Thursday, 15 December 2016

Tier 2 players approaching 100 caps

So far 42 players in international rugby history have reached the milestone of 100 caps for their country, but only one of those players (Portugal's Vasco Uva who won his 100th cap against Kenya in May 2015) has come from outside the 6 Nations or Rugby Championship sides.

Samoa approaching end of an era

Image result for Samoa rugby

A brief look at the state of Samoan rugby following a disappointing 2016 which saw them finish down at 15th in the world rankings (5th amongst Tier 2 nations).

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Georgia's inability to dominate weaker sides on the scoreboard finally catches up with them in surprise defeat to Japan

Georgia came into this November off the back of a record win over Romania and a successful tour of the Pacific Islands. The bubble was burst however during their upset loss to Japan, where old demons came back to haunt them as they played to the worst stereotype of Georgian rugby, and their hopes of reaching top 10 in the rankings for the first time before the end of the year went up in tatters.

Friday, 11 November 2016

November 2016 preview: Canada

Canada (vs Ireland, Romania & Samoa)
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Things have not gotten much easier for Canada under new coach Mark Anscombe. Injuries have continued to hurt the side badly. Some of Canada's elite players such as Tyler Ardron, Jeff Hassler, Jamie Cudmore, Jebb Sinclair or Doug Wooldridge are all missing. As are even a bunch of players who might have stepped up in their absence or at least bolstered the depth such as Kyle Gilmour, Cam Pierce or Phil Mackenzie.

Additionally with a few other players simply dropping out of the squad following the RWC for various reasons, the squad looks remarkably thin on both depth and experience.

This is especially pertinent in the pack, where 10 of the 16 forwards named in the squad are either uncapped or only made their debut this year. Extra pressure has fallen on the likes of Djustice Sears-Duru, Evan Olmstead or Jake Ilnicki as the keys to holding the starting tight five together, even though they're all still in their first couple of years of international rugby and none were first choice at the RWC last year.

The likely tight five replacements on the bench will likely have under 10 caps between them, whilst Aaron Carpenter is the only member of the back row to have been in the squad 12 months ago.

The backline has been aided by both Phil Mack coming out of retirement, and Connor Braid coming out of what appeared to be a semi retirement. But even then, Braid may have been on a good form last year before his injury but is unknown exactly how well prepared he will be for this tour after over a year off.

Overall this is possibly the least experienced, worst prepared Canada squad to have embarked on a November tour since 2008 or 2009 when Kieran Crowley was underseeing a period of large scale rebuilding.

Ciaran Hearn, DTH van der Merwe, Taylor Paris, Matt Evans all being present in the outside backs is exciting, but as laid out before the main area of concern is in the pack. Romania have some injuries and retirements themselves and may not be quite as strong as they were in 2013 or 2014, but you'd expect they will be fancying their chances at home of dominating what is on paper a thin Canadian pack.

Nevertheless that is also the game Canada have the best chance of winning this month, with a win against Samoa in Grenoble looking unlikely, and the fixture against Ireland being really just damage limitation. Expectations are not high for Canada.

November 2016 preview: Samoa

Image result for samoa rugby Samoa (vs France, Georgia & Canada)

The past 2 years have seen Samoa go from some of their all time highs of the professional era, with 7th place in the rankings, and dominant wins over Tier 1 nations, to disputes over incompetent amateur administration and a disappointing RWC campaign possibly on a par with 2007.

On paper the group of players that delivered wins over Australia, Wales and Scotland appears to be now ageing and maybe past their peak. And there does not at first glance seem to be talent ready in key positions of front row and 9/10 to in the immediate term seamlessly replace veterans like Ole Avei (33), Census Johnston (35), Kahn Fotuali'i or Tusi Pisi (both 34).

With others like David Lemi (34) or Paul Williams (33) also both recalled, and several others either past or pushing 30. Coach Alama Ieremia has opted to keep faith in his old guard for now, and has resisted the temptation to leave out many of his most experienced players who may not be around by the time of the next RWC as Toutai Kefu has done with Tonga.

This may make Samoa probably the oldest squad around right now, but it does mean they have lots of knowledge and pedigree in their side with players who've been around the block. Samoa may not be the side they were in 2012, but remain one of the better Tier 2 sides and showed against New Zealand and Scotland last year that they can't be written off and can rise to an occasion.

