Thursday, 27 September 2018

Thoughts on the possibility of an expanded 24 team Rugby World Cup

Recently World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper mentioned that expanding the RWC to 24 teams is a discussion that is now on the table and could possibly happen by 2023 if progress from lower ranked sides against Tier 1 in 2019 is good enough. Here is a look at what that tournament could look like and why whilst any expansion would add some weaker teams it does have some arguments in its favour.
The RWC trophy on tour in Germany

The possible 24 team RWC format

The current RWC format of 4 pools of 5 teams has been criticised as inherently flawed on the basis that the uneven number of teams in each pool will always mean unequal rest periods.

That has been used as an argument for the 24 team RWC, which could come in either two forms, six pools of four under the 1982 FIFA World Cup format, or the 1986-1994 version which was also used for the recent UEFA Euro 2016.

However both those come with issues as well. The problem with the latter is with 16 teams advancing to the second round it turns the pool stage into somewhat of a non-event. The only intrigue in terms of qualifying would be which of the third pool seeds beat the fourth seeds by enough of a margin to get the requisite points difference to progress. Although other matches perhaps could still maybe carry some importance in the context of securing a better passage to the final.

The 1982 FIFA World Cup format creates a little more tension in the pool stages, and removes the unsatisfactory "lucky points difference winner" element of getting through to the next round, however also comes with problems in its second round phase of matches that act to decide the semi finalists.

A second round format of 12 teams split between 4 pools of 3 would revisit the unequal scheduling issue of an uneven numbers in pool, as well as creating the potential for some dead rubbers at a point when the tournament should be approaching its most important stage.

So really none of these formats in either 20 team or a 24 team RWC are perfectly ideal. The 16 team second round is probably the slightly better of the two 24 team options should expansion happen though.

4 team pool much better for all Tier 2 nations

It has been well documented that some Tier 2 nations despite having the least capable to manage from short 3 or 4 day turnarounds between matches with less depth than the biggest nations have got them the most often. There are numerous cases where this has had a notable effect in different ways.
Image result for Tonga France 2011
The two biggest upsets at the past two
RWCs has seen a Tier 2 side not reach
the quarter final after failing to win a
match off a short 3 day turnaround

Firstly it has arguably stopped teams reaching the quarter finals. In 2011 Tonga opted to play their strongest team for the tournament opener against New Zealand but then had to play Canada only four days later. They ended up losing that match, so their win later in the tournament against France didn't get them to the quarter finals. It's possible they may have lost that match anyway, but it would have surely helped had they not had to rotate their team for it, whilst the alternative of playing a second string and resting players for the opening match would have kicked the tournament off on a bad note.

Also at that tournament we saw Samoa lose their key match against Wales which they also played off a short turnaround. For that game they had lost two notable starters who took small knocks in their first game against Namibia and may have recovered in a week but not in three days. One of those was particularly crucial in first choice fly half Tusi Pisi, as his replacement Tasesa Lavea had an absolute shocker against Wales. Again it's possible Samoa may not have won anyway, but it would have been different, and they did lead that match past 60 minutes before fading over the last quarter.

Whilst in 2015 we saw Japan's quarter final hopes end against Scotland where they were only 12-10 behind at 45 minutes but faded badly conceding 33 unanswered points over the last 33 minutes. That was especially tough for them as they were not only playing two matches in four days, but two of the top 8 teams within four days, and after such an effort against South Africa it was always going to be tough to have the energy to repeat that again.

We have also seen those turnarounds effect matches in terms of resting players. In previous tournaments Japan had fielded reserves against the big team in their pool in Australia in 2007 and New Zealand in 2011 to rest players for more winnable matches (it's likely most other coaches would have done the same against South Africa in 2015 and we'd have never had that all time classic match).
Image result for Romania England 2011
Some of the most utterly forgettable
RWC matches in recent times such as
Romania vs England in 2011 have been
when Tier 2 teams have fielded second
string sides up against Tier 1 teams

Numerous other teams have done this too. For example Romania fielded reserves against England in 2011, as did the USA against Australia in 2011 and South Africa in 2015 in order to target the next match in three days against a more winnable opponent. In all those cases a match between a Tier 2 nation's second string and a Tier 1 side have been some of the worst and most forgettable of the tournament. Only rarely do you get an exception like Georgia in 2015 who gave a credible effort against New Zealand in spite of resting several players.

Many of those who complain of more blowouts in a 24 team RWC don't understand that whilst there is the potential for that, you would also get the chance to schedule the matches better in a way that reduces some of those sorts of matches as listed above where teams do not put out their best (indeed none of those teams would be likely to still field a second string in any match with points difference playing a role in whether they got to the next round or not).

It also means Tier 2 teams that do achieve an upset a more likely to get to a quarter final from it. In the 24 team format that France vs Tonga result would possibly have come in the last 16 for example.

One less match for the 8 weakest teams also makes sense. It is easier for a team like Namibia for example to put their strongest effort all into three matches. In both the previous RWCs in 2011 and 2015 they have played their best team throughout on a tight schedule and run out of steam by their final match against Wales (especially the second half) or Argentina despite some better earlier efforts. Same also could be said of Uruguay in the second half vs England in 2015, or Georgia vs France in 2007.

Concerns of more blowouts somewhat overblown

As already explained the existing 5 team pool format already lends itself to some larger margins than possible with 4 team pool. Both with matches involving weakened teams like USA vs South Africa 2015 and Romania vs England 2011, or with the weakest team in the tournament Namibia playing their best team on one of the tightest schedules in 2011 and simply having nothing left by the final match.

Any expansion would though obviously be including weaker teams. However the likely four added entrants are not so far off the existing participants that we will necessarily see a return of 12 plus tries conceded in a match. Romania and Spain are the obvious ones who both are ranked in the top 20 teams right now but missing out next year due to eligibility issues.

