Japan’s jaw-dropping win over Ireland, the world’s top-ranked team just weeks ago, as well as several plucky performances by minnows, suggests the gap between the haves and have-nots of world rugby continues to narrow.
It is still early days at Japan 2019 but so far there have been fewer mis-matches than at previous tournaments — continuing a long-term trend.
The Rugby World Cup has seen its fair share of ‘cricket scores’, including Japan’s 145-17 loss to the All Blacks in 1995, and Australia’s 142-0 thrashing of Namibia in 2003.
But for the first time at a World Cup, there was no score over 50 points in the first week, while Japan’s 19-12 upset of Ireland and Uruguay’s 30-27 win over Fiji defied all expectations.
Even Namibia, the lowest-ranked team, asked Italy some questions in their 47-22 opening defeat, before losing 57-3 to South Africa — a heavy defeat, but still an improvement on their 87-0 scoreline in 2011.
“We kept them to under 60 points, which is pleasing in some ways,” said Namibia coach Phil Davies.
Opposing coach Rassie Erasmus said: “You don’t get 100 points, 80 points and 70 points anymore — it’s been shown in the first week (of the tournament).”
World Rugby’s top national teams are classified as Tier One, the established sides of the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, or Tier Two, which includes Japan and the Pacific countries amongst others.
The governing body aims to close the gap and according England to coach to Eddie Jones, whose team did not have it all their own way against USA and Tonga, the strategy is bearing fruit.
“This World Cup is unique because of the conditions and you are seeing the Tier Two countries physically better prepared,” said Jones, who coached Japan to a famous victory over South Africa in 2015.
“It is a credit to World Rugby — they don’t get too many credits and they deserve credit for driving Tier Two development. It is great for the game.”
– False dawn? –
Tournament director Alan Gilpin told AFP that the performances of the lower-ranked teams had justified World Rugby’s investment in development programmes.
“Teams have come here better prepared that they have for any previous World Cup. A lot of that is World Rugby’s investment in high-performance programmes and development programmes with emerging nations so that’s really pleasing,” Gilpin told AFP.
He noted that 120 of the 150 Tier Two coaches at the World Cup had benefited from World Rugby funding or investment.
Gilpin said World Rugby had also tried to arrange the “jigsaw” of match schedules so that Tier Two teams did not play a Tier One team after a short turnaround.
“We’re trying to make it fairer for the emerging nations,” said Gilpin.
The tournament was billed as the “most open” in history and upsets haven’t only afflicted Tier One teams, as seen when lowly Uruguay stunned Tier-Two Fiji.
The coach of Georgia, who put in a spirited effort against Wales before eventually losing 43-14, said lower-ranking teams need more regular rugby against the top sides.
“You can’t play a team like Wales in the World Cup and expect us to produce miracles if we’re not used to playing at this speed,” said Milton Haig.
Gilpin admitted scheduling outside World Cups, which is done 12 years in advance, was a “tough challenge” given “immovable” events like the Six Nations and Rugby Championship.
And he warned that the tournament’s early results could yet prove a false dawn.
“The challenge for them all — and for us as a tournament — is to take that forward into your second game and your third game,” he said.
One fixture that could prove a blow-out is Namibia’s next game — against two-time defending champions New Zealand.
“It doesn’t get much easier,” said coach Phil Davies, blowing out his cheeks.
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