Friday, 23 February 2018

Sunwolves foreign born selection leaves many Japan fans unhappy

Image result for Jamie Joseph sunwolves
As RWC 2019 draws closer we are reaching the part of the 4 year cycle where teams are narrowing down their selections ahead of the tournament. In the case of Japan with the delayed arrival of Jamie Joseph along with the reported burnout and loss of motivation amongst some of their previous RWC squad has resulted in higher turnover of players than anticipated and seen them about 6-12 months behind in building their squad compared to their equivalent position 4 years ago.

Finally last November they started to assemble more of a settled squad. Now with Jamie Joseph in charge of the Sunwolves they are aiming to catch up on lost time and this year's Super Rugby side resembles a lot more what the Japan national side may look like this year.

However this has made some unhappy in Japan as Joseph's selections seem to indicate the distinct possibility he will be heading towards the run up to the 2019 home World Cup with several recently qualified residency players from overseas.

This is far from unusual in Japan. Tongan born players who moved to University have long been part of Japanese rugby as far back as Nofomuli Taumoefolau and Sinali Latu at the inaugural World Cup in 1987. In the professional era starting with the 1999 World Cup side led by Andrew McCormick and in every tournament since Japanese sides have also featured New Zealand born players who have qualified via residency after spending three years in the domestic league. Something that is certainly not unusual in international rugby for several other nations too.

Over the years Japan has always got more criticism than most for fielding foreign born players. Partly because players from New Zealand stand out a lot more in the Japan team than they do in for example Scotland or Ireland. But also because foreign born selections have often been highly unpopular and a cause for disgruntlement amongst Japan's own fans as well.

Few complain of a foreign born presence when the team is successful as they were at the most recent World Cup under Eddie Jones. But after failure to meet expectation at a World Cup as happened in 2011 under John Kirwan there was a backlash against heavily New Zealand influenced selection. The 1999 World Cup New Zealanders are not remembered particularly fondly by Japan fans either.

There are a number players involved with the Sunwolves this year who will be qualified for Japan by 2019 after three years of Top League. These include Ruan Smith and Hencus van Wyk at tighthead prop. Grant Hattingh and Sam Wykes at lock. Willie Britz and Lappies Labuschagné in the back row (in addition to Wimpie van der Walt who made his international debut last November).

Plus in the backs Gerhard van den Heever and Robbie Robinson (also in addition to Will Tupou and Lomano Lemeki who also both already capped by Japan).
Image result for Grant Hattingh
Grant Hattingh is set to become the
tallest ever player to represent
Japan later this year

At least some of these players have clearly been selected with their qualification for the national team in mind. In certain cases this will shore up some weak areas and be a good asset to the team. Currently Japan have very little strength at tighthead prop and struggled to find genuine second row replacements for Luke Thompson and Hitoshi Ono. Any sensible Japan fans ought to acknowledge boosting depth in these positions is necessary.

Whilst in the back row Japan already have an excellent trio in Himeno, Leitch, and Mafi as first choice. Professional rugby squads rely upon having plenty of depth and it's also possible the South African trio of Britz, Labuschagne, and Van der Walt may be useful options either for the bench or to raise the standard of competition in the extended squad.

But the far more controversial selections are in the backs where Japan has a lot more talent currently and some of the country's best young players have been left out.

Under John Kirwan Japan had foreign born players first choice throughout the core of the backline at 10-12-13-15. Under Eddie Jones this was reduced as he had just Male Sa'u at 13 in his starting XV that beat South Africa. It seems Joseph, who selected just two Japanese born backs in his first Sunwolves lineup, may be leaning more towards the Kirwan selection.
Image result for Takuya Yamasawa
Takuya Yamasawa is a notable
omission in Joseph's Sunwolves
squad having impressed with
Panasonic last season

There is a difference between Kirwan and Joseph though in that the former had far weaker backline talent to select from.

Amongst those outside Joseph's Sunwolves squad includes Takuya Yamasawa, Yoshikazu Fujita, Rikiya Matsuda, or Yusuke Kajimura (Ryuta Noguchi was a very late call up to the squad) who are all highly regarded talents in Japan. Whilst some of the foreign born backs in the Sunwolves squad are journeymen or not particularly well known and played all the recent domestic season with some of the worst teams in the Top League or even in the Japanese second division. Van den Heever's selection over both Fujita or Shota Emi for instance is one that is not popular with Japanese fans.

In previous years Japan fans who complained of foreign presence were quickly given a reality check in the periods of 2000-02 or 2004 where selection policy briefly changed not to pick many residency players and results duly suffered badly.

Now though there is generally more belief in the Japanese talent available and thus more pressure on Joseph than his predecessors. If his selection is going to have a heavy foreign presence he must deliver quickly results for Japanese rugby. If not there will be many unhappy Japan fans calling for change.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

What has happened to Marc Dal Maso's Japan scrum?

One of the most remarkable things over the last RWC cycle was the turnaround Japan managed to achieve at set piece especially in the scrummaging department. In the November of Eddie Jones' first year in charge he took his team to Romania, and although his side won, they were totally crushed at scrum. Immediately afterwards Jones resolved to improve it and went and recruited former France hooker Marc Dal Maso as scrum coach which turned out to be a masterstroke.

Under Dal Maso the Japanese quickly managed to turn a meagre scrum into statistically one of the most efficient in the world over 2014/15. All this was done with largely the same personnel too.