It will be interesting to see how this Samoan side does this November, and if successful how Ieremia approaches the build up to the 2019 RWC and how many veterans he backs to reach that tournament. His side had a mixed June, with a win, a draw and a loss. Less than two wins this month, and an uncompetitive loss to France, would probably see the year regarded as a disappointment and put early pressure on the coach in front of a demanding public that's used to seeing their country as the strongest Tier 2 side.

November 2016 preview: Tonga

Image result for Tonga rugby Tonga (vs Spain, USA & Italy)

The Ikale Tahi had the oldest squad at the RWC, and under the guidance of Toutai Kefu 2016 has been a rebuilding year for them, and they are still looking for their first win.

Kefu should get that maiden win as Tonga open up their November series in Madrid against Spain, followed up by the USA in San Sebastian, which offer a good opportunities to weld the squad together prior to finally facing Italy in Padova. All three of those matches are winnable, and for the first two Tonga are favourites.

The new coach has cut some of the older players from the RWC, and his squad now has limited amount of players left from the 2011 RWC where Tonga shocked France. But what's most noticeably different about Kefu's squad is there are a significant amount of players from the ITM Cup, ten in total, whereas the squads had previously been heavily dominated by European based players.

Tonga are in a tricky position in RWC qualifying (not necessarily to qualify, but to avoid treks to places like Sochi and a possibly lower pool seed), and have limited amount of time to fix it. This November is a crucial step in the rebuilding process, with a poor month potentially seeing them tumble outside the top 15 in the world for the first time in years.

November 2016 preview: USA

Image result for USA rugby USA (vs Maori All Blacks, Romania & Tonga)

Like many Tier 2 squads, the USA under new coach John Mitchell have had a high turnover of players this year. Performances have been mixed so far, but there is still much unknown about this group with them really not having many opportunities as of yet to play at full strength under Mitchell.

For some reason, unlike most other nations, the USA only played two tests in this year's June international window, and are only playing two tests in the November window as well. Only having your full strength team play three tests in a year against top 20 ranked opponents is a pitiful amount frankly, and has unfortunately slowed down the process of rebuilding his squad post RWC. That they've been short of matches against anybody, let alone top 20 ranked opponents makes it even worse though, it's puzzling as to why not even a match against a side like Spain or Belgium couldn't have been organised.

Apart from the injured Aj MacGinty and Greg Peterson, most the Eagles' bigger names playing in elite level leagues around the world have returned to the squad this November. Some such as Samu Manoa for the first time since the RWC, and others such as Marcel Brache for the first time.

As mentioned before, this group of players has not really played together for any significant period yet, so a lot will depend on how quickly the coaching staff of Mitchell, Phil Greening and Mike Friday can knit them together as a unit, and how well some of the newer players especially in the tight five take to this level of international rugby.

On paper they should be favourites against Romania and have a decent chance against Tonga (two opponents the Eagles had contrasting records against under Tolkin). However the Oaks have several more matches under their belt this year and are not adapting to a new coach, whilst Tonga despite being in a major rebuilding period themselves have more solid depth to call upon.

Both Eagles tests this November could go either way, and should give a good early indication of where the USA currently stand amongst Tier 2 nations. A successful European tour, and in particular a win over Tonga (which Tolkin never managed) would give Mitchell a good platform to lead into 2017 with.

November 2016 preview: Romania

Romania (vs USA, Canada & Uruguay)
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2016 has been a low profile year so far for Romania, which for the most part of the ENC and Nations Cup they have attempted to freshen the side up with 15 new players winning their first cap this year (there are an additional 5 uncapped players in their 32 man November squad too). The year has involved both some ups, such as thrashing Russia and comfortably winning the Nations Cup for the fourth time in five years, and some lows, such as scraping past Spain by the skin of their teeth and getting pummelled by rivals Georgia.

There is some disappointment from Romanians at not getting a Pacific Island visit this year, which means they've only had one fixture all year against a higher ranked opponent. Nevertheless, this November window offers three winnable games and an interesting opportunity for this squad heading into RWC 2019 qualifiers.

The Oaks have notable holes in their squad with Mihai Macovei, Paula Kinikinilau, Valentin Ursache and Otar Turashvili all starters from the RWC who are either injured or unavailable. However both their North American opponents both also in rebuilding phases under new coaches, so may be vulnerable, particularly the Canadians whose pack the Oaks will be looking to bully and exploit in Bucharest as they did in 2014.

