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.

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