Aside from one match where they got completely demolished in Georgia, over that period the Japanese won 116 of 117 scrums in matches against top 20 opposition. The scrum became strong enough to dominate sides like Canada, USA, Fiji, Samoa or Maori All Blacks, famously shunted Italy about, and held up well against South Africa. Previously in 2011 under John Kirwan they couldn't exploit a weaker scrum such as Canada and it played a big part in losing them a close game against Italy.

GIF: In 2011 Japan's scrum failed badly and cost them their match with Italy, but by 2014
when they next met the Cherry Blossoms scrum had been transformed by Marc Dal Maso.

According to Eddie Jones this improvement was down to "changing the mindset of the players", intense "40 minute full on scrum sessions" that he claimed was double that of most sides, and "finding our competitive edge at the scrum" by scrummaging "very lowly and very cohesively".

Video: Eddie Jones remarks upon improvements to Japan's scrum at a press conference in 2014

It was one of the most astonishing turnarounds ever seen. However unfortunately since Jones and Dal Maso's departure after RWC 2015 there has been no legacy left behind. Under Jamie Joseph the scrum has reverted back closer to how it was before. This struggle is borne out quite clearly in the statistics (excluding matches with South Korea and Hong Kong).

Over 2015 Japan played 11 tests, won 83 from 84 of their scrums (99%), won 24 penalties to 18 conceded (+6), and the scrum directly contributed over three converted tries worth of penalty points including a penalty try against Samoa at the World Cup.

Over Jamie Joseph's time in charge so far Japan have played 10 tests, won 47 from 60 scrums (78%), won 9 penalties to 21 conceded (-12), with zero penalty points gained from it. In matches between top 20 nations over this period, Japan have had the lowest scrum success rate of any side but Namibia (64% over just two tests vs Uruguay). Under Eddie Jones and Marc Dal Maso they had the highest since the new laws came in 2013.

Japan scrum
(excluding Asian Championship)
Win %
(Own feed)
Direct pts
(under Eddie Jones)
(83 from 84)
(under Jamie Joseph)
(47 from 60)

The stats don't tell you everything. Under Jamie Joseph Japan have had overall more challenging opposition compared to under Eddie Jones with 6 of his 10 matches against Tier 1 nations, plus another two against relatively strong scrums in Georgia and Romania, and none against North Americans. However you could also add Japan's scrum success has dipped markedly in the context of a general worldwide trend since the RWC where it has become much rarer for scrums to be won against the head.

Anyway whilst the stats prove the point to a certain degree, you need just watch the games to see the scrum has been a significant weakness that has been hurting Japan badly.

GIF: Japan's scrum struggled badly against Ireland in June

Against Romania, Ireland, and Australia last year, Japan lost 8 scrums of their own put in. Of those 6 were penalties, three of which led to tries conceded right from first phase off the next lineout, plus another was a penalty advantage early in the first test against Ireland which was then just gathered to run off early breakaway score.

Penalties conceded on opposition put in have hurt them at crucial times too. Japan did well to concede a relatively low amount of scrums against France, but there were still penalties from those scrums that allowed the French to clear their lines and also kick an important 3 points in that match. For the Romanians in June, the scrum was also an effective way to claw their way back into the match in the second half, even though again there were not that many in the game.
Kensuke Hatakeyama (left) &
Hiroshi Yamashita (right) were
mainstays under Eddie Jones but
disappeared under Jamie Joseph

It is hard to see the same turnaround that happened under Eddie Jones occurring again though. Partly down to Jamie Joseph not putting as much emphasis on it as his predecessor, but also down to personnel and a lack of options he has especially at tighthead prop.

The entire group of tightheads used under Jones in 2014/15, including the experienced duo of Kensuke Hatakeyama and Hiroshi Yamashita, plus also the younger Shinnosuke Kakinaga have all disappeared from the international setup. None of them featured at all in 2017.

On the face of it this sounds a bit confusing as none are too old for the next World Cup, and both Hatakeyama and Yamashita have plenty of experience both at international level plus having played abroad in the Premiership or Super Rugby, and were cornerstones of the most successful scrum Japan has ever had and you would think might be able to help.

But they along with a handful of others from the 2015 squad (Kosei Ono, Male Sa'u, Ayumu Goromaru, Michael Broadhurst), for various reasons have simply faded and now appear to be basically finished in Japan colours. Since the World Cup, Hatakeyama has gone from being an ever present at tighthead for Japan over 8 years to not even making extended training squads, to featuring in the Top League Dream XV for 6 consecutive seasons to now being third choice at Suntory Sungoliath.

More recently Heiichiro Ito and Takuma Asahara, both rated as the best tightheads in the Top League over the past two seasons, have been tried, failed to impress, and since been dropped. Meanwhile young scrummaging specialist Yoto Ioki, who has caught the eye with some recent performances for Toyota Verblitz, but he has somewhat of an old school physique and is presumably not suited for the sort of game Joseph wants to play and why he is limited to impact sub appearances for his club.

Video: Yoto Ioki comes on and dominates the Panasonic Wild Knights' full
international front row at scrum during the recent Top League semi final.

The current incumbent is Koo Ji-Won, who whilst may be a decent prospect and actually has done okay so far all things considering, he is still in his rookie season playing for Honda Heat in the Japanese second division and not a great deal can be expected of such inexperience against elite scrums.

