It’s what the world game needs, and almost all rugby fans want. A brilliantly in sync Fijian side on the verge of the last eight of a Rugby World Cup, flying the flag for battling tier-two nations everywhere. Having beaten Georgia and toppled Australia, in addition to beating England at Twickenham last month, they are breaking new ground on a regular basis.
Nor have they been entirely alone. While most of the attention is focused on who will make it through to the knockout stages in France, some smaller nations still have their eyes set on a golden ticket of their own: automatic qualification for 2027 by virtue of finishing third in their pool. During this World Cup there have certainly been encouraging performances from teams such as Portugal and Uruguay – the gap between the haves and have-nots is closing.
That said, it has been tough for others. England beating Chile 71-0 and Namibia suffering a 96-0 loss to France are examples of the huge disparity that still exists in a few cases. I feel for all the players and staff involved. Often these type of results don’t reflect their journey and hard work, particularly when they are having to navigate a playing field that is less than even in numerous respects.
In particular I feel for Namibia, whose matches were scheduled within a 17-day window. Nor were they helped by numerous injuries and the suspension of their captain, Johan Deysel. It’s hard to see how they have been fairly treated compared with their Pool A opponents France, who have had a full 28 days to complete their four games.
I can sympathise from personal experience: in 2019, playing for the USA Eagles, we had an exhausting 18 days covering our four group games. It’s incredibly tough to be fresh and ready to put your best foot forward for each match under those circumstances.
There have been further complaints from some teams during this World Cup. Chile’s head coach, Pablo Lemoine, publicly slammed World Rugby, expressing how his players were like lambs to the slaughterhouse. He, like me, wants Chile and other lower-ranked nations to have far more exposure to top opposition before arriving at the World Cup. Neither Chile nor Uruguay were able to secure those kind of fixtures before the tournament, denying them the crucial chance to experience the intensity and speed that a side such as England bring.
I can empathise with this again. In 2019, the USA Eagles had no tier-one fixtures before the tournament in Japan. We duly struggled to match the power of England, France and Argentina for the full 80 minutes in our group, falling off in the last quarter of games. Playing regular top-level Test rugby gives you that kind of progression and helps to create a more equal global game.
Which leads us to the tricky question of where World Rugby support should ideally be allocated and exactly what form it should take. Namibia’s head coach, Allister Coetzee, is already pleading for more funding for his African side, explaining that the Namibian setup is mostly made up of semi-professional players and lacks a high-performance strategy. While nations must understand there is not an infinite supply of cash the goal has to be to try to ensure we don’t have semi-professional-based sides at future World Cups.
Even looking at the Pacific islanders, I’m sure Fiji would still love far greater funding of the national team. Yet their rise can ultimately be explained by quality investment in the Fijian Drua, now playing in Super Rugby, and the opportunity to spend far more time preparing together.
Meanwhile Tonga and Samoa, who many of us thought could cause an upset at this World Cup, are still yet to reach their potential. The Tongan superstar Salesi Piutau, formerly an All Black as Charles Piutau, has spoken publicly about a lack of kit, players often having to pay for their own travel during qualifying and not having anywhere near the same time together as, say, New Zealand.
More tier two versus tier one games, fairer scheduling and increased funding are not simple and easy fixes, but it is my belief that World Rugby must continue to make it their overriding priority to try to close the gap by whatever means possible.
Maybe an expanded World Cup with 24 teams, rather than the current 20, is the answer. It would reduce the financial and logistical stress of a lengthy qualification process and allow more time for countries to attract sponsorship, invest in internal rugby competitions and arrange more matches against higher ranked teams.
But all that can wait for another month. For now, with one week of pool games remaining, there is still a lot to play for at this World Cup. And let’s hear it for the flying Fijians as they look to showcase their immense talent and rip up the existing landscape of world rugby.