Tuesday, 4 December 2018

A look at the RWC 2019 schedules for Tier 2 sides

According to WR CEO Brett Gosper the "goal is to have most competitive RWC ever (T1vT2)" and the "2019 schedule is most balanced RWC ever for Tier 2 countries". He also noted it was "the longest ever T2 rest periods are ahead of games vs T1s".
Japan taking on Scotland in 2015 just
three days after playing South Africa

And it is true at the 2019 RWC fewer of the short turnarounds that Tier 2 sides will have to face seem to involve Tier 1 sides which must have come from feedback from coaches after the last RWC.

In 2015 several Tier 2 sides had to back up against two Tier 1 sides on a very short turnaround (Japan vs South Africa then Scotland, Fiji vs England then Australia, Tonga vs Argentina then New Zealand, Romania vs France then Ireland). That would be tough even for bigger teams with more depth to get optimal results against sides like Australia, Ireland, or Scotland only a few days after playing England, France, or South Africa (the short turnarounds for Tier 1 by contrast all mostly involve one of the lowest seeds in the pool usually after rather than before a big game).

This time there are none of those tight turnarounds against top ranked sides in the tournament, but what this means however is more of the matches with short rest for Tier 2 sides are ones that are the two most winnable in the pool. Notably for Uruguay (Fiji then Georgia on three days rest), Georgia (Uruguay then Fiji on three days rest), Russia (Japan then Samoa on three days rest), or USA (Argentina then Tonga on three days rest) are left with squad management dilemmas.

Within the constraints of five team pools that guarantee some short rest periods, and TV demands that mean matches between the big teams are not midweek games, WR do seem to have been genuine in at least attempting at something a bit better relative to past tournaments. Obviously some teams still have got tough schedules (Canada perhaps the worst), and the only real way to be able to remove the worst of the short turnarounds in scheduling is with 4 team pools in an expanded 24 team RWC.

At RWC 2019 one team in each pool (Japan, Namibia, Tonga, Australia) have got lucky with no really short three or four day turnarounds at all and three of those are Tier 2. By comparison in 2015 five teams had no three or four day turnarounds and only one of those (Samoa, who qualified as second pool seed) were not Tier 1. Also no side in 2019 has to play not just one but two of their matches on three or four day turnarounds, whereas in 2015 five teams had to and all of them were Tier 2.

Here we take a quick look at exactly what each Tier 2 team will have to prepare for next year.

Pool A

 Japan | Russia [7 days] Ireland [6 days] Samoa [7 days] Scotland

As hosts of the tournament the Cherry Blossoms get the best schedule of a 6-7 days rest between each match. What's more is that two of their opponents in Samoa and Scotland play them on a short turnaround (although the latter the match before is Russia so may not have that much impact), whilst Russia also play their most winnable match on a short turnaround after playing them.

This is marked change to some of their previous tournaments for Japan. In 2003 they got rest periods of five, four, and three days and notably faded after a decent start to the tournament against Scotland and for part of the match against France. In 2015 the schedule made reaching the quarter finals very difficult even despite the win against South Africa (especially as the Boks got a double losing bonus point in that match). This time if Japan do not perform it will not be to do with their schedule.

 Samoa | Russia [5 days] Scotland [4 days] Japan [6 days] Ireland

Samoa get the advantage of playing Russia on a short three day rest, but then themselves face the hosts Japan on just four days rest from playing Scotland. Even though recent form would have them firm underdogs, they have risen to big occasions in the past and will be targeting that Scotland match, the result of which would likely determine their approach to the Japan match on short rest afterwards.

 Russia | Japan [3 days] Samoa [8 days] Ireland [5 days] Scotland

In the opening match of the tournament with 50,000 fans and a big TV audience, there is no question that Russia will want to kickoff the tournament with nothing less than their best and after this November will believe they could even cause an upset. The Bears don't have enormous squad depth and the next match is their most winnable but on 3 days rest against a fresh Samoa side which will be hard does reduce their chances of getting an upset and first RWC win in this tournament.

