A few weeks ago, a very popular tweet pictured an African woman in her everyday clothes, juggling a football as good as Ronaldinho during his heydays. The caption said “talent is equally distributed. Opportunity is not”. No better statement could better describe the current rugby climate, and its affect on teams such as Italian Rugby.
Last week, publications including the NZ Herald broke the news that World Rugby is proposing to ink a broadcasting deal which will bring between $10 and $14 million per season to the countries competing in the new World League of Rugby annual tournament.
A concept that while inventive, has made the rugby world ‘very angry’ with the governing body. This is because the world body has suggested to lock Tier Two nations out of the concept, for the next 12 year. In plans to revamp the international test series and to give fans more variety, the planning committee have done little to in fact, grow the game.
Complaints and criticism have been widespread. Imagining something which should ease the demand of the global calendar, it has been considered way too hard on the players’ body. The players association not in favour of the plans, as are sides excluded from the competition.
The League would include the Six Nations teams, Rugby Championship teams plus Japan and USA which formally would replace Fiji, the initially outside candidate for the new tournament.
An out-pour of comments by media, and widely described on social media by players, stakeholders, and supporters alike, have slammed the new concept left, right and center. They perceive World Rugby of exclusivity, for leaving any Pacific Nations teams, Georgia and other rising Tier Two teams ‘out in the cold’.
One popular argument seen on social media debates how impossible it is that Italy; which has struggled to get up from the 14th place in the world rankings, is considered a better candidate than Fiji (9th), Georgia (12th) and Tonga (13th).
Last Word on Rugby might argue that Italian Rugby deserves to be in the top 12 teams because the focus should be on how tests are organized, how opportunities are given and how the World Ranking system is flawed, and needs attention.
Italian Rugby has developed into a Tier One nation
In the 1990s, when the Six Nations was a club of Five Nations, Italy was invited to play the team during a so-called ‘bye week’. This opportunity saw the Azzurri play for their place in the private tournament.
A number of wins against Scotland, France and Ireland gave the Federazione Italiana Rugby the right confidence to push for full inclusion in the oldest rugby event on the planet. The request was accepted on merit, and Italy debuted on March 5, 2000 at Stadio Flaminio. That moment sparking waves of joy across the nation, with a victory over Scotland.
Since then the team has struggled. Losing consistently, dropping points in the World Rugby rankings. The likes of Georgia on the other hand, have the better recent International record – by comparison of wins ratio. Now six places ahead in the ranking, that nation is now making noises to be considered for the elite European annual contest.
While the recent Italy v Georgia match in Firenze last November showed that the latter is not ready to take on the European powerhouses annually. They need exposure to both the Tier Two and the Tier One nations – training against England recently is a good forward step.
The problem lays with the current global calendar, which does not allow a fair share of opportunities for the second tier group to challenge and measure up with their stronger counterparts. It creates a ranking point system which is just inaccurate.
Italian is the weakest of the Tier one sides, and yet by far the strongest of the Tier two nations. Results against the USA proved that Italian Rugby are in that leading group. Yet considering the number of Six Nations losses, they are currently stuck at 14th place because as a Tier one nation, they play only Tier one teams which consistently all stronger than them.
This is while Fiji, Georgia and Tonga, rarely play Tier one teams and mostly they play the same level, or Tier Three group teams. To be fair, Italy and Fiji might be considered on the ‘very same level’ and Georgia and Tonga, honestly one step further down.
Basically, while Italy loses matches and points against stronger teams, the others win matches and accumulate points against the same strength or weaker teams. Yet the quality of the games is totally different.
Here are the facts:
The Six Nations was introduced in 2000. Since then, Italy has played England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France 20 times (plus a number of ‘friendlies’ before Rugby World Cups).
Also, since 2000, Italy has played the All Blacks 10 times, Australia 12 times, Argentina 15 times and South Africa 10 times. The reality is, by constantly playing against stronger teams, and losing, this results in gains and losses of points.
Since 2000 New Zealand played Tonga twice, Fiji three times and Georgia once at the World Cup 2015. Australia played Fiji five times. They never played against Tonga and Georgia. England played Fiji three times, Georgia twice and Tonga once. And finally, Ireland played three tests against Fiji, three times against Georgia and once against Tonga.
If you read between the lines, you can see where we are going.
So is Italian rugby really part of the problem? No, they deserve to be there simply because they are constantly playing the best in the world. And on the other side Fiji, Georgia and Tonga don’t have the same workload Italy have and therefore a comparison is just impossible to be made.
The infrastructure is in place, and one day the Pacifica nations can reach those levels; as might other Asian or European sides. But in the cold reality of International rugby, Italy deserves their Top 12 station.
The real problem is Test matches and the Global Calendar
The real problem is World Rugby not enforcing Tier One nations to play ‘at least’ a handful of Tier Two nations per year. A basic will to promote the game. With some making an effort, yet others never venturing away from their home nations, or geographical isolation.
The problem is Tier one nations who have no interests what so ever to engage with Tier two countries, and actively decline their invitations to play as their guests. Some nations train in other destinations, yet have never considered playing a friendly match, to thank the welcoming hosts.
The current plans for the World League would only aggravate the situation because, if any broadcasting deal is signed, that would have to be respected [till the end of the term]. Bringing only reward for a selected few, during a global calendar that suits some – but not all.
What is the solution?
Clearly, a solo Tier One nation competition is just ‘way too hubristic’ to be even conceived. A second tier layer of quality competition must be added. On top of that, why not have cross-over games?
World League of Rugby needs to have ‘competition for all’
As an example; each team might drop two matches within the same group/conference opponents and include matches with above/below level opposition. It will force top squads to play ‘whatever opposition is presented to them’. And importantly help the development of minor nations. It will assist weaker unions to clearly asses their potential against others.
This will bring fair competition, and to bring more level standards (from exposure to the elite of rugby). Not just once every four years, where it is a rugby banquet. More so that all teams; including Italian Rugby enjoy the entire dinner – that includes promotion/relegation – as just desserts.
Rugby often looks at other sports with a bit of arrogance. More white collar than blue. Maybe the moment has arrived, for World Rugby to put its feet on the ground. To learn and observe from successful organizations, how to become a real global game.
And then a very real ‘world competition’ could be just what the sport needs.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images