With Asaeli Valu, who seems to be picked based more on play in the loose than at scrum, to come off the bench. Watching Valu (who also has relatively little experience with under 20 starts over 5 seasons with Panasonic Wild Knights despite being older at 28) scrum recently with Panasonic, alongside Japan's first choice loosehead and hooker, getting pushed around even at Top League level is not particularly encouraging for the prospects of the Brave Blossoms' scrum in 2018.
LunaPic Edit JiwonKooSuperRugbyRd17SunwolvesvBluesRv-eMLB16R2l
Japan's Korean born prospect at
tighthead prop Koo Ji-Won

Joseph looks set to stick with Koo and Valu in the lead up to the RWC. Although should struggles at scrum continue it is very possible that South African tighthead Ruan Smith, who qualifies on residency just before the RWC, may have a strong chance of making the team as a quick fix for the tournament. His Sunwolves selection certainly suggests that may be an option Joseph is considering.

For all the problems the scrum has faced though, it could have been a lot worse if not for one thing (as noted above) that Japan have done very effectively under Joseph which is simply limiting the amount of the scrums there are in a game.

In November, France were limited to just 4 scrums with their own put in and had zero in the first half. In June against Romania, up until a small cluster of 3 scrums in the final couple of minutes with the result already decided, there had only been 6 scrums in the match and were just 2 in the first half. Whilst in 2016 against Georgia, the match was limited to only 7 scrums, which was a great effort by Japan and well below the international average of 13 per match and a significant factor behind their upset win.

To realistically beat top 8 sides and have a chance of reaching RWC quarter finals though, Japan can't get away with just damage control. Massive improvement in this area is required which we will see if they can make over 2018 where they will face a series of very challenging scrummaging opponents (Italy, Georgia, New Zealand, and England).

Friday, 5 January 2018

The challenge for Tier 2 sides of developing elite level fly halves

One of the toughest challenges for any Tier 2 nation in the professional era has been developing homegrown high quality fly halves of the level required to excel at the elite end of the sport.

In most other positions you could name a player developed in a Tier 2 nation who has thrived at the high end Champions Cup rugby playing for some of the leading clubs in the world. However at fly half there has scarcely been a player in a Challenge Cup side let alone a leading Champions Cup one.

There have been high calibre fly halves who have played for Tier 2 nations in the professional era. Stephen Bachop, a former All Black from the 1990's when eligibility laws still allowed him to return to Samoa and inspire them to a superb win over Wales at the 1999 World Cup, was surely the best of them.

  Video: Stephen Bachop's great performance against Wales at the 1999 World Cup

However Bachop, who qualified for Samoa via a grandparent, grew up and went through a Tier 1 (New Zealand) rugby development system. It's the same for most of the other Tier 2 fly halves who have played in one of the sport's major professional domestic competitions (Premiership, Top 14, Pro14, or Super Rugby).

At the moment in the three major domestic leagues in Europe the only Tier 2 fly halves are the USA's Aj MacGinty with Sale (who was born and raised in Ireland) and Fiji's Ben Volavola at Bordeaux-Bègles (born and mostly raised in Australia). In previous years players such as Samoa's Tusi Pisi (moved to New Zealand as a small child) and Earl Va'a (born and raised in New Zealand), Fiji's Nicky Little (born and raised in New Zealand), Japan's James Arlidge (born and raised in New Zealand), USA's Mike Hercus (born and raised in Australia), or Canada's Ander Monro (born and raised in Scotland) have also featured.

But to see a fly half play in one of the major domestic leagues who was actually mostly developed in a Tier 2 nation's rugby system is incredibly rare. By my count (which may be incomplete) only 7 players (9 including the Sunwolves) developed in Tier 2 nations have worn 10 in one of those major leagues.

Of those very few that have played 10 to that level most of them did not have particularly lengthy careers as a fly half.

Either because it was not their primary position. Loki Crichton, who was born and raised in Samoa before moving to New Zealand at 18 on a scholarship, made 18 of his 48 starts in Super 12/14 or Premiership rugby at fly half but was more often a full back. Seremaia Bai, predominantly an inside centre who was an occasional fly half for 15 of 150 starts over a long career in Europe. Or Iulian Dumitras, who had a niche as a muscular 6' 3" full back with a booming boot, and made 24 starts over a couple of seasons in the Top 14 of which 8 were at 10.

GIF: Loki Crichton scoring against the Waratahs in 2000

Or they were moved out of position like 7s legend Waisale Serevi whose primary position for Fiji was fly half but in his season with Leicester in 1997/98 was mostly used on the wing only making two out 14 starts at 10. Or simply played only a few games, Canadian Connor Braid started one game at 10 on a short term contract with Glasgow in 2015, Fijian Waisea Luveniyali made only three starts for Harlequins in the 2008/09 season, and Zimbabwean Kennedy Tsimba made three Super 12 starts playing for the Cats in 2003 and the Bulls in 2005 (although Tsimba did have far more noteworthy career at Currie Cup level where he was named player of the tournament in 2002 and was unfortunate not to have had more chances in Super 12 where not being South African qualified held him back).

Video: Highlights of Kennedy Tsimba's career in the Currie Cup

The only player from a Tier 2 system to have had a truly substantial career as a 10 playing in major leagues though is Canada's Gareth Rees, who made 83 professional era starts for Newport, Wasps, and Harlequins between 1995 to 2000 of which 56 were at fly half.