The next best others are probably Germany (at least the version not wrecked by political infighting) and Hong Kong who are a step down but with a full two months of preparation should be able to at least match USA's second string effort against South Africa. That admittedly is not particularly great, but the point is that if you account for possibility of reducing those Tier 2 second string matches then there wouldn't be all that many more blowouts in a 24 team competition compared to how many there already are currently in the existing 20 team one as some might expect.
Image result for Fiji rugby 2007
Fiji in 2007 are the only team in the
professional era outside Tier 1 sides to
have reached a RWC quarter final

Really it is the repetitiveness of the quarter final lineup that is more of the problem for the tournament than the bottom end now. In the professional era only Fiji in 2007, who were fortunate enough to run into a Gareth Jenkins coached Wales team, have broken the hold the same 9 Tier 1 sides have had on the last 8 RWC lineup over the professional era. Whilst the list of genuine potential finalists and winners has not exactly increased much over that period either.

Perhaps the strongest argument against a 24 team RWC is that expanding the list of quarter finalists needs to be the focus before expanding the list of qualifiers. Although as also already noted, Samoa and Tonga in 2011, and Japan in 2015 would have had their chances of breaking into that quarter final lineup increased rather than decreased in a evenly pooled 24 team format.

Short term pain for longer term gain

Also we are of course speaking about all this in the present moment. The strongest argument for a 24 team RWC lies in the boost to the sport it would bring to all the new participants over the longer term.
Image result for USA rugby world cup 2007
A classic RWC moment that would have
not happened had the RFU won their bid to
host in 2007 and cut the tournament to 16

For some of the most improved Tier 2 sides in World Rugby that progress is likely to have been significantly slower if they had not benefited from the RWC's last expansion to 20 teams.

If the tournament had always remained at 16 and the USA likely missed out on RWC qualification to Canada for the last 20 years would they have been in a position to finally launch a professional domestic league and take a historic Tier 1 scalp against Scotland this year? It's doubtful. It's also unlikely Georgia would have progressed as fast as they have done without the opportunity to make their initial RWC debut in 2003.

That expansion also cut off the opportunity for Rugby League to get ahead of Union in certain territories. No doubt if the USA had spent the past 20 years outside the RWC then the ground may been riper for League to have had a better chance of trying becoming the more dominant code there. Also potentially in parts of Europe too. That is extremely unlikely to happen now though and it is thanks to the expansion in 1999 to 20 teams. Also if one of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga always had to miss out every RWC the sport may have faced difficulty than it has in keeping their interest on Union up against League as well.

Whilst it may have added more blowouts especially over the first two or three editions, that move to 20 was clearly a very wise move in the longer term for the global game. Also as a side note rugby history should look back unfavourably on the blazers at the RFU for campaigning for the RWC to be cut back down to 16 teams in 2007.
Image result for uruguay rugby 2015
Uruguay may have lost all their matches
at RWC 2015 by wide margins but from
that appearance have since progressed
significantly both on and off the field

A more recent example of a nation whose progress has been accelerated by a RWC appearance is Uruguay. They were arguably the weakest team at RWC 2015 and got put in the pool of death, but since then rugby in the country has improved both on and off the field and Los Teros will now arrive at RWC 2019 a far more professional outfit and with new a South American professional domestic league on the horizon in the 2020s.

It is not possible to look precisely into the future, but expansion to 24 would potentially bring similar benefits in terms of accelerating the sport's growth in the beneficiaries of that expansion as well even if they were not all impressive on their debut tournament. Those would notably be nations like Germany, Spain, or Brazil who have all beaten regular RWC nations over this 4 year cycle.

What above all brings most improvement to a nation is is more money and participation in the sport's showpiece event would add much more sponsorship, and interest to reach right back down right to the grassroots of the system. Also of course the participation of more countries and growth in audience in those territories would have the potential to bring more money and sponsorship to World Rugby too which is why the move has been mooted in the first place.
Image result for Brasil espana rugby
Brazil and Spain are two potential nations
who would benefit from a 24 team RWC

So should the expanded 24 team RWC happen?

Anyone who cares about the sport's global growth should agree an eventual expansion is desirable at some point, but the debate about when the time is right ultimately comes down to personal judgement. However for what it's worth from my personal point of view the pros of the 24 team RWC (a possibly fairer pool format that allows better performance from Tier 2 sides and a significant boost for the sport's growth in new territories) are hard to ignore and outweighs the cons (a dilution of quality with more teams who have no quarter final hopes and a less exciting pool stage where it is harder to get knocked out than get through) and I lean towards that happening as soon as 2023.

However whilst the sport has perhaps found more teams perhaps becoming more competitive amongst the lower ranked sides at the RWC over this cycle and the qualifying campaign (apart from in Africa) has in general been more competitive than 2013/14. The competitiveness of Tier 2 up against Tier 1 (excluding Italy) and the repetitiveness of quarter final lineups remains something that still needs to be improved upon. That is another topic, but the shut door to all the sport's major tournaments outside of the RWC is a problem and expansion is probably more badly needed there than at the RWC.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Three notable age grade teams and future of the REC in the 2020's

As the 2018 World Rugby Under 20 Trophy gets under way. Here is a look back at two particular age grade teams which have had a strong influence on the Rugby Europe Championship over the past decade. Plus the current strength of the Georgian youth setup, which this year produced possibly the best Tier 2 age grade team to date, and what this could mean for the REC heading into the 2020's.

