Monday, 12 May 2014

Who is officially classified as a "Tier 2" nation?

imageWho exactly do the IRB classify officially as "Tier 2" nations? The answer is far more unclear and confusing than you might imagine.

The first mention of the "Tiers" that can be found on the IRB site dates back to a report from 2004 (it may have been in place earlier just with nothing online). Where "Tier 1" were officially classified by the IRB as the 6 Nations (England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales) and the Tri Nations (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) plus Argentina. 7 other teams were classified as "Tier 2" (Canada, Fiji, Japan, Romania, Samoa, Tonga and USA). All others were classified as "Tier 3" or below, the report mentioned that there were 6 tiers in total (although curiously you never hear any references to anything below "Tier 3").
Statement from the 2007 Annual
Review states "bands replace the
previous Tier system”.

However in 2008, the IRB announced they were revamping the system and getting rid of the "Tier" structure and introducing four "banding categories". These included a "High Performance" band which consisted of all the 17 nations mentioned above, a "Performance" band which consisted of Georgia, Portugal, Spain Namibia, Uruguay and Russia, a "Targeted" band which involves big countries like India, China, Germany and Mexico, with the rest lumped into a "Developmental" band.

Despite the change though, the term "Tier 2" never stopped being used and the IRB would continuously reference the Tier structure in their press releases and annual reports and the term got more increasingly commonly used across the rugby world, despite that categorisation no longer officially in use.

As recently as the 2012 IRB annual report though, the bands were outlined again and they were still exactly as they were in 2008. 17 "High Performance" Unions, 6 "Performance" Unions, plus "Targeted" and "Developmental".

What the criteria is for being "High Performance" or "Performance" is left unclear, and IRB document from 2011 said "High Performance Union means a Union designated as such by the Council and/or the CEO". Which is hardly much of an explanation as to why there is one glaring omission from the "High Performance" band.
Match pic
Georgia were an odd omission from
the IRB's "High Performance" band.

When the bands were announced in January 2008, Georgia had just overtaken Romania as the 7th best side in Europe, winning 2 of the previous 3 ENC titles, had won their first World Cup game and pushed Ireland hard at the recent World Cup.

Considering Georgia inferior to the 17 "High Performance" teams on playing merit would be a strange call considering the presence of Romania, considering them inferior on economical merit would be a strange call considering the presence of the Pacific Islands such as Tonga, who have been deemed incapable of hosting a home game by the IRB for over 5 years now.

Seeing the status quo remaining in 2012 IRB annual report, at a time when Georgia had won 5 of the past 6 ENC tournaments, had wins over both North Americans and beaten Romania relatively comfortably at the World Cup looked an even barmier call, and frankly a bit of an insult. Despite this though, many including the IRB themselves regularly termed them "Tier 2" in their press releases, even though they weren't officially in either the Tier or Band classifications.
In the 2012 Annual Review, the IRB still confirm the "High Performance", "Performance",
"Targeted" and "Developmental" bands exist, despite still also making well over 20
references to "Tier 2" or "Tier 3" nations in the same report, and that the numbers of Unions in
each band are still the same as they 2008.
By the time of the 2013 IRB annual report though, the status quo of the bandings had finally changed. No longer was there listed "17 High Performance Unions", but it was "10+10 High Performance Tier 1/2 Unions". So the old "Tier" categorisation has seemingly been merged together with the "Bands" categorisation.

Also the report listed 4+7 Performance Unions split between two Tiers, which means there are 5 more teams regarded as "Performance Unions" now. Most of the rest are under the "Development Unions" category, split between three tiers of 16+25+28 Unions (so you could see it as 7 tiers in total now). Finally, the "Targeted" Unions still appear to be the same but are now known as "Major Market" Unions.

The 2013 IRB Annual Review appears to re-incorporate the old "Tier" system alongside the
"Band" system adopted in 2008. However nations are not specifically mentioned, but it would
seem highly likely Georgia are finally no longer officially regarded as "Tier 3" by the IRB.
However despite the new clarification as to what the categories are and how many teams are in them, there doesn't appear to be an official definitive list specifically stating what they are. Nor is there really any clearly stated criteria as to what they are based on.

We know the classifications aren't based directly on playing levels with teams fluidly switching with the IRB rankings, but more linked to the tournaments and fixtures each team plays. For instance Samoa aren't considered a "High Performance Tier 1 Union", even though they've been better than Italy for the last few years. So without an official list, here is a best guess at what the IRB regards the categorisation as.

10 High Performance Tier 1 Unions: By far the easiest category to work out and be 100% sure of, obviously the 10 teams that were referred to back in 2004 and play in the elite annual tournaments the 6 Nations and the Rugby Championship and hold most power in the game are considered as "High Performance Tier 1".

10 High Performance Tier 2 Unions: Obviously the 7 that were previously listed in the "High Performance" band, one of the added 3 is certainly Georgia. The other two is less certain, but as a guess it would probably be the other 2 nations who reached the World Cup; Russia and Namibia.

4 Performance Tier 1 Unions: Very likely the only 3 other teams to have reached the World Cup in the professional era in Spain, Uruguay and Portugal who are still probably the 3 strongest outside of the tournament. The other is just a guess, possibly a nation like Chile.

7 Performance Tier 2 Unions: Possibly consisting of sides such as those involved in competitions like the "Cup of Nations" that UAE hosted. The likes of Hong Kong and South Korea, or the Africa Cup finalists Zimbabwe and Kenya along with recent ENC 1A members like Belgium and Germany.

16/25/28 Development Tier 1/2/3 Unions: "Development Tier 1" probably consists of the likes of Sri Lanka, Madagascar or Poland who competed in the Serendib Cup in Colombo last year and more sides from ENC 1B. The bottom tier is probably the weakest most amateur Unions, and the middle tier the rest.

4 Major Market Unions: Was said in 2008 to be China, Germany, India and Mexico, but Brazil and Russia have been mentioned in this category over recent years, whilst the Germans haven't always been. So with just 4 teams, this may now consist of Brazil, China, India and Mexico. Considering the above classifications mention 100 Unions, matching the amount of nation that were on the IRB rankings in 2013, it's also possible that these Unions double up in more than one classification, but get preferential funding to the rest.

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