Although even Rees' career in Europe comes with the caveat that a sizeable portion of it was amateur era, and only came about after being spotted by Wasps as a teenager in the mid 1980's after having moved to Harrow School in England on a gap year, plus he was born to Welsh rugby playing parents too so a chunk of his development could be linked to Tier 1 as well.

GIF: Gareth Rees nailing a 40 metre drop goal vs France at the 1991 RWC

The struggle for Tier 2 sides to develop a homegrown 10 is also reflected at international level too in the amount of fly halves developed in Tier 1 countries. In both of the past two World Cups, 7 of the 10 first choice fly halves of Tier 2 nations were players who spent most of their development in Tier 1 countries. If you exclude the nations (Georgia, Russia, & Uruguay) who have basically zero residency or heritage players to select from, then 18 of the 23 players to have worn 10 at the past two World Cups grew up in a Tier 1 country including 13 in New Zealand.

And of those countries that did field home developed fly halves, such as Georgia, or Canada at the last World Cup, the 10 has frequently been a point of major weakness. Just see for a recent example Lasha Khmaladze's frail performance against Wales last November.
Felipe Berchesi

One exception though is Uruguay. At the last World Cup los Teros fielded a homegrown fly half of decent quality in Felipe Berchesi, who now at Dax and into his third season playing Pro D2, is the only fly half who spent his entire development at least until adulthood in a Tier 2 nation now making a successful career in a professional league in Western Europe.

It may sound like very little to most readers from Tier 1 nations, but given how rare and difficult it is for Tier 2 nations to develop fly halves, to have a player hold down a solid starting position at any fully professional outfit in a Tier 1 nation is a notable achievement for the Uruguayan development system. At least for now Berchesi is probably the leading 10 trained outside of Tier 1.

There are numerous clear factors as to why fly half has been such a weak area for Tier 2 nations.

Firstly fly half is a position that it is uniquely difficult to develop a strong aptitude for at the elite level having not picked up the sport from an early age. This is particularly relevant to North American rugby or up until recent years Georgian rugby as well.

It possible in other positions. Players like Mamuka Gorgodze, Davit Zirakashvili, Jamie Cudmore, or Blaine Scully all have had fine careers at the top end of European domestic rugby and been key players for their countries having only starting the sport at around 17/18. There is not so much evidence that is possible to reach such levels at fly half however.

It is no coincidence that the USA, who have long had a reputation for being able to produce fast and powerful ball carriers but struggle to do so in more technical areas such as scrummaging and fly half play, have only ever started a home developed fly half in one (Mark Williams from Colorado against Ireland in 1999) of their 19 matches at the past five professional era World Cups.

Whereas the Uruguayans are known for the opposite with a very small player base which lacks the athletes the Americans have, but have a tightknit rugby community where the sport has been passed down by families and their players have started at a much younger age and stronger technically in areas like scrum or half back and have produced scrummagers like Pablo Lemoine or a fly half in Berchesi.

Then there is the availability of top level coaching and the lack of elite player pathways to reach a high level. None of the Pacific Islands, North Americans, or Georgians have a fully professional domestic system. Whilst even for a nation that does such as Romania, it is not underpinned by a strong development system and a distant way off in standard to any of the major Tier 1 leagues. In the short to medium term the prospect of any Tier 2 domestic league becoming of high enough standard to be considered a major league in its own right looks remote.

All this would be relevant to Tier 2 players in any position but it is even more so at fly half which relies upon vision and decision making skills to a far larger degree. It is extremely hard if not impossible to gain the skills to the required level to reach the elite without the training and experience at a level more demanding than the Japanese Top League or Romanian SuperLiga.

There is a reason the Japanese, who unlike the North Americans have a system where most of their players would have started at a younger age so do not have that disadvantage, have still selected a first choice fly half schooled in New Zealand for the past four World Cups. Reports about the standard of coaching there at grassroots and University level have often not been particularly complimentary either.

Whilst realistically very few fly halves developed in Tier 2 nations have been good enough any of these major leagues, for those that may have had potential and perhaps could been good enough there are still more further challenges.

Every squad will have around 8 to 10 props and back rowers in their squad, but only 2 or 3 players whose primary position is fly half. So even though prop, or at least scrummaging props, has not historically been an easy position for some Tier 2 sides to produce high quality players there is a lesser standard required to get a chance to play in a major league with so many more spots to fill. A club like Leicester gave a contract to a tighthead of the level of Chris Baumann, or a club like Saracens signed Titi Lamositele as a project based purely on his potential.

The equivalent simply does not happen at fly half. When Georgia's U20 side won the World Rugby Junior Trophy in dominant fashion in 2015 nearly the entire pack was signed up on Espoirs contracts by Top 14 clubs within a couple of weeks. Whilst there was no interest at all in the fly half Rezi Jintchvelashvili who also shone throughout that tournament.

Video: Rezi Jintchvelashvili at the U20 Trophy in 2015

Other barriers to player from some Tier 2 nations has also included language which is more likely to be an issue for fly halves where communication is of more importance. One example of this being the case was with Japan's gifted distributor Harumichi Tatekawa who signed as a 10 or 12 for the Brumbies in 2013 on the recommendation of Eddie Jones. But with reportedly Tatekawa's limited language ability a hindrance he never got a minute of Super Rugby and his time was reduced to a couple of pre-season warm up games out of position on the wing.