Russia taking on Wales at the 2004
IRB U21 World Championship

 Russia U21 (2004)

Their results at that World Championship were a long way from being one of the best Tier 2 age grade team. Up against the powerful champion New Zealand U21 team they were hit for a cricket score losing 110-3. Albeit in mitigation that was one of the best Kiwi age grade teams of the past 15 years after the legendary 2011 team, featuring 13 future All Blacks in the squad and 6 future RWC winners, and beat everyone at that tournament by a comfortable margin.

In their other matches they did not suffer quite so badly against the likes of Scotland (29-17), or Italy (33-20), before beating Tonga in the 11th place playoff which may sound like much but was almost certainly the best age grade team Russia has had.

To put it in context the Bears had a Word Ranking of 23 at the time, so just getting to the Championship to finish 11th was big jump ahead of that. In more recent years the Russians have struggled to even get close to qualifying a team to the U20 Trophy (and the last time they did in 2012 they were horrendous), let alone getting to the main U20 Championship again.

However what is most notable about this side is how many of the players went on to have lengthy international careers and still remain in the team to this day.

Now 14 years on from that tournament most players involved are now aged between 33 and 35 and in the latter stages of their career if not retired. In total 121 players between the 12 teams became full internationals. Only 11 of those have still been active in international rugby as of this year. They include Alessandro Zanni, Juan Manuel Leguizamón, Leonardo Ghiraldini, plus Alun-Wyn Jones and Ben Smith who at age 18 were two of the youngest players at the tournament.

The other six players who remain active this year are all from Russia, five of whom featured in the Bears most recent match against Canada in June, including four in the starting lineup.

Left to Right: Sergey Trishin, Yury Kushnarev, Andrei Garbuzov, and Evgeny Pronenko all who
were part of the Russia U21 team of 2004 lineup for the Bears most recent match vs Canada.

In all that Russia U21 team produced a massive 16 full internationals. 7 of those have won at least over 50 caps (plus possibly soon an eighth in Evgeny Matveev who won his 49th cap from the bench against Canada). It will certainly have the first ever Russian player to reach 100 caps in Yury Kushnarev, the Bears all time leading points scorer and fly half for 12 years who is currently on 99 caps, along with possibly another next year in 86 cap veteran Andrei Garbuzov whose career has now spanned 13 years.

The others in that team still active include 60 cap flanker Andrei Temnov, 55 cap centre Sergey Trishin, 54 cap tighthead prop Evgeny Pronenko. Whilst there were also other names in the squad which will be familiar to those who have watched Russian rugby. Such as their RWC 2011 captain Vladislav Korshunov, and full back Igor Klyuchnikov both of whom now have retired.

Together that Russia U21 squad has gone onto win a combined 624 international caps and counting, which is the all time record for a single age grade team. Several of those players have actually spent periods out of the side but Russia keep coming back to them.
Russia against Romania in 2008 during
their period as second best REC team

That squad also provided between 6 to 8 of the Russian team in each of those matches over that period of 2007-2010 where (also supplemented by a three or four from the year or two after like Victor Gresev and Andrei Ostrikov) the Bears had a hold over Romania, beating the Oaks several times as they finished in the top two of the REC three years in a row, qualified for their first RWC without even needing to go through the Repechage, and reached what remains their all time ranking high of 16.

However Russia never improved beyond that point. The Kingsley Jones era saw record losses to both Georgia and Romania and RWC qualification failure against Uruguay (things which coincidentally Kingsley is now repeating with Canada). Whilst under Alexander Pervukhin they rarely lost to sides ranked below them, but they also rarely made much progress in challenging those above them and got pushed out of the RWC qualifying places by Spain (albeit thanks to their ineligible player at 10).

The returns from their age grade sides in the U20 era have also been comparatively meagre. For example their last squad to have qualified for the U20 Trophy which was in 2012 (the year which provided without doubt the tournament's worst ever winner), the Russians finished last with some utterly terrible results and that group has since produced only four internationals with just 9 starts between them.

If we're being honest apart from Denis Simplikevich on the wing it has been a while since Russia produced a player of much significance. The fact not only that they keep going back to a chunk of that team from a decade ago, but by far their strongest and most influential debutant since their RWC appearance in 2011 is a 35 year old poach from Kazakhstan in Anton Rudoy pretty much sums that up.

From 2011 onwards the Romanians struck back and since been dominant against Russia with a similarly unique generation of their own coming into their prime over the following RWC cycle ...

Top 10 most capped age grade teams at a World Rugby U19/20/21 tournament since 2004 (Up to date as of 26/08/2018)

 Romania U19 (2005)

Second on the list for most caps from a single age grade team behind Russia is the Romania U19 squad of 2005, who between them 12 full internationals have won 568 caps and counting.

The Oaks actually have a strong history of successful age grade teams going back into the amateur era. Much like their senior team they were able to achieve wins over France and routinely beat Italy in old FIRA U19 tournaments back in the 1970s. Whilst in the mid 1990's they had a group that drew with France, beat Wales, Italy, and Scotland, and finished third at the 1996 FIRA U19 World Cup (albeit back then four Tier 1 nations in England, New Zealand, Australia, or Ireland didn't participate).

In the modern era since World Rugby took charge of age grade tournaments in 2002 and all the major teams participated every year though they have had very little success. Aside from one year in 2005 where they finished 7th in the U19 World Championship (after many of the same players had earned promotion winning the B tournament the previous year). Admittedly that ranking was in part down to a fortuitous pool draw, but nevertheless they still had to beat a Tier 1 side in Argentina to achieve it.
Romania U19 team photo 2005

That squad remains by far the best ever team the Romanians have had at a World Rugby age grade tournament and provided the core of the Oaks team for the past two RWC cycles.