They will still be underdogs against both USA and Canada, and a lot of Romania's hopes rest on whether they can get a significant enough advantage up front and how successfully their recently qualified backs from overseas such as Jody Rose, Jack Umaga, Fonovai Tangimani and Stephen Shennan settle into the team.

It should be reiterated though that they are still underdogs, particularly against the USA who the Oaks have a poor record against. They have had issues in the build up with experienced players withdrawing, whilst their leading domestic team Timisoara Saracens (who provide 15 of their 32 man squad) did not fare particularly well in the European Challenge Cup. If they came away from this November with three wins, and ten wins from eleven this year, it would be a sensational achievement for a rebuilding side. Even two wins would be satisfactory, whilst one win against Uruguay (who Romania have never been troubled by whenever they've travelled for the Nations Cup) is the minimum expectation.

November 2016 preview: Japan

Image result for Japan rugby Japan (vs Argentina, Georgia, Wales & Fiji)
One year on from their famous RWC campaign than won the hearts of many rugby fans, new coach Jamie Joseph is starting out his first tests with Japan with a squad that already bears little resemblance personnel wise to the settled group of players Eddie Jones had between 2013 to 2015.

With unavailabilities for various reasons seeing numerous players left out, Joseph named an incredible 17 uncapped players in his first 32 man squad. The turnover of players in this Japan team has been utterly eye watering. Following the Argentina test, a total of 42 new caps have been awarded this year (which could rise up to 46 by the end of the year). That figure is inflated by Asian rugby, but it's still a huge total that no other side gets remotely near. By comparison Eddie Jones gave 16 new caps in his first year in charge.

This squad still has some quality players such as Amanaki Mafi and Harumichi Tatekawa, but it is also likely to field numerous players especially in the pack who have never played at a higher level than Top League rugby. In years past a schedule like they have this year would be celebrated, but this year it looks like a baptism of fire for such an inexperienced squad, with all their opponents currently higher ranked.

Many teams go in rebuilding phases under new coaches after World Cups, but there are questions to be asked about how Jones' Japan squad has fallen apart and been dismantled to such a degree and so quickly. If the JRFU's ambition was to squash out all the momentum and excitement from the RWC campaign as fast as possible then they have done a remarkably great job over the course of 2016.

Anyway, a winless tour seems highly likely for Japan this November this year. Their squad have their work cut out even to keep any of the matches even just quite close. The minimum should be at least avoiding the embarrassments that previous Japanese sides have faced at the Millennium Stadium and leave the tour with pride in the jersey intact.

In fairness, there were similar issues with the SunWolves who did manage some positive moments to take from their inaugural Super Rugby season (mixed in with some games they'd rather forget too), and as mentioned there are still some very good players in the squad. You feel a win would require a miracle on this tour (a repeat of Georgia's performance against Belgium in 2013 maybe), but it's not out of the question they could surprise and make at least one of the matches closer than anticipated.

November 2016 preview: Georgia

Georgia (vs Japan, Samoa & Scotland)
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The Lelos have been an exception amongst Tier 2 sides this year. Unlike most others they have a very settled squad, and not faced a post-RWC rebuilding period under a new coach and new system. The building blocks have been in place and Milton Haig's team have pushed forward a level so far this year, notably beating Antim Cup rivals Romania by a record margin, followed up by going unbeaten on their tour of the Pacific Islands in spite of missing various first choice starters in the pack. So it is no surprise there is a wave of optimism around Georgian rugby at the minute.

In 2013 when Georgia clung on to beat Samoa for the first time, it was a huge upset against a side who were ranked 7th in the world. Now many are viewing this fixture as very even with a slight tilt towards Georgia. There is a sense of expectation around the side now, and failing to reach two wins this month would feel like a mild disappointment.

The match many are looking forward to most this month though is the encounter against Scotland in Kilmarnock. The Lelos will of course be firm underdogs against an improved Scottish outfit, but if they were to get those two wins, they'd be entering with significant momentum and maybe finishing the year inside the top 10 for the first time as the highest ranked Tier 2 side.

To add to the optimism around Georgia this month. They also have unusually few injuries for an elite rugby side as of currently writing (could easily change of