This year marks a change in direction, as twelve stadiums, spread from the northern reaches of Sapporo down to the southern region of Kumamoto, will hold rugby union’s showpiece tournament, where 20 nations battle it out over six weeks. The decision to award the hosting duties to a Tier Two team for the first time is representative of World Rugby’s aim to develop rugby union into something of a truly global sport for all to enjoy.
The All Blacks may be gunning for a third consecutive triumph, whilst Australia, South Africa and England are all seeking to relive former glories, but with all eyes on the Brave Blossoms and the Land of the Rising Sun this autumn, it may just be time to root for some of the Tier Two nations, those perennial underdogs.
The much-loved but unfancied Pacific Islanders
Pacific Islanders seem to be made for rugby, and the likes of England, Ireland and Wales all possess players of Polynesian descent: the Vunipola brothers, Manu Tuilagi, Bundee Aki and Taulupe Faletau to name but a few. In fact, over one-fifth of all players at the 2015 Rugby World Cup were of Pacific Island descent, but only 15% of these represented Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Forty-three Polynesians lined up for nine other countries in that tournament.
These Pacific nations - small in size and population - lack the finances, resources and infrastructure to compete on a level playing field against their illustrious Tier One counterparts. Their best players are often lured by other, richer nations able to offer better packages and facilities – a trend that has hampered Fiji, Samoa and Tonga in recent times - and a bid to launch a Pacific Islands Super Rugby team was rejected by SANZAAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) last year.
The countries will line up in three of the four pools at this year’s World Cup. Tonga have been eliminated at the pool stages in the seven tournaments they have qualified for previously, and are 90/1 to reverse that trend on this occasion. Samoa haven’t reached the knockout stages in 20 years, and the Fijians have fallen at the first hurdle in every World Cup since 2007.
However, history shows us that whilst the Islanders have been on the end of some routs over the years, they are also more than capable of producing a World Cup shock on the biggest stage of them all. Fiji stunned Wales 38-34 in 2007 to record one of the greatest wins in their history, whilst Western Samoa, as they were known in 1999, slayed the Red Dragon 38-31 in a pulsating Test.
Polynesians possess the attacking fluency and natural flair that many teams lack, and they like to express themselves on a field of play, a trait that is encouraged on the islands from an early age. World Cup camps will give these teams an opportunity to gel on and off the field, a luxury that these countries rarely experience given their players are scattered across different leagues. The various release clauses that players have in their contracts means that smaller teams often only come together at short notice, sometimes in the week preceding an international game.
Despite their comparatively limited resources, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have always possessed the individual talent needed to compete at this level. The likes of Nemani Nadolo, Tim Nanai-Williams and Siale Piutau will present a danger to any team competing at this year’s World Cup.
The challenges these Pacific teams now face is to come together as a collective unit, which many know they are capable of doing. Away from the vice-like grip the Tier One nations appear to have on these tournaments, wouldn’t it be refreshing to see these Islanders deliver on the world stage and maybe even reach the latter stages this autumn?
Georgian minnows can put themselves on the map
Looking at the four five-team pools, there are nations that won’t be expected to progress to the knockout stages, and teams that some may say are there to make up the numbers, but all will be desperate to prove themselves on the world stage.
Take Pool D’s Georgia as an example. They trained with England behind closed doors last year, with Eddie Jones describing them as “the biggest, ugliest, strongest scrum pack in the world”. Calls for their inclusion into a possibly expanded Six Nations grow louder each year, as the powers-that-be continually ignore pleas from the wider game to help sides like Georgia develop and prosper.
They are deprived of fixtures against Tier One nations, though, with the odd autumn Test having to suffice away from World Cup campaigns. But they are building. Graham Rowntree is on board in the coaching department, and they’re training with England again during this year’s Six Nations campaign. Their head coach Milton Haig said: “If you can’t play against a tier one team, to train against one is the next best thing. This is a massive for us to train against one of the best teams in the world. And it is giving our players an opportunity, from youngsters to seniors, another chance to benchmark themselves against tier one players.”
A country renowned in rugby circles for having a gargantuan pack that they build their team around, a scrummaging outfit to be feared and a meaty lump of forwards that can go toe-to-toe with the best around, the Georgians will be relishing the clashes that lie in wait this autumn. The Leolos have qualified for the past three World Cups, albeit exiting at the pool stages, but secured two narrow victories four years ago against Namibia and Tonga. Priced at 25/1 to progress from Pool D, Georgia could better, or even further, that record this time around, as Australia, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay lie in wait.