By Brendan O’Brien
The South African head coach was all too happy to shower Ireland with praise earlier on in the pool stage when it appeared as if the Six Nations side, and not Japan, would provide their opposition in the last eight. And he waxed lyrical about both nations, as well as Scotland, when looking forward to the quarter-final stages earlier this week.
This is what Rassie does. He delivers praise and disarms everyone with that big smile of his. He was just as effusive about Canada – yes, Canada – before South Africa faced them in Kobe. He spoke of the Canadians as if they were souped-up Mounties coming down from the Rocky Mountains with a menu of springbok in the crosshairs.
And then he spread the love farther afield. He gushed about the progress of Tier Two nations, about how he was living in Bloemfontein back in 1995 when New Zealand put 145 points on Japan and how things have moved on since. He spoke admiringly about the players from the smaller nations that he had seen at first-hand when he coached Munster for two years in the PRO14.
And then the Boks went out and put 66 points on Canada. At their leisure.
There have been no three-digit scores at this World Cup. That much is true. But to say that the second, or even the third, tier of nations are making discernible progress has not been backed up by the results here over the course of four weeks and as we face into the last, truncated batch of pool games.
As the accompanying graphic shows, the average winning margin between top and second-tier Nations in World Cup matches had been coming down since 2003 but the immediate ‘learning’ at this point is that the gulf hasn’t narrowed a jot since England 2015 – and this after World Rugby poured £60m into the second tier nations.
If that’s worrying then so is the jump in the number of games in which weaker sides have been held scoreless. Russia coach Lyn Jones warned about how this was becoming a major goal for the big boys after his side had been blanked by Ireland in Pool A. There were only four zeroes recorded between the 2007, 2011 and 2015 versions but we’ve had as many here already and maybe even more to come.
There are other signs of stasis besides. The previous three World Cups all produced just the one Tier Two win against a Tier One team. Fiji against Wales in ‘07, Tonga beating Wales in New Zealand and Japan accounting for South Africa in Brighton. Japan continued that trend against Ireland in Shizuoka but who knows if they’ll get the chance to repeat the dose against Scotland yet.
“Japan showed us you can beat Tier One nations through hard work and exposure to playing them, said Namibia’s Johan Dryden after their gutsy but ultimately heavy loss to the All Blacks. The problem is that the ‘weaker’ sides just aren’t getting that exposure. It was a topic of conversation again yesterday at the Samoan press conference.
Even talk of Tier Two is misleading. The likes of Samoa are handicapped by a raft of problems but they are at least able to bring together a team of professional athletes from some of the game’s elite leagues. Namibia, on the other hand, are another level below that. These are mostly part-timers trying to live with the All Blacks and the Springboks.
Namibia’s Welsh defence coach Dale Macintosh was taken aback initially at a daily regime that involved training-work-training and with maybe a pool recovery session wedged somewhere in between. It’s not something he could see Welsh players putting up with but Macintosh will tell you he has never heard a single moan.
The toll of taking on such elite opposition in such a short window is obvious but there have been some signs of how the weaker teams have used this rare chance to spend a long period of time together wisely. Australia’s David Pocock, for one, claims to have seen very specific evidence of this accelerated pace of learning and adaptation.
“Defensively, look at Uruguay and Georgia, definitely seeing different pictures every week, after each game, plugging a couple of holes. Look at Georgia, for example. Wales scored a couple of good tries back on the inside against them. Against Fiji they were very solid there.
“Defensively, you’re clearly starting to see a lot of IP (intellectual property) moving around the world if you look at coaches coaching various teams and it’s great for World Rugby.”
The problem with coaches is they come and go. Milton Haig has done trojan work as Georgia head coach, and the Kiwi will be missed when he stands down after the tournament. David Kacharava, the veteran centre, said as much recently but he was pragmatic about it too and pointed to recent underage wins against Scotland and South Africa as reasons for positivity and a more embedded foundation for progress.
‘Anything is possible now,” he said.
Other building blocks are essential too if the greatest leap of all is to be made. Georgia badly needs greater exposure to the big European nations on an annual basis but are still frozen out by the Six Nations. And access to regular club competition at the highest level is another box that so many Tier Two Nations desperately need to tick.
Canada’s assistant coach Gruff Rees touched on that very point some weeks ago when, having hailed the input which Graham Henry had as a consultant, he segued into a discussion about how Italy were buttressed by a Treviso that had made such large strides in the PRO14 in recent years.
“The biggest thing that’s shown improvements in Italy is the high level of resources in the PRO14,” said the Welshman. “Treviso in particular is well-coached by a former Canadian coach. They got to a semi-final in the PRO14.
“So there’s cohesion in their units and that’s always a help for them. For our group, it’s not as often we get this group together with all the best players so for us it’s a case of improving enormously each week with each training session.”
If this tournament has told us anything, it is the realisation that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Japan, for instance, have prospered for their decision to pull the majority of their players from vast sections of the domestic and Sunwolves campaigns and hone them as a collective in national camp instead.
Uruguay demonstrated no little ingenuity when, having secured their place at the World Cup with a defeat of Canada, the union offered contracts to 17 of their players so they could prepare for the tournament as professionals. A ballsy move and a big financial commitment for a nation with just 4,000 players. Many more of both are needed on a global scale.
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