They are the only team from any World Rugby age grade tournament to date to have produced six different players with over 60 caps. It is also the only one to have had five different players earn qualification for at least three RWCs (unfortunately though despite earning qualification they of course won't be able to play in at least RWCs for reasons outside their control).

In that squad were the Oaks most capped captain Mihai Macovei (78 caps), most capped player and leading point scorer Florin Vlaicu (111 caps), second most capped player, leading try scorer, and probably most gifted back of the professional era Cătălin Fercu (103 caps), along with their most recent Top 14 winner Mihai Lazar (62 caps), plus also Viorel Lucaci (64 caps), and Valentin Poparlan (75 caps). Additionally there was also another future Romania international at that tournament (in the B Division) in Otar Turashvili who was part of the Georgia U19 team that year.

Left to right: Cătălin Fercu, Florin Vlaicu, Mihai Macovei, Mihai Lazar, Viorel Lucaci, and Valentin Poparlan at the 2005 U19 World Championship. Not a single one of the Oaks 136 matches since that tournament has been without at least one of them in the starting XV.

Those are all some of Romania's most influential players of the past several years all in one age grade team. Indeed all six of those Romanians named above (plus Turashvili) from that 2005 U19 Championship were in the starting lineup for the Oaks notable wins over Tonga in 2013, or against Canada at RWC 2015 where they came from 15-0 behind. If there was a prize for a single age grade team that has gone on to have most influence on a national team this group would surely be a leading nominee.
Image result for Romania Canada 2015
Mihai Macovei scores a crucial try
vs Canada at RWC 2015 in a match
that included six of the Romania U19
team of 2005 in the starting lineup

Since Fercu's debut in November 2005, there has been at least one player from that Romania U19 team in the starting lineup of every single one of the Oaks subsequent 136 matches, and a minimum of three players from that group on the Oaks teamsheet for the past 82 consecutive matches. Over Lynn Howells five years in charge that U19 group overall held 30% of the starting positions. There were at least four in his starting lineup in 48 out of 61 matches, and between 2013 to 2015 usually six or even seven when Dorin Manole was still around.

This generation (which also includes some others of a similar age such as the Ursache brothers, Andrei Radoi, or latterly Johan van Heerden) have battled hard to keep the Oaks competitive and amongst the top 16 in the world beating the likes of Samoa, Tonga, Canada, and USA, as well as competing with Georgia at the top of the REC which they won in 2017 in Bucharest after unluckily missing out in 2013.

But they've also in many ways been one of the unluckiest generations as well. None of them, apart from Lazar at Castres where he won the Top 14, really got a real chance at a major club, even though Fercu at his peak or Macovei especially were certainly good enough for careers at that level. Romania are also the Tier 2 nation who has to wait the longest for a chance to play a Tier 1 side outside a RWC (where half their chances to do so come off minimal rest), the last time they did was back in 2006 when only Fercu and Vlaicu were in the side with under 10 caps, so that has basically bypassed all their prime years now. Whilst as they approach nearer the end of their careers they've now been kicked out of the RWC.

The upcoming challenge for Romania which some have been warning about for years draws ever closer now. How will they to manage to cope with such an unusually large contingent of their team all having now entered their 30's and likely heading into either a decline or retirement in one swoop?

With their youth setup having struggled so badly for about 7 or 8 years now and showing little real indication of recovery it does not look something they are well prepared for. Whilst they are clearly top 8 in Europe at senior level, they've struggled to make the top 10 in Europe at junior level and the last U20 Trophy they qualified for was back in 2010. Hardly any Romanian players born in the 1990's have broken through and looked like natural successors to the U19 generation of 2005.

GIF: Romania's two 100 cap Oaks Cătălin Fercu and Florin Vlaicu as 18 year olds
combine to create a try during the win vs Japan at the 2005 U19 World Championship
Already we have been seeing signs of decline this year amongst the backs. Fercu has not been the same player of old after coming back from a broken leg last year. Vlaicu got dropped for the first time in years after a forgettable performance against Spain (their first ever REC defeat to a team other than Georgia with all of Fercu, Macovei, and Lazar in the team). RWC 2019 was likely to be their swansong which makes the blow of missing out on hat even crueller.

 Georgia U20 (2018)

Several Tier 2 teams may have placed higher in the past, but do not let that fact deceive you as this was the best and most competitive age grade side any Tier 2 nation has sent to a World Rugby age grade tournament. Owing to the nature of the format used in these tournaments a lot comes down to luck of the draw and especially in the mid-table section the final placings are not always truly representative.

For example, the highest ever finish achieved by a Tier 2 side was Fiji U20 in 2011 who came sixth. Yet that was achieved just beating Tonga along with one upset win over a Tier 1 side in Wales (the same year Wales also lost 92-0 to New Zealand). In the other three matches against Tier 1 opponents that year Fiji were thrashed by an average margin of 59-18, and their tournament ended with a 104-17 annihilation against South Africa in the 5th/6th place match, which aside from a horribly out of their depth team the USA sent in 2013 to get slaughtered, is the competition's worst result of the U20 era.
Georgia U20 competed hard against two
of the top three teams in the world in 2018

In terms of a collection of performances over all 5 matches the Georgian U20 side of 2018 stands out as a cut above the rest. They became only the second Tier 2 age grade team after Samoa U20 2009 to win three matches and take two scalps over Tier 1 nations in the same tournament, but it was the team's ability to be truly competitive throughout that stands out.

The average scoreline between Tier 2 nations and the champion side in World Rugby's age grade tournaments before this year was 80-7 (or 71-5 just in the post-2008 U20 era), and the average scoreline against top three finishing teams was 61-9 (or 54-10 in the U20 era).

Yet the Junior Lelos faced two of this year's U20 podium teams within 4 days in their pool and still managed to come out of the tournament with the best average scoreline against Tier 1 teams in the competition's history.