Pool B

 Namibia | Italy [5 days] South Africa [7 days] New Zealand [6 days] Canada

If there was ever a tournament Namibia were going to break their RWC duck it is this one as both pool draw and scheduling has been favourable. Unlike the past two RWCs where the Namibians were simply shot by the end (see Wales 2011 or Argentina 2015) after fielding more or less a full team throughout on some really tight turnarounds, this time they get a much better schedule. Not only do they play the big teams on more reasonable rest, but they have also drawn an off form Canadian side and will have full rest for that too, whilst the Canucks will come into that four days from playing South Africa.

 Canada | Italy [5 days] New Zealand [5 days] South Africa [4 days] Namibia

Unluckily for Canada they are the only team in the tournament who do not get a full week rest once. They cannot play the same team throughout and are the team who the schedule makes possibly most likely to field a weakened side against a major team (probably South Africa) in order to keep something left for the most winnable match against Namibia at the end. This is a bad schedule for Kingsley Jones' team, only consolation is two of the Tier 1 opponents Italy (coming off Namibia) and South Africa (coming off Italy) also play them on short rest as well.

Pool C

 USA | England [5 days] France [6 days] Argentina [3 days] Tonga

Some over the course of this year have started to believe the USA have become overwhelming favourites against Tonga at the RWC. A look at their record against them (and Pacific Island opposition in general) would suggest that is not the case, even less so when you consider they play that match on 3 days rest.

The matches against Australia and South Africa in the past two RWCs with weakened teams were horrible matches for Eagles fans and may have even had the effect to sap morale from the camp and supporters as much as it did to rest players. You get the sense Gary Gold may not repeat that this time around and will aim for strong performances both against Argentina and Tonga. It is a tough challenge to deliver and will test the depth and conditioning done for the tournament next year.

 Tonga | England [5 days] Argentina [7 days] France [6 days] USA

Along with Japan and Namibia, Tonga are one of the three lucky Tier 2 sides who have got a schedule with no really short turnarounds. They also play both their final two fixtures against France and USA against sides on three days rest. The Ikale Tahi could not have got a much better schedule and can really target a good result at every match.

Pool D

 Fiji | Australia [3 days] Uruguay [7 days] Georgia [5 days] Wales

This is somewhat better than the nightmare pool draw and schedule Fiji had in 2015. Their match on short rest this time is Uruguay, a team they have recently obliterated and can likely back the depth of their squad to get a good result whilst resting top players. They also get an advantage of coming from that fresh for their next match with Georgia who will be coming off 3 days rest.

 Georgia | Wales [5 days] Uruguay [3 days] Fiji [7 days] Australia

The pool draw for RWC 2019 was not great for Georgia. The fourth pool seeds have a wide range in quality from Fiji at World Ranking 8 to Namibia at 22, and the Lelos not only got the toughest possible fourth seed but a schedule where they face them only on 3 days rest. This is a tricky test for Milton Haig as whilst Georgia will be favourites against Uruguay beforehand, they are not as strong favourites as Fiji are and have a habit of not looking great against weaker teams (see Namibia 2015 one of many examples) so cannot really afford to take Los Teros lightly either.

However Georgia does have a bit more depth than in previous years, so rotating some frontline starters to get past Uruguay may not carry quite the same risk as before. Certainly Haig has two front rows, back rows, and scrum halves he could swap without losing too much. Georgia will need to produce one of their best ever results to beat a fully prepared incredibly talented Fiji team on this schedule.

 Uruguay | Fiji [3 days] Georgia [5 days] Australia [7 days] Wales

The Uruguayans achieved one of their best ever results beating Canada away to qualify as Americas 2 for this tournament and avoid going through the Repechage for the first time. However this has meant they actually got a much more difficult pool to win a game, along with another hard schedule.

Uruguay have their most winnable game against Georgia on 3 days rest from their second most winnable game against Fiji. Only thing in their favour is that Georgia will have to also deal with a tight schedule playing on three days rest themselves after that match. Los Teros need to be at their very best to get good results from this pool, even against the Tier 2 sides, and they do not have great depth in many positions which makes managing the squad much harder for Esteban Meneses.

Full RWC 2019 schedule of rest periods (chart by @rpetty80)

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