%
76%
+22
Romania
79%
89%
-11
England
96%
77%
+19
USA
76%
94%
-17
Wales
100%
81%
+19
Canada
83%
100%
-18
Australia
88%
76%
+12
Samoa
75%
96%
-21
Argentina
94%
84%
+10
Tonga
72%
95%
-23
Scotland
92%
83%
+9
Georgia
70%
97%
-27
Italy
90%
94%
-4
Uruguay
67%
100%
-33
OVERALL
95%
79%
+16
OVERALL
79%
95%
-16

Image result for steve borthwick japan
Steve Borthwick coached Japan to over
a 90% success rate at lineout in 2015
The only Tier 2 side at the last RWC who was operating at more than 90% was Japan who won 43 out of 46 lineouts (93%) at the tournament. It cannot be stated enough how successful Marc Dal Maso and Steve Borthwick were coaching that side at set piece (by comparison their success at lineout in the previous tournament in 2011 was 81% and 72% against the Tier 1 opponents.

As for the rest of the Tier 2 nations you can cite numerous games where lineout losses dented their efforts significantly. Georgia vs New Zealand or Argentina, USA vs Scotland, Uruguay vs Australia or England, Romania vs France, Samoa vs South Africa all are matches from RWC 2015 that stand out.

If you look at a wider sample of matches between Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations over the past five years it tells a similar story. Over 83 matches against Tier 2 in that period Tier 1 nations win 92% of their lineouts whilst Tier 2 only wins 81% against Tier 1. Even though obviously personnel and coaching staff has changed over that time that figure has remained relatively consistent. Over a smaller sample size of the past two years of matches, Tier 1 nations have won 93% of lineouts vs Tier 2 84%. In the most recent November Tier 1 vs Tier 2 tests it was 92% lineout success from Tier 1 vs 79% from Tier 2.

Lineouts in matches between Tier 1 and Tier 2 in the past 5 years
Tier 1
Own
Opp.
Diff.
Tier 2
Own
Opp.
Diff.
South Africa
98%
76%
+22
Namibia
95%
89%
+5
New Zealand
93%
76%
+17
USA
85%
87%
-2
England
97%
81%
+16
Japan
87%
93%
-6
Argentina
95%
81%
+14
Fiji
82%
90%
-8
England
96%
77%
+12
Romania
79%
89%
-11
France
93%
82%
+11
Canada
84%
95%
-11
Italy
92%
82%
+10
Georgia
78%
92%
-14
Ireland
91%
82%
+9
Samoa
78%
96%
-18
Scotland
90%
81%
+8
Tonga
73%
94%
-21
Australia
92%
84%
+8
Uruguay
67%
100%
-33
OVERALL
92%
81%
+11
OVERALL
81%
92%
-11

What is notable looking at those figures it is not down to one team. Every single Tier 1 nation has a lineout success rate over 90% against Tier 2, and most of them win at least 18% of Tier 2 lineouts. There has scarcely been a match where a Tier 1 nation's lineout has ever really collapsed against a Tier 2 nation. The Ireland vs USA match this November was actually the first time in 56 tests between Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations that a Tier 1 nation operated at less than 80%. Whereas Tier 2 nations lineout has disintegrated frequently against Tier 1 and were sub 80% in 23 of those tests and sub 70% in 13 of them.

The sole Tier 2 nation up against Tier 1 over the last five years with a positive difference between their own lineouts and opposition lineouts is Namibia and that is from a really small sample size of 38 lineouts in only 2 matches that were not competitive. If you consider they also have a low sub 80% success rate in their other tests against other Tier 2 nations like Georgia, Tonga, or Uruguay it is not something that would very likely be maintained if they played even just a couple more matches.

GIF: Cam Dolan spares the USA another tiring defensive set in their own 22 with a lineout steal
vs Ireland. This was the most positive aspect of the Eagles game this November, over their three tests
their lineout operated at 92%, whilst opponents were at just 65% with Dolan and Nick Civetta
putting pressure on them. Overall they are an exception right now amongst Tier 2 nations in terms of
lineout success and delivering percentages of comparable with the elite in World Rugby.
Looking more specifically at individual nations lineout success over this RWC cycle (where stats are available which is most tests apart the REC, ARC, or PNC which do not get listed for some reason) there is one Tier 2 nation which stands out way beyond the rest in this area and that is the USA.

In test matches in the RWC cycle (excluding ARC) the Eagles have been operating at 91% and are the only side outside Tier 1 over that 90% mark, whilst their opponents at 82%. That figure doesn't change too much adjusting it just to their matches against Tier 1 over this cycle either (albeit from only 4 matches).