Against South Africa U20 the Georgians led at half time and came away with a losing bonus point, and whilst they never looked like winning against a very strong France U20 team, they stopped them getting a bonus point try and finished with a credible 24-12 loss. Within four days Georgia achieved two of the top three closest U20 results for a Tier 2 side versus a top three U20 team and easily beat the previous best for a Tier 2 side against a world champion age grade team which had been 44-11 (Fiji U20 vs New Zealand in 2010).

There has been no other Tier 2 age grade side that would have come out of that pool draw as well as those young Georgians did. That those encounters against two of the strongest most physical U20 teams did not totally drain them and they finished the tournament with a good win over Scotland was impressive. The rhythm to the rugby the Junior Lelos played between minutes 40-60 in that final match, where they scored 24 unanswered points to take the score from 12-19 to 36-19, was some of the best and most clinical play we have ever seen from any Georgian side.

GIF: Neatly taken try by Georgia U20 to take a match securing 36-19 lead after
scoring 24 unanswered points in 20 minutes of the second half against Scotland
A handful of this team will surely represent Georgia at senior level in the coming years. Although unlike others mentioned here, do not expect this group to have such an unusually disproportionate amount to become regular internationals. Whilst it may be a statistical curiosity to have so many caps from one year, it is in fact a symptom of two failing development systems.
Image result for Georgia U18 france 2018
Georgia U18 defeat France A in March

For Georgia this wasn't merely a one off freakish year, their youth setup right now is without doubt the strongest any Tier 2 nation has ever had in the professional era. They have produced a succession of good U18 and U20 teams going back to 2015, and whilst there will always some years better than others at age grade level, there is little reason to believe that overall trend stops any time soon.

What this year's side may be best remembered for though is the outstanding half back pairing of Gela Aprasidze and at fly half Tedo Abzhandadze, who developed significantly compared to the 2017 tournament where he was the second youngest player involved at just 17. They were described as two of the "superstars" of the tournament by Milton Haig and it is hoped they can take Georgia onto the next level in terms of the senior team performance if they continue to progress successfully.

Looking ahead to the REC in the 2020's ...

Georgia established themselves at the top of the REC some years ago now, a position they've only solidified recently with four Grand Slams in the past five tournaments. One thing that we can be pretty sure of is that will continue as the Georgians will continue to push for the 6 Nations. The likelihood is in fact the distance between them and the rest will only increase over the coming years. Only complacency and lack of motivation, or the coaches fielding development teams may halt that dominance.

However the rest of the tournament on the otherhand moving in the 2020's could be far less predictable and there is a lot of opportunity for a number of sides to rise up the rankings.

The fact is for both Romania and Russia the core of players they have relied upon for most of the last decade or so is far nearer the end of their career than the beginning. Spain's French brigade also had a number of players who missed their last chance this year of qualifying for a RWC. All these teams will be entering rebuilding phases at the start of the next RWC cycle and you'd expect the average age of the tournament to plummet in 2020, which could throw the REC field behind Georgia wide open for a number of teams to potentially breakthrough.

It's possible the door could be left ajar for a Western or Central European nation to get inside the top three for the first time, if either Germany can get their act together under their new CEO, or even if the Netherlands who are one of the most improved sides of the past three years keep progressing with a hungry, young group of players.
Image result for spain samoa u20
Spain U20 took Samoa to extra time in the
U20 Trophy final in 2016 nearly becoming
the first non-RWC side to reach the main
U20 championship in its 12 team format

Whilst the Iberians, who have been strongest REC nations behind Georgia in terms of age grade results in recent times with both having got as far as the U20 Trophy final over the past two years, could perhaps begin to see more emerge from that generation of players in addition to finding more eligible French players (fewer of whom from now on are likely to be tied by France U20).

And even if both Romania and Russia have been not been in a good place in terms of bringing through younger players over the last several years. They are still both teams with the experience of reaching the RWC and can't be written off. In fact after missing RWC 2019, it's not totally impossible some of the forwards from Romania's U19 2005 generation could be motivated to keep going and right that wrong and reach RWC 2023 as 35/36 year old veterans helping out the younger players coming in.

The future of the REC and what the hierarchy below Georgia will look like in about 5-10 years time and unlike in previous years it is very hard to predict right now. It will be interesting to see whether any Unions can seize an opportunity for what looks like it could be a more open field to reach RWCs 2023 and 2027 with the Eastern Europeans more vulnerable, or whether the Romanians and Russians can cope with an upcoming wave of retirements and rebuild to keep their place in the top three of the REC.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Debunking the myths peddled about foreigners in the Top 14

Over the past few years so often we have heard incredibly lazy and asinine arguments bemoaning the presence of foreign players in the Top 14 and used as a scapegoat for the national team's failings. The typical line of argument is one such as this from an article from New Zealand.
"There are so many foreigners in the French Top 14 now that opportunities are becoming more and more limited for French players to play their way into contention for national honours".
That gets repeated in similar articles time and time again. Yet that is and always has been a complete myth and simply couldn't be further from the truth. Using data on players game time from the excellent site Allrugby here is an attempt to insert a few facts into this debate.

More opportunities for professional rugby players from France than any other nation

So many seem to get incredibly confused on this point. So often people, such as the author of this article on 1014 Rugby, conclude that there is lack of opportunity for French players based solely looking at percentages of players rather than the overall numbers.

Of the players who played for Top 14 clubs in the 2017/18 season, 58% were homegrown born or raised French players. That is indeed below the percentage (albeit not by nearly as much as some might suggest) of homegrown English players in the Premiership at 61%. Also below all the Pro14 nations who compete in the 6 Nations in Ireland (77%), Wales (79%), Scotland (59%), or Italy (68%).

