CAN RUGBY'S TOP TIER BE BROKEN?
Updated: Jan 27
This article was originally published on September 23rd, 2019.
The sport of rugby union is one that is played globally but is only properly competed between a small number of nations.
However, the money within the sport is being hoarded by the sport's traditional powerhouses, Japan is the latest team to attempt to break into the sport's top tier.
World Rugby, the sport's global governing body and World Cup organizers, divides the global game into Tier One and Tier Two nations.
Tier One consists of the teams that compete in the Six Nations - England, France, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales - and those who play in the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship - Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Every other nation that is competing in the 2019 World Cup is classed as Tier Two. Outwith the World Cup, it is very uncommon for the different Tier nations to meet in matchups, with Tier One nations generally choosing to play each other to maximize revenues.
In the past, the difference in quality has only supported the nations being kept separate, especially with results such as Australia's 142-0 victory over Namibia, in 2003, and New Zealand's 145-17 defeat of Japan, in 1995.
The graph below suggests that Tier Two nations are inching closer, to the sport's big-name nations. However, this may data may seem inconclusive as Tier Two victories over Tier One nations have remained steady ever since the inaugural Rugby World Cup, in 1987.
Since 1992, when rugby changed the value of a try from four points to five points, Tier Two nations have struggled to finish within a ten-point difference at the end of matchups. The 2007 World Cup was a high point for Tier Two nations with Fiji defeating Wales 38-34 and Romania, Tonga and Georgia finishing with less than a ten-point differential.
2019 World Cup
In 2019, the games are feeling closer than some of the score lines suggest. Between Namibia's two matchups against the New Zealand All Blacks in the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, the African nation has drastically improved their handling of the ball during the four years. By every statistic, bar the scoreline, they were closer to the All-Blacks.
Japan has been the standout story of the 2019 World Cup, defeating both Ireland and Scotland. With these victories, the Brave Blossoms managed to book their place at the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time, where they would lose to South Africa.
Su Carty (@cartysu), who sits on the World Rugby Council, and the committee of the Irish Rugby Football Union, reflected on Japan's victory over Ireland.
"It was a tough day for the Irish, but an amazing day for Japan and an incredible day for the tournament.
"You want teams like Japan coming through and making a statement on the world stage. Their day in the sun isn't done, and they'll be committed to build on that great day against us."
During the tournament, Japan jumped to number eight in the Rugby World Rankings, ahead of Tier One nations Scotland, Argentina, and Italy.
This progression has been coming for Brave Blossoms, after launching the Sunwolves into Super Rugby in 2015. The best Japanese players have been able to test themselves against quality southern hemisphere opposition, a luxury they would not have had with domestic Top League rugby only.
An additional alignment between the national team and the Sunwolves across the past two seasons has seen head coach Jamie Joseph and assistant Tony Brown taking the reins of both teams, leading to the Super Rugby side becoming an extension of the Brave Blossoms, boosting the team's preparations, for the World Cup.
Growing the Game
According to Deloitte, rugby has a potential broadcast reach of four billion people. If the sport plans on reaching this potential market, World Rugby has to begin looking at longer-term options and not helping pay tomorrow's bills.
To do this World Rugby will have to figure out how to get Tier One nations to play against countries such as Fiji, Japan and the U.S on a more regular basis.
Another method of promoting the sport in new rugby playing areas includes World Rugby's Beyond Legacy program. This program is aimed at growing the broadcast audiences for rugby in Asia, and to get one million new Asian players participating in rugby by 2020.
This has been done by hosting rugby lessons at Japanese schools and investing in the growth of local teams. So far the Beyond Legacy program has proven to be a success in Japan, with rugby receiving a high level of exposure in the Japanese press. 53.7% of the country tuned in to watch the Brave Blossoms' win over Scotland, making it the most-watched television program of the year domestically. Rugby has truly captured the hearts of this nation.
The 2019 World Cup was the first time that a Tier Two nation has ever hosted the tournament, and there is speculation that the United States could even bid for the 2027 World Cup, which would be the first time it has ever been hosted in North America.
Japan's continued success could be the start for other nations in future tournaments, and with the support of the Tier One nations, the Rugby World Cup finals could start seeing other teams making their way to the semi-finals and finals of the World Cup.
However, this success has to be followed by World Rugby to make sure that the sport of rugby is more than a mere six-week thought every four years for these emerging Tier Two nations.