Then there are of course foreign player restrictions, which are often particularly strict in Union run systems which makes it nearly impossible to play at an elite domestic level in certain countries. This factor badly stunted Kennedy Tsimba's career at Super 12 level, and also severely restricted Loki Crichton's international career with Samoa which had to be delayed until he left New Zealand. For most though this is a barrier that will stop them ever being even considered in the first place.

To sign an overseas 10 from a Tier 2 nation with little or no top level experience plus in some cases possibly limited language would very much be a project signing and it is a risk and investment very few sides have ever opted to take. However there are more hopeful signs for the near future that we could see some fly halves from developed in Tier 2 nations go on to succeed at the top level with some upcoming highly rated prospects that could breakthrough.

On his final press conference as Japan coach in 2015 the player Eddie Jones singled out as the young player who "could really make a dent at the 2019 World Cup" was Panasonic Wild Knights fly half (then at Tsukuba University) Takuya Yamasawa of whom he said "his catch and pass skills, his running skills, and his sense of space is as good as I've seen for a 20 year old" and "reminds me of a young Michalak".

GIF: Yamasawa scoring his first Top League try for Panasonic Wild Knights

Yamasawa was linked to a move to Racing 92 in 2016, but instead stayed in Japan where he became the first player to play in the Top League whilst still at University. There are numerous issues with Japan's Super Rugby project (one being that it has been done whilst completely neglecting to improve their own domestic system) but at least one positive in the immediate term is players such as Yamasawa should be able to gain experience at a high level without needing to move abroad.

USA also have a prospect in Ben Cima who has long been viewed as their potential homegrown fly half. Cima was born in Argentina where he first started playing rugby but as the son of a diplomat moved to Washington DC at a young age. His progress has been being watched closely by Top 14 side Brive where he had a trial in November as a potential medical joker though will more likely opt for more game time in the inaugural MLR. He will also face national team competition from players with Premiership level experience in MacGinty and now ex England U20 Will Hooley which should be good for the Eagles.

Video: Ben Cima kicking a match winning 55 metre penalty for USA U20

The other nation who has some big prospects in the 10 position is Georgia, who with rugby growing strongly there now have a new generation of young players brought up on rugby with better facilities and coaching than many members of the 2003, 2007, or 2011 World Cup teams were.
Tedo Abzhandadze

Notably the young 10 being highly talked of at the moment is Tedo Abzhandadze, who was the second youngest player at the Junior World Cup last year and started four of the five games including the win over Argentina on his 18th birthday. Senior team coach Milton Haig praised him as "somebody that plays a lot older than he really is" and noted his "good decision making skills and ability to control players in front of him and direct play for someone so young". Thanks to a local sponsor Abzhandadze has since moved to Terenure College in Dublin to gain more experience in a move similar to Merab Sharikadze's to Hartpury College. That move along with three seasons measuring up against the best Under 20 players in the world should stand him in good stead to be well prepared for a potential professional senior career abroad.

Additionally Abzhandadze's U20 half back partner Gela Aprasidze, whose talent lit up the last Junior World Cup has also been playing as a 10 for Montpellier espoirs (although it remains to be seen if he will be viewed there in the long term) and there are reports of even more playmaking talents at younger age grades coming through the development system in Georgia.

Finally the young Nadroga fly half Peceli Nacebe caught the eye in the recent NRC in Australia with his running ability. His Fijian Drua performances saw him named by John McKee as a future player for the national team at 10 and has now got him a contract with Bordeaux-Bègles.

Video: Peceli Nacebe playing vs Melbourne Rising in the NRC

Nacebe is certainly a tremendous talent notably with his searing pace and ability to attack the gainline and bring in players around him. However adapting to European style rugby in France as a fly half coming from Fiji with little language (although there are a number of other Fijians at the club to help him in that regard) will not be easy and there is a high possibility he may end up being viewed as a full back or wing similar to Serevi at Leicester.

These players for the moment represent the best hopes for a Tier 2 developed fly half to succeed in a major professional league for the first time in years and help their countries challenge Tier 1 sides. If any of them do go on to make it at the top then it will be a groundbreaking achievement both for the player and the coaches and development system that trained them.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Players from 'Tier 2' nations playing in Europe (2017/2018)

A country by country breakdown of the 380+ players from nations outside Tier 1 currently playing for clubs in one of the 5 fully professional leagues in Western Europe (Premiership, Championship, Top 14, Pro D2 and Pro12).

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Tier 2 players approaching 100 caps

So far 42 players in international rugby history have reached the milestone of 100 caps for their country, but only one of those players (Portugal's Vasco Uva who won his 100th cap against Kenya in May 2015) has come from outside the 6 Nations or Rugby Championship sides.

Samoa approaching end of an era

Image result for Samoa rugby

A brief look at the state of Samoan rugby following a disappointing 2016 which saw them finish down at 15th in the world rankings (5th amongst Tier 2 nations).

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Georgia's inability to dominate weaker sides on the scoreboard finally catches up with them in surprise defeat to Japan

Georgia came into this November off the back of a record win over Romania and a successful tour of the Pacific Islands. The bubble was burst however during their upset loss to Japan, where old demons came back to haunt them as they played to the worst stereotype of Georgian rugby, and their hopes of reaching top 10 in the rankings for the first time before the end of the year went up in tatters.