That is not including eligible players who were grew up elsewhere though. If you adjust it to eligible players through heritage, which the Scottish teams have brought in a number of such as Nick Grigg, Ben Toolis, and Tommy Seymour. Along with the numerous players to have spent three seasons of residency, like newly called up Mike Rhodes in England or Alivereti Raka in France, the figures (which should be read as an approximate as not all player's full range of eligible countries is common knowledge) increase for each nation. France (65%), England (69%), Ireland (90%), Wales (88%), Scotland (78%), Italy (82%). Again the percentage in the Top 14 is lower, and considerably so in the case of the Pro14 nations.

However the obvious point a surprising amount of people for some reason seem so incapable of grasping is that France also has more teams plus more matches, and thus many more opportunities for players to play at an elite level than all those Pro14 nations have.

Looking at the Pro14 as a whole. Only 22% or 24% of the players involved were homegrown in Ireland or Wales, which is easily less than half the amount of homegrown French players in the Top 14, whilst only 9% of the players are homegrown in Scotland or Italy.

Indeed if you look at just the six French clubs in the Champions Cup last season. Those clubs between them had both more homegrown and eligible French players playing more matches, more starts, and more minutes compared to Irish players in Ireland or any of the other nations in the Pro14 did.

In fact even if you take just the top 5 placed sides in the Top 14 in 2017/18 still homegrown French players play more matches, and make more starts than homegrown players at Pro14 nations do. Whilst even if you were to isolate those with the lowest percentage of homegrown French players (Oyonnax and Montpellier), you would still only need 7 of those clubs with that amount of French players to surpass the amount of game time to Irish players in Ireland.

Overall a total of 405 homegrown French players played for Top 14 clubs in 2017/18, between them playing 6,060 matches, making 3,748 starts, and playing 301,785 minutes. That is comfortably more players and more time on the pitch than any other major professional league offers homegrown talent. To compare with others, 345 homegrown English players featured in the Premiership, 155 in Ireland, 172 in Wales, 61 in Scotland, 62 in Italy.

You can adjust that to eligible players, include players based in other nations, the amount of French players playing professional rugby is still clearly ahead by each measure.

Of course to add to this France also has Pro D2, which is easily the strongest and best supported professional second tier of any country involved in the 6 Nations, and with a further 16 professional teams offers even yet more opportunity for players to play professional rugby alongside various internationals from all over the world at a good level for a second division competition.

A player in France has more opportunity to be a professional rugby player at a high level without having to leave their home country compared to any other country in the world. It's not even close.

Young players also receive more opportunity in France than anywhere else

During the World Rugby U20 Championship semi final, I tweeted a comparison between the amount of senior rugby the victorious France team played compared to the rest of the field to show what a myth it is that they never get opportunity to play. This is further backed up by research on Allrugby.
A total of 87 U21 players (born 1997 or after) featured for Top 14 clubs in the 2017/18 season. By comparison 47 U21 players played for Premiership clubs, 40 for Welsh regions, 18 for Irish provinces, 8 for Scottish teams, and 7 for Italian teams.

You could do this by any measure. Amount of U21 players used, amount of U21 starts, amount of U21 minutes. In each case the Top 14 had more than the entire Pro14, let alone just each individual nation, and the same can be said for Super Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere too.
Image result for France U20 rugby 2018
France's champion U20 team had played
more minutes at senior level than
any other team in the tournament

Also the Top 14 featured 36 U20 players, between them playing 8,823 minutes, and 23 of them collectively making the starting lineup 98 times. That is more than both Pro14 and Super Rugby. In fact it is virtually as many U20 starts and minutes as both those leagues with all their 29 teams put together.

In the Pro14 Ireland had just 6 U20 players feature in the Pro14 (5 of which were at Ulster), playing 599 minutes, and making only 5 starts between them. Italy had only 2 U20 players, who played 83 minutes and made just 1 start between them. In Super Rugby, New Zealand and South Africa both just had one U20 player each (Caleb Clarke and Damian Willemse) reach a starting lineup. A young player in the Top 14 or Premiership is statistically far more likely to get an opportunity to play more senior professional rugby earlier than in a place such as Ireland or South Africa.

It is remarkable how so many have been fooled into thinking young players in France get no opportunity, when the truth is the exact opposite. A young French player, if they are good enough, has more opportunity to play elite level professional rugby compared to anywhere else in the world.

However it is worth noting that simply fielding a young player should not be necessarily seen as automatically always a good thing, and successful development is a highly individual case by case process not simply a race to see who can chuck in the most young players the fastest. If you follow that logic to its conclusion you would just end up with a revolving door as the young players from two or three years ago get cast out for new ones, and in the process lose sight of the actual end goal of development which is for the players to have long successful careers.

To sum this up, if you were giving prizes for playing young players last season's champions would be the shambolic Dragons, who used 17 U21 players for 6,185 minutes, by some margin the most of any team and also far too many. Whereas Exeter by contrast used only 2 U21 players for only 48 minutes, which was one of the lowest totals of any club in Europe. Yet which of those two teams has the better track record in recent years of successfully bringing through young talent? To be a young player at Exeter, alongside many internationals and experienced pros with good competition for places and as part of a winning squad, is clearly a better environment to develop even if they may play more at the Dragons.

French rugby players among the luckiest and most privileged in the world

Contrary to the confusion and nonsense on this topic, it is also worth noting French rugby players in fact the most privileged in the world. Owing purely to the luck of where they were born, they have more opportunity than players from anywhere else in the world to play professional rugby at a high level and make a good living from it without ever having to move to a foreign country.

A young French Espoir who does not make the cut at a big team still has massive amounts of opportunity to make a successful career in professional rugby. In most other countries that is much more difficult.