In terms of most successful lineout percentages the USA are the third most successful side in the world in this RWC cycle (the only Tier 2 nation in the top 8). That is quite an achievement from a team who were only 80% against Tier 1 in the previous cycle under Mike Tolkin and at RWC 2015 had the third worst lineout percentage on their own throw in the tournament.

Top 5 best and worst lineouts vs Tier 1 opposition in this RWC cycle
Best
Own
Opp.
Diff.
Worst
Own
Opp.
Diff.
New Zealand
90%
81%
+9
Tonga
79%
95%
-16
USA
91%
85%
+6
Fiji
80%
94%
-14
England
90%
87%
+3
Samoa
85%
97%
-12
South Africa
90%
87%
+3
Georgia
81%
89%
-8
Ireland
89%
87%
+2
Italy
84%
92%
-8

Notably 2018 under Gary Gold was particularly good for their USA lineout. In the June and November window they operated at 95% winning 70 from 74 lineouts (including going 100% in both their two tests against Tier 1) whilst their opponents against them have only been at 77%. That is huge and those numbers are up there along with the best of any international lineout this calendar year.

As for the others though there is a lot of work to do. Whilst Fiji's scrum may have been more competitive against strong opposition in recent times, their lineout isn't. Over this RWC cycle they have operated at only 80% in 8 matches against Tier 1 teams, whilst their opponents 94%.

Same goes for Samoa and Tonga. In their matches against Tier 1 over the past five years they have operated at 76% whilst their opponents are at 95%. Only Uruguay who were the worst set piece at RWC 2015 and won just 67% of lineouts have a worse record than them in matches involving Tier 1.

Video: Tonga's lineout record against Tier 1 nations has been consistently
terrible and this was one of the worst matches vs Scotland in November 2014.

The REC sides have fared no better. Georgia's lineout has also continually failed them badly whenever they have come up against Tier 1 against whom they win just 78% of their own ball whilst opponents are at 92%. They had the second worst lineout percentage at RWC 2015, whilst as for Romania they have had the lowest lineout success rate of any top 20 side over tests in this RWC cycle.

So whilst the average lineout success is around 88%. If you look at the top 8 Tier 2 nations ranked in the world's top 18, there are six lineouts that are either below or barely above 80% against Tier 1. Another one in Japan that post-Borthwick is still good by Tier 2 standards and did well this year in every match bar the New Zealand one, but judging by Tier 1 standards its overall success in the past three years is a little below average. With the USA being the exception in delivering lineout success that is truly competitive on a level with Tier 1 nations (their scrum on the otherhand though ...).
RWC Try Breakdown
Source possession of tries at RWC 2015

Needless to say the lineout is crucially important. It is the most common restart in the game, with on average around 25 per match (twice the number of scrums on average). You can also trace many points scored back to them, at the last RWC 45% of tries scored begun from possession won at lineout. When it fails repeatedly at key times it plays a massive role in a game. It is no coincidence at that RWC the one Tier 2 nation who had an incredibly successful tournament was the one which nailed lineout and set piece overall to be competitive to a high level.

It is also clearly an area where huge improvement is required from several Tier 2 nations if they hope to cause major upsets next year and beyond. Tier 1 having a 95% lineout against a 79% Tier 2 lineout as they did in 2015 is a massive advantage for them. Which begs the question why do so few of them appear to employ specialist lineout coaches?

If you look at their coaching setups virtually all have scrum coaches on board. Dan Cron (Tonga), Ben Afeaki (Samoa), Alan Muir (Fiji), Shawn Pittman (USA), Graham Rowntree (Georgia), Shin Hasegawa (Japan), Oscar Durán (Uruguay), Mike Shelley (Canada), whilst Romania had Massimo Cuttitta working with them up until recently under the Lynn Howells regime.
Image result for neil barnes rugby
Fiji lineout coach Neil Barnes

Whereas the only one currently with a lineout specialist listed on the staff list seems to be Fiji with Neil Barnes (whilst Romania had their now former head coach Thomas Lièvremont listed as a "lineout consultant" earlier in the year before his appointment). Obviously some of those scrummaging coaches listed above are also working more broadly on other parts of forward play too, but they are still nevertheless virtually all former front row forwards bringing that specialist expertise, and it seems a bit curious as to why lineout specialists seem in comparatively less demand given its importance in the game and also it being such a weak area for several of these sides.

Of course you cannot forget the scrum either, but certainly a team like Georgia in recent times have actually been in far more need of a specialist lineout guru (along with one who could also help fix their atrociously inefficient maul) than they have been in truly desperate need of help at scrum.


In any case hopefully in a year with more time in the RWC preparation camp than most Tier 2 squads usually get together this will be an area where major improvements are targeted.