Friday, 11 November 2016

November 2016 preview: Canada

Canada (vs Ireland, Romania & Samoa)
Image result for canada rugby
Things have not gotten much easier for Canada under new coach Mark Anscombe. Injuries have continued to hurt the side badly. Some of Canada's elite players such as Tyler Ardron, Jeff Hassler, Jamie Cudmore, Jebb Sinclair or Doug Wooldridge are all missing. As are even a bunch of players who might have stepped up in their absence or at least bolstered the depth such as Kyle Gilmour, Cam Pierce or Phil Mackenzie.

Additionally with a few other players simply dropping out of the squad following the RWC for various reasons, the squad looks remarkably thin on both depth and experience.

This is especially pertinent in the pack, where 10 of the 16 forwards named in the squad are either uncapped or only made their debut this year. Extra pressure has fallen on the likes of Djustice Sears-Duru, Evan Olmstead or Jake Ilnicki as the keys to holding the starting tight five together, even though they're all still in their first couple of years of international rugby and none were first choice at the RWC last year.

The likely tight five replacements on the bench will likely have under 10 caps between them, whilst Aaron Carpenter is the only member of the back row to have been in the squad 12 months ago.

The backline has been aided by both Phil Mack coming out of retirement, and Connor Braid coming out of what appeared to be a semi retirement. But even then, Braid may have been on a good form last year before his injury but is unknown exactly how well prepared he will be for this tour after over a year off.

Overall this is possibly the least experienced, worst prepared Canada squad to have embarked on a November tour since 2008 or 2009 when Kieran Crowley was underseeing a period of large scale rebuilding.

Ciaran Hearn, DTH van der Merwe, Taylor Paris, Matt Evans all being present in the outside backs is exciting, but as laid out before the main area of concern is in the pack. Romania have some injuries and retirements themselves and may not be quite as strong as they were in 2013 or 2014, but you'd expect they will be fancying their chances at home of dominating what is on paper a thin Canadian pack.

Nevertheless that is also the game Canada have the best chance of winning this month, with a win against Samoa in Grenoble looking unlikely, and the fixture against Ireland being really just damage limitation. Expectations are not high for Canada.

November 2016 preview: Samoa

Image result for samoa rugby Samoa (vs France, Georgia & Canada)

The past 2 years have seen Samoa go from some of their all time highs of the professional era, with 7th place in the rankings, and dominant wins over Tier 1 nations, to disputes over incompetent amateur administration and a disappointing RWC campaign possibly on a par with 2007.

On paper the group of players that delivered wins over Australia, Wales and Scotland appears to be now ageing and maybe past their peak. And there does not at first glance seem to be talent ready in key positions of front row and 9/10 to in the immediate term seamlessly replace veterans like Ole Avei (33), Census Johnston (35), Kahn Fotuali'i or Tusi Pisi (both 34).

With others like David Lemi (34) or Paul Williams (33) also both recalled, and several others either past or pushing 30. Coach Alama Ieremia has opted to keep faith in his old guard for now, and has resisted the temptation to leave out many of his most experienced players who may not be around by the time of the next RWC as Toutai Kefu has done with Tonga.

This may make Samoa probably the oldest squad around right now, but it does mean they have lots of knowledge and pedigree in their side with players who've been around the block. Samoa may not be the side they were in 2012, but remain one of the better Tier 2 sides and showed against New Zealand and Scotland last year that they can't be written off and can rise to an occasion.

It will be interesting to see how this Samoan side does this November, and if successful how Ieremia approaches the build up to the 2019 RWC and how many veterans he backs to reach that tournament. His side had a mixed June, with a win, a draw and a loss. Less than two wins this month, and an uncompetitive loss to France, would probably see the year regarded as a disappointment and put early pressure on the coach in front of a demanding public that's used to seeing their country as the strongest Tier 2 side.

November 2016 preview: Tonga

Image result for Tonga rugby Tonga (vs Spain, USA & Italy)

The Ikale Tahi had the oldest squad at the RWC, and under the guidance of Toutai Kefu 2016 has been a rebuilding year for them, and they are still looking for their first win.

Kefu should get that maiden win as Tonga open up their November series in Madrid against Spain, followed up by the USA in San Sebastian, which offer a good opportunities to weld the squad together prior to finally facing Italy in Padova. All three of those matches are winnable, and for the first two Tonga are favourites.

The new coach has cut some of the older players from the RWC, and his squad now has limited amount of players left from the 2011 RWC where Tonga shocked France. But what's most noticeably different about Kefu's squad is there are a significant amount of players from the ITM Cup, ten in total, whereas the squads had previously been heavily dominated by European based players.

Tonga are in a tricky position in RWC qualifying (not necessarily to qualify, but to avoid treks to places like Sochi and a possibly lower pool seed), and have limited amount of time to fix it. This November is a crucial step in the rebuilding process, with a poor month potentially seeing them tumble outside the top 15 in the world for the first time in years.

November 2016 preview: USA

Image result for USA rugby USA (vs Maori All Blacks, Romania & Tonga)

Like many Tier 2 squads, the USA under new coach John Mitchell have had a high turnover of players this year. Performances have been mixed so far, but there is still much unknown about this group with them really not having many opportunities as of yet to play at full strength under Mitchell.