Take a country like Ireland, which figures show has amongst the highest total of registered teenage players in the world (much more than the other European nations involved in the Pro14), along with offering a much more limited number of opportunities to play professional rugby in their home country. Leinster with a population and catchment area of 2.5 million (which for context is larger than the entirety of South Wales where all the Welsh regions are all based) must surely have one the largest player pools of local talent vying for Academy places of any domestic team in Europe.
Image result for Tadhg Beirne Leinster
Tadhg Beirne said he nearly quit pro
rugby after being released by Leinster

A young player who fails to make the cut but still may be good enough for professional rugby like for example Aj MacGinty, who failed to make the Leinster Academy intake, is often likely to give up on professional rugby like he did travelling to the USA. Whilst Tadhg Beirne also said he nearly quit professional rugby when he was released in 2016, until receiving an unexpected opportunity at the Scarlets for who he has been a revelation over the past 18 months.

The equivalent player to that in France on the otherhand does not have to consider either quitting or even have to move abroad at all. Espoirs at big clubs who fail to make it in the senior team usually can still find plenty of opportunity to continue professional rugby careers at another side in Top 14 or Pro D2. If they are successful there is also far more potential than elsewhere for upward mobility both for clubs in Pro D2 to reach the elite, and for players from Pro D2 to win contracts in Top 14, as well as Fédérale 1 players to reach Pro D2.

An example of this amongst the current French team would be Kevin Gourdon, who couldn't reach the Clermont senior side and moved to Pro D2 in 2012 with La Rochelle and became part of a team that got promoted and reached the top of the regular season table in 2016/17. Or Adrien Pélissié who moved to Aurillac and earned his way to win a contract back up to the Top 14. Many others also start off their senior careers initially with smaller Pro D2 or Fédérale 1 clubs as well and work their way up to bigger clubs. The French squad right now has four players who came through the ranks at Massy, Maxime Machenaud and Benjamin Fall started at Bordeaux-Bègles when they were still in Pro D2, whilst Pierre Bourgarit started at Auch, Marco Tauleigne at Bourgoin, and Camille Lopez at Mauléon all in Fédérale 1.

There are even some in France such as Gabriel Lacroix who was let go by Toulouse Cadets at 17 and didn't make the Espoirs squad and yet was playing professional rugby for Albi in Pro D2 before the age of 20. That is only possible in France thanks to the number of professional clubs thus greater number of professional opportunities. For the equivalents of those players in Leinster who fail to make the Academy intake (which as former Leinster Academy manager Dan van Zyl has mentioned could come down to simply to later development or a totally subjective selection call), barring a highly unusual career path overseas like MacGinty, it is more than likely professional career hopes finished.

Also it is of course even harder still for players from Tier 2 nations. They have no choice but to leave their home country, and often at a young age, in order to pursue their dreams of making it as professional rugby players. None of the simple pathways to contracts exist as they do in Tier 1 countries, often they will have a hard task even to get noticed at all with few scouts watching, and it requires a punt on behalf of the club to sign a foreign player who arrives untested and inexperienced at that level.

French players are incredibly fortunate to have so many opportunities to make careers in professional rugby at a high level in their home country that others do not. Some of them don't even seem to realise just how lucky they are to be rugby players from France or what it would be like in other nations. Also just as a bonus to all this, French international players never have to leave their home country or effectively retire from international rugby to get paid their market value. A French player does not get put in the same position that players like Juan Imhoff or Rhys Webb are in right now.

It should be noted though that whilst that is better of course for the players to have such opportunity, and reduces chance for young talents slip through the net, there are also disadvantages to this as well. Namely the absence of such competition and maintaining the standard of their competitions to an elite level for all their leading players to play in. They did have a corrective to that though that added to the competition, albeit also one a persistent lobby has spent the past years trying to remove.

The only winner from stricter JIFF regulations is mediocrity

Image result for Philippe Saint Andre
Philippe Saint-André has used foreign
players as an excuse for his utterly
dismal failure as a coach

Unfortunately there has been a lobby against foreign players who have been very successful in managing to somehow in spite of the facts convincing a lot of people that French players, the most privileged in the world, get no opportunity to play and blame this for the national team's poor form in recent years.

Among those people who have lobbied against foreign players include failed coaches like Philippe Saint-André looking for excuses for his dismal time in charge. Or an entitled mediocrity like Benoît Guyot who can't handle the competition and whinged about it when he was released by La Rochelle. Or Union bosses whose real gripe with French rugby is the global inflation of wages and annoyance at losing their players. Or simply just people who simply look at percentages and are incapable of working out the full context, and lazily repeating what's just become a cliché.

Nevertheless that lobby won over the FFR and Bernard Laporte said he wants to reduce number of foreigners "drastically" and what is coming in as a solution to a non-existent problem is stricter application of JIFF regulations. Whilst previously there was a financial incentive to field an average of number of JIFF over the season, teams did not have to adhere to that, now though as of next season they have introduced points deductions to those who don't. They also plan on making that progressively stricter, so by the 2021/22 season the average JIFF over the season is stated to be 17.

This is a unnecessary response to the widespread ignorance that has been spread about French players not getting opportunities, and whilst it may be good news for the 300th best French player, it will not help the national team level players at all.

Already there is more than enough opportunity for French players good enough to play. If a French player is unable to find any opportunity at any one of 30 professional teams in Top 14 or Pro D2, then there is a strong probability that they were never likely to be good enough to reach international level.

If you take the case of Guyot for example. He is just an example of complete entitlement. There were 60 different homegrown French players who started at flanker in the Top 14 last season, and between them they wore the 6 or 7 jersey 596 times (64%) over the season. In his specific position that's way more starts in the Top 14 for French players in the Top 14 than English players in the Premiership who started at flanker 390 times (58%), and over three times more than Irish players whose provinces fielded homegrown flankers for 174 starts (73%).

