The introduction of the Americas Rugby Championship (ARC) at the turn of the year was just one of the many positive developments for tier two nations, and those just ranked just below the world’s top 20, throughout 2016.
The ARC formed a key part of an improved competition schedule that produced a glut of top quality test matches and saw the likes of Georgia, Uruguay and Brazil embark on historic tours, while Romania, Tonga and Portugal ended the year on a high with a clean sweep of wins.
“This year has kind of been a rebuilding year, as is always the case post-Rugby World Cup. It’s been a positive and incredibly busy year,” World Rugby's Head of Competitions and Performance Mark Egan said in an interview with World Rugby TV.
“If look back at this November, we had 47 games involving 28 countries. We had some really positive games. Tonga, for example, shocked Italy who had beaten South Africa the week before.
“Some new competitions were put in place too. The Americas Rugby Championship was launched and had a very successful first season.
“We also introduced the Americas Pacific Challenge tournament to really meet the needs of the Pacific Islands, and USA, Canada and Uruguay below senior international level.
“It gives them a level of competition below the November and June tests where they can blood some new players. I think the coaches are finding that very helpful.”
With a number of nations pushing hard to break into the world’s top 20, standards continue to rise across the board.
“We are seeing countries like Brazil and Germany challenge the established tier two group. We are bringing both Germany and Brazil into our high performance investment programme and investing new money in them," added Egan.
“Obviously, we focused on Brazil with regards to the Olympic Games but now we see them as a good long-term play for us in terms of a high performance investment.”
Egan says the overall aim is for at least one tier two nation to make the quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup, a goal so nearly achieved by Japan at RWC 2015.
"The losing margins against tier one nations have been decreasing over the last three tournaments. So, our big target is to get one of those tier two unions to a quarter-final and see some upsets in the pool phases as well. That’s really what we are heading towards, I hope.
What the coaches and administrators had to say:
Mark Anscombe (Canada)
You look at Tonga, they have had a good tour and Romania had a good three weeks. Both had three wins out of three so that is good progress for those teams. The challenge if we want to keep bridging the gap between ourselves and the tier one teams is to get more guys into professional competitions, either by them moving overseas or by creating new competitions, so that they are training daily and playing at a higher level more consistently.
John McKee (Fiji)
Georgia have made some real gains and Japan have really stepped up and are a much more competitive team. That is good for us because they are teams that we play on a regular basis and it is important that we are playing very competitive games to help us work towards our goal in terms of making the knockout stages at the Rugby World Cup.
Phil Davies (Namibia)
I think the game is in a good place. So, the intention to implement and action new initiatives to help rugby union move forward, I think is excellent. You've seen sevens at the Olympics which was fantastic; you’ve seen a big emphasis on safety in the game surrounding tackle techniques and concussion; and the scrums seem to have been sorted out to a degree, you don’t see as many collapses.
Nigel Melville (formerly USA Rugby)
The Americas Rugby Championship was a great success, there was such a buzz about the whole thing. It was everything we hoped it would be, it gave us the opportunity to play more games, it gave us the opportunity to see some domestic players and for the coaches to get to know their players better.
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