For some reason, unlike most other nations, the USA only played two tests in this year's June international window, and are only playing two tests in the November window as well. Only having your full strength team play three tests in a year against top 20 ranked opponents is a pitiful amount frankly, and has unfortunately slowed down the process of rebuilding his squad post RWC. That they've been short of matches against anybody, let alone top 20 ranked opponents makes it even worse though, it's puzzling as to why not even a match against a side like Spain or Belgium couldn't have been organised.

Apart from the injured Aj MacGinty and Greg Peterson, most the Eagles' bigger names playing in elite level leagues around the world have returned to the squad this November. Some such as Samu Manoa for the first time since the RWC, and others such as Marcel Brache for the first time.

As mentioned before, this group of players has not really played together for any significant period yet, so a lot will depend on how quickly the coaching staff of Mitchell, Phil Greening and Mike Friday can knit them together as a unit, and how well some of the newer players especially in the tight five take to this level of international rugby.

On paper they should be favourites against Romania and have a decent chance against Tonga (two opponents the Eagles had contrasting records against under Tolkin). However the Oaks have several more matches under their belt this year and are not adapting to a new coach, whilst Tonga despite being in a major rebuilding period themselves have more solid depth to call upon.

Both Eagles tests this November could go either way, and should give a good early indication of where the USA currently stand amongst Tier 2 nations. A successful European tour, and in particular a win over Tonga (which Tolkin never managed) would give Mitchell a good platform to lead into 2017 with.

November 2016 preview: Romania

Romania (vs USA, Canada & Uruguay)
Image result for Romania rugby
2016 has been a low profile year so far for Romania, which for the most part of the ENC and Nations Cup they have attempted to freshen the side up with 15 new players winning their first cap this year (there are an additional 5 uncapped players in their 32 man November squad too). The year has involved both some ups, such as thrashing Russia and comfortably winning the Nations Cup for the fourth time in five years, and some lows, such as scraping past Spain by the skin of their teeth and getting pummelled by rivals Georgia.

There is some disappointment from Romanians at not getting a Pacific Island visit this year, which means they've only had one fixture all year against a higher ranked opponent. Nevertheless, this November window offers three winnable games and an interesting opportunity for this squad heading into RWC 2019 qualifiers.

The Oaks have notable holes in their squad with Mihai Macovei, Paula Kinikinilau, Valentin Ursache and Otar Turashvili all starters from the RWC who are either injured or unavailable. However both their North American opponents both also in rebuilding phases under new coaches, so may be vulnerable, particularly the Canadians whose pack the Oaks will be looking to bully and exploit in Bucharest as they did in 2014.

They will still be underdogs against both USA and Canada, and a lot of Romania's hopes rest on whether they can get a significant enough advantage up front and how successfully their recently qualified backs from overseas such as Jody Rose, Jack Umaga, Fonovai Tangimani and Stephen Shennan settle into the team.

It should be reiterated though that they are still underdogs, particularly against the USA who the Oaks have a poor record against. They have had issues in the build up with experienced players withdrawing, whilst their leading domestic team Timisoara Saracens (who provide 15 of their 32 man squad) did not fare particularly well in the European Challenge Cup. If they came away from this November with three wins, and ten wins from eleven this year, it would be a sensational achievement for a rebuilding side. Even two wins would be satisfactory, whilst one win against Uruguay (who Romania have never been troubled by whenever they've travelled for the Nations Cup) is the minimum expectation.

November 2016 preview: Japan

Image result for Japan rugby Japan (vs Argentina, Georgia, Wales & Fiji)
One year on from their famous RWC campaign than won the hearts of many rugby fans, new coach Jamie Joseph is starting out his first tests with Japan with a squad that already bears little resemblance personnel wise to the settled group of players Eddie Jones had between 2013 to 2015.

With unavailabilities for various reasons seeing numerous players left out, Joseph named an incredible 17 uncapped players in his first 32 man squad. The turnover of players in this Japan team has been utterly eye watering. Following the Argentina test, a total of 42 new caps have been awarded this year (which could rise up to 46 by the end of the year). That figure is inflated by Asian rugby, but it's still a huge total that no other side gets remotely near. By comparison Eddie Jones gave 16 new caps in his first year in charge.

This squad still has some quality players such as Amanaki Mafi and Harumichi Tatekawa, but it is also likely to field numerous players especially in the pack who have never played at a higher level than Top League rugby. In years past a schedule like they have this year would be celebrated, but this year it looks like a baptism of fire for such an inexperienced squad, with all their opponents currently higher ranked.

Many teams go in rebuilding phases under new coaches after World Cups, but there are questions to be asked about how Jones' Japan squad has fallen apart and been dismantled to such a degree and so quickly. If the JRFU's ambition was to squash out all the momentum and excitement from the RWC campaign as fast as possible then they have done a remarkably great job over the course of 2016.

Anyway, a winless tour seems highly likely for Japan this November this year. Their squad have their work cut out even to keep any of the matches even just quite close. The minimum should be at least avoiding the embarrassments that previous Japanese sides have faced at the Millennium Stadium and leave the tour with pride in the jersey intact.

In fairness, there were similar issues with the SunWolves who did manage some positive moments to take from their inaugural Super Rugby season (mixed in with some games they'd rather forget too), and as mentioned there are still some very good players in the squad. You feel a win would require a miracle on this tour (a repeat of Georgia's performance against Belgium in 2013 maybe), but it's not out of the question they could surprise and make at least one of the matches closer than anticipated.