None of the international level French players get "blocked". Mathieu Babillot and Wenceslas Lauret both played huge 1800+ minute seasons for their clubs and over 2000+ minute seasons in total with international rugby. Young talents like Sekou Macalou, Judicaël Cancoriet, or even the 19 year old Cameron Woki were also all among the 27 homegrown French flankers to play 1000+ minute domestic seasons. By comparison in Ireland there were just four homegrown flankers who did so, and England 12 (although 16 eligible). If anything some of those players perhaps playing too much, as opposed to being "blocked", had more of an effect on the national team.
Image result for Benoit guyot
Benoît Guyot whined at losing his
place to foreigners after getting
released by La Rochelle in 2016

What a player like Guyot (who in actual fact had 125 matches and 7 seasons worth of opportunity to play in the Top 14) wanted though is an entitlement to the continued privilege of being a professional rugby player. A pass to get by as a mediocrity without being subject to the competition. This is in reality all those restrictions will really do. Protect the wages of a 27 year old journeyman who is between maybe the 30th to 50th best French flanker and who is totally and utterly irrelevant to the national team.

That the added competition exposes players with an attitude like Guyot who complain there are players better than him, as opposed to those who the higher standard required incentivises to drive to improve themselves in order to compete with the best and actually may be of use for France at international level, is a huge point in favour of the overseas talent in the Top 14 not one to be used against it.

Overall though player restrictions will obviously have a negative effect on the standard and competitiveness of the league. The reduced pool for recruitment would see the gap between the big clubs and the smaller ones likely increase, and teams more likely to end up with a lesser player and have to pay more than the market rate for it through artificially inflated wages.

The losers are not just the clubs though, these stricter regulations obviously potentially will have a negative effect on overseas talent, and in particular those from Tier 2 nations.

France remains rugby's land of opportunity ... but will it continue to be?

Ultimately French domestic rugby is a land of opportunity not just for the French players, but any player no matter what age or nationality, who dreams of making it as a professional rugby player at a high level, and the rewards for those who succeed are also greater than anywhere else.
Image result for Colombia andres zafra
In no other country apart from France
could Andrés Zafra have made history
for Colombian rugby as their first player

to play professional rugby at an elite level

The impact of French rugby on the global spread of the sport has been significant, particularly for countries outside of the Anglosphere or Commonwealth. Nowhere else in the world can a player from almost anywhere, Uruguay or Georgia, Netherlands or Spain, or even recently Colombia or Hungary realistically have any hope of launching a professional rugby career barring rare exceptions. If it were not for French rugby Argentina would not have become a Tier 1 nation, nor would Fiji or Georgia have reached the same level they are at now.

French rugby has given opportunity to more players outside Tier 1 to play professional rugby at a high level than all the other major leagues in the world combined provided they are good enough. As of now this is still the case, as we've seen recently with the ambitious young upcoming generation of players from the Netherlands. It is France where most of them have managed to find an opportunity to test themselves and see whether they can succeed at the professional level.

When the effect of the proposed stricter regulation in the 2020's begins to be felt, it will be those sort of investments in unproven talent that will take the hit first. It will be the players like Zeno Kieft, who moved to France at 18 to pursue a professional career and eventually displaced Guyot at La Rochelle, who would lose their livelihood in order so it can be guaranteed for the 300th best Frenchman.

Last season in fact we saw an example of what those tighter JIFF restrictions could mean in practice. Apparently Gela Aprasidze impressed his coach Vern Cotter when he came into the senior team after injuries at scrum half, and might have played a couple more times than he did, but lost the opportunity to do so to a French player due to JIFF regulations (for zero benefit to the French national team or anybody except the opposition). It won't be experienced former Springboks like Ruan Pienaar who take the effects first, it will be the young players chasing a dream from places like Georgia.
Image result for Gela Aprasidze
Some want French rugby no longer
to be such a land of opportunity for
young aspiring players across the
globe from places such as Georgia
and to instead protect the careers
of French journeyman players

The amount of opportunities France unlike anywhere else offers players from almost anywhere in the world, ought to be celebrated and defended more often by those who care about the global game against some of the lazy and ignorant attacks it faces. Not least because those attacks are now gradually starting to bear fruit for the coming years.

There is a risk that in a few years time we see more instances like that with Aprasidze getting robbed of opportunities not on the basis of merit, along with others simply not getting considered for contracts in the first place, and for those lucky enough to get an opportunity there would likely be greater pressure to give up their international careers in order to increase their value with fewer opportunities available. At the moment there is relatively little effect, but by the end of that proposed JIFF tightening France could no longer be quite the same land of opportunity and dreams for aspiring professional rugby players across the world it has been for most of the professional era.

That would be a big blow to the global game and could cut off the elite professional end of the sport almost completely to many players especially in continental Europe and outside the Anglosphere. In some cases these players do not have any realistic chance of reaching a RWC let alone challenge for the knockout stages. It is only club rugby that can offer an opportunity for a player from almost anywhere in the world to truly test themselves towards the top end of the game, contest for major trophies, and earn widespread recognition for their talent as well as decent money.

At least some of that opportunity is probably going to be lost thanks to what was always an entirely bogus narrative about French players getting no opportunity and foreigners being falsely scapegoated for the national team floundering. We will see how this plays out though in the future, but it's surely a concern for many players from countries like Georgia, Fiji, or aspiring Espoirs from the Netherlands that there is such a lobby opposed to them earning a living as professional rugby players.

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Pacific Islands desired eligibility reforms will never happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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