Sport Rugby

Thursday 23 January 2020

Ian McGeechan: 'World Rugby must do two crucial things to capitalise on the momentum of Japan 2019'

Japan players celebrate their shock win over Ireland at the 2019 World Cup. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Japan players celebrate their shock win over Ireland at the 2019 World Cup. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Ian McGeechan

The World Cup was an amazing tournament and represents an open goal for the game. Whether it was Uruguay's unforgettable win over Fiji, or Japan's achievement in beating Ireland and Scotland, the tournament was notable for so-called tier two nations taking big strides.

Japan 2019 should be the moment the game changed forever, but we know too many opportunities have been squandered in the past, so it is up to World Rugby to make sure a historic chance to grow the game is not lost.

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Those six weeks in Japan were eye-opening, but it is up to us to ensure that the effects last for four years. We must set out a vision of how to change the game. World Rugby has, of course, already tried to reshape the game with its proposals for an integrated global season. However, the northern hemisphere saw this as a power grab by World Rugby and an attempt by the Sanzar unions to tap into the Six Nations unions' revenue streams, so it was stymied.

What we need is a concerted attempt to give the tier two nations a structure within which they can finally begin to transition into teams who are competitive enough consistently to take on the world's elite. That means regular Tests against the established powerhouses.

To date only Argentina and Italy have ascended to the top table, and only the Pumas truly look as if they belong there. The Pumas are now an integral part of the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby, and are making incremental strides in both competitions, as France did after joining the Five Nations in 1910.

Italy continue to struggle so badly in the Six Nations that many question their involvement. However, unlike Argentina - whose Rugby Championship involvement came on the back of consistent displays in Super Rugby - Italy have only recently begun to address the issues around club rugby, and it will take time before Conor O'Shea's blueprint for stronger Pro14 clubs feeds through.

Japan are taking their own route to sustain the strides made at successive World Cups. Their domestic game is undergoing a revolution, with the best players in the world flooding into their league while their Super Rugby team, the Sunwolves, have been disbanded. It is a clear and well-financed strategy and, given the commercial strength of Japanese rugby, there will be no lack of tier one Test sides willing to travel there.

The same is not true for other tier two nations who have beaten tier one countries. Samoa, Argentina, Italy, Romania, Japan, Fiji, Tonga, Namibia and the United States have struggled to attract incoming tier one sides.

World Rugby showed enormous ambition when trying to launch the global season, and must now recapture that spirit. I would suggest two main considerations on how this can be done so that we close the gap between tier one and two. The first is that tier two nations need incoming tours every year to build up domestic interest and to give their sides a chance to become competitive rather than just cash-generating canon-fodder for the autumn internationals at one of the Five Nations grounds, or playing in either the Pacific Nations Cup or Rugby Europe Championship.

This does not mean tier one sides need to tour every year - England, say, could tour the Pacific and play Japan, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga one summer, or visit the Americas, playing Canada, the US, Argentina and Uruguay. If coordinated by World Rugby, it would give the tier two nations exposure and revenue. Uruguay, for example, did not play a tier one country between the last two World Cups. At the very least they could have had an opportunity to play in the Pacific Nations Cup. Playing progression is key.

My second recommendation: World Rugby should pay for each aspirant tier two nation to have an experienced director of rugby from a tier one nation. They would need the coaching experience to oversee the national team, as well as programmes and budget responsibility.

Where possible they would also involve themselves in the under-20s, women's game, club and schools rugby so they could take a long-term view, and could compare solutions with the other directors of rugby paid for by World Rugby. There would also be uniformity across player development programmes and vital support services.

At the moment World Rugby only pays for short-term coaching secondments to countries competing in the World Cup who, it worries, may be so uncompetitive that they would bring the competition into disrepute.

In the grand scheme of things this is no more than a sticking-plaster solution. Nor would it work simply to give the nation in question hard cash, with reports of such funds going missing too often.

Instead, I believe an experienced World Rugby-funded administrator should be there on the ground to help with logistics and contacts. This is how we can help countries take a step back and work in a systematic way towards the goal of becoming a tier one nation.

All of this takes money but I believe there is a way to square this circle. Let us have a Tier Two World Cup to run alongside the full World Cup in the same host country. Grounds would be full to watch Germany play Spain, Ivory Coast take on Korea, or Zimbabwe face Romania. It would raise money and the profile of the game in so many nations.

There are, of course, issues thrown up by all of these proposals, but if we do not embrace change we are destined yet again to maintain the status quo - and we are better than that.

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