November 2016 preview: Georgia

Georgia (vs Japan, Samoa & Scotland)
Image result for Georgia rugby
The Lelos have been an exception amongst Tier 2 sides this year. Unlike most others they have a very settled squad, and not faced a post-RWC rebuilding period under a new coach and new system. The building blocks have been in place and Milton Haig's team have pushed forward a level so far this year, notably beating Antim Cup rivals Romania by a record margin, followed up by going unbeaten on their tour of the Pacific Islands in spite of missing various first choice starters in the pack. So it is no surprise there is a wave of optimism around Georgian rugby at the minute.

In 2013 when Georgia clung on to beat Samoa for the first time, it was a huge upset against a side who were ranked 7th in the world. Now many are viewing this fixture as very even with a slight tilt towards Georgia. There is a sense of expectation around the side now, and failing to reach two wins this month would feel like a mild disappointment.

The match many are looking forward to most this month though is the encounter against Scotland in Kilmarnock. The Lelos will of course be firm underdogs against an improved Scottish outfit, but if they were to get those two wins, they'd be entering with significant momentum and maybe finishing the year inside the top 10 for the first time as the highest ranked Tier 2 side.

To add to the optimism around Georgia this month. They also have unusually few injuries for an elite rugby side as of currently writing (could easily change of course). Only really Shalva Mamukashvili from the pack is a notable absentee. Plus notable starters like Mamuka Gorgodze, Levan Chilachava (despite Toulon faring poorly this season), Misha Nariashvili or Tamaz Mchedlidze are receiving rave reviews of their form at domestic level.

News regarding Georgian rugby progress has been very positive this year for the most part, and the national side is approaching an all time high point. It will be interesting to see how they wear the burden of being favourites against sides like Japan (who will have had more training time ) or Samoa (who still have a decent squad on paper and will be eager to regain their form of a few years ago). Many believe this group of players can establish themselves as one of the strongest Tier 2 sides now and over the next few years. A repeat of the results from the November series of 2014, would finish a standout year on a bitterly sour note.

November 2016 preview: Fiji

Image result for Fiji rugby Fiji (vs Barbarians, England & Japan)

Fiji are one of the few Tier 2 sides not to have had a major post-RWC overhaul, and the squad remains very similar to the one that played at the World Cup last year, with just a few fresh faces in the pack. Even with some middling performances at home in June, where they were minus players involved in the French playoffs and had a few players involved in Olympic 7s preparation, they are still probably the strongest Tier 2 side at present.

This November Fiji only play two tests with an extra Barbarians fixture beforehand in Belfast (a bit of a curious venue for a fixture that sold over 70,000 tickets in 2013), which has allowed for McKee to hand opportunities to a couple of new players who were part of Fiji Warriors impressive recent run of form.

England at Twickenham looks like tough ask for a side that has had little time together over the past 12 months, it may be hard for Fiji to keep it as competitive as the 2015 RWC opener (where the scoreboard didn't quite do justice to Fiji). Whilst Japan in Vannes, considering the state of the Cherry Blossoms, ought to be a routine win for the Fijians (although they did nearly mess up a similar fixture against the USA two years ago).

2016 has really been a year where the 7s side has taken the limelight in Fijian rugby. But the 15s side has quietly ticked over, putting themselves in a strong position to qualify for RWC 2019 as the top Pacific Island side despite not being at their best. If they can leave this November with two wins that would be satisfactory, and should give them confidence heading into 2017, where they can finish the job of being the fastest RWC 2019 qualifier, and play more big Tier 1 tests (Australia already being booked for June).

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Tonga's missing home tests

A quick summary as to why Tonga haven't played a home test since 2009 and how much longer Tongans will have to wait to see international rugby return to Nuku'alofa.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Players from 'Tier 2' nations playing in Europe (2016/2017)

A country by country breakdown of the 350+ players from nations outside Tier 1 currently playing for clubs in one of the 5 fully professional leagues in Europe (Premiership, Championship, Top 14, Pro D2 and Pro12).

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Another month of progress for Georgian rugby

A brief summary on a highly positive month for Georgian rugby which saw them unexpectedly return home their Pacific Islands tour undefeated and record their first top 10 finish at the World U20 Championships.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Romania becoming forgotten nation of world rugby


As another year passes with Romania playing low profile competition, they are becoming increasingly the forgotten Tier 2 nation of world rugby.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Shuhei Kubo to become first Japanese referee in Super Rugby

Referees from Tier 2 nations are rarely seen, but this weekend Shuhei Kubo will become the first Japanese to officiate in Super Rugby. Kubo has also been awarded an international match in June as well.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

When Namibia beat Ireland

A look back at one of the most startling results in rugby history, when Namibia beat Ireland back in July 1991.

Fiji Warriors continued dominance over their Pacific rivals

Fiji's domestic based players have had notable success over the past couple of years. As the June internationals approach, it will be interesting to see how much of this local talent will be rewarded for their success with an opportunity in the national team.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Why Georgia & Romania shouldn't always be lumped together

In the growing number articles on the argument for some version of 6 Nations expansion that have woken up over the past 2 years, invariably what is said is the 'likes of Georgia and Romania'. Lumping the nations together and implying they are one homogeneous entity in similar situations. However that is a misrepresentation of the reality. These are two sides on very different trajectories, and one of whom has clearly gained some ascendancy in this rivalry.