If we want the best emerging nations to kick on between World Cups, we need to make these changes, writes Mark Evans
As the Rugby World Cup group stages progressed, more and more of the commentary seemed to be focused on how rugby can develop the game in emerging nations such as Georgia, Chile, Portugal, Spain, Samoa, Tonga and Uruguay, whilst recognising there is still much still to do in Fiji, Japan, USA and Canada.
Indeed, the aim must be for at least five or six of these countries to be genuinely competitive with the ten ‘established’ Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams by World Cup 2031. Significant increased value lies in an expansion of the World Cup into a competition with more games between teams where the outcome is uncertain and more countries have a genuine chance of progressing to the latter stages. The most important point to make is that there is no single response which will automatically generate the desired outcome. What is needed for Georgia won’t help Samoa; Spain’s issues aren’t the same as those of Canada.
Too much of the recent reaction amongst fans has been focused on supporting the introduction of promotion and relegation in the international game in general and the Six Nations in particular – usually based around vague notions of ‘fairness’ or ‘turn and turn about’. Let’s be very clear – relegation is the enemy of growth, at both international and domestic levels (except for the largest market – France – which can’t be replicated elsewhere any time soon).
Introducing relegation into the Six Nations would shrink the sport very quickly. Unions such as Scotland and Wales would do well to survive, let alone grow, if they were relegated for even a short time. For the similar reasons South Africa needs to remain a Rugby Championship participant and not migrate north. That would significantly weaken an already battling Australia and remove a regional leader from the southern Africa region.
Indeed, the easiest first move in this whole area is to expand the Rugby Championship immediately to six teams with the addition of Japan and Fiji; thus balancing the number of participants in the major international competitions of the two hemispheres.
However, in trying to build genuine long-term competitors you must build the participant base in each country. Without this you might get the odd ‘golden generation’ from one country or another, but it won’t last. A decent number of boys and girls playing the game is vital. Then, you need to build sound pathways and high-performance units to produce the increased numbers of elite players that are required.
The first tranche of these players will almost certainly need to play abroad. Like the Argentinians in the Noughties, the Georgians now and the Pacific Islanders forever.
You can make a lot of progress in emerging nations with this initial model. The key factor is the national union concerned focusing on these relatively unglamorous areas of development. It’s also a necessary but not sufficient condition for success that the governing body concerned is neither corrupt nor incompetent – without those pre-conditions, any investment from World Rugby or elsewhere is largely wasted. Even when individual unions are run well there are often issues surrounding player release and depth of talent if reliance is completely on overseas players. Usually it can only take you so far.
Support professional clubs in the emerging nations
Fortunately, World Rugby has already hit on the next bit of the jigsaw when it comes to developing and retaining local talent. Create a professional franchise at the top of your domestic system. Think Drua, Moana Pasifika, Black Lion, Lusitanos, Selknam, Penarol etc. The concept is simple but execution in some regions such as North America more problematic. Each team is based on full-time, paid, local players who play in cross national competitions like Super Rugby Pacific, Super Rugby Americas and Rugby Europe Super Cup.
In a very short timeframe the impact on the respective national teams has been significant. It’s vital that the respective regional Tier One countries (Argentina, New Zealand and France) are supportive, along with World Rugby. It is in everyone’s interest that these teams are helped financially and in terms of rugby IP. The next stage for the Super Rugby Americas and Rugby Europe Super Cup regions in particular should be that the regional leaders lobby for visa exemptions for players from the developing nations so there is an easier pathway from the franchise teams into the larger professional leagues.
The final stage is not within the gift of the developing nations themselves or World Rugby.
The stronger emerging nations need to play more games against Tier One nations or strong representative teams from those nations. The calendar is crowded and many unions are under financial pressure, but in the medium-term there will be significant benefits that all will share in.
The Māori All Blacks, Barbarians, British Lions, national A sides, age group teams and major clubs all have a role to play as well the national teams. It simply requires a collective commitment from the ten established nations to provide regular and challenging fixtures for the next tier down.
That way the abomination that Uruguay played one game against a Tier One nation (Italy) between World Cups will not be repeated. The current situation is unacceptable, self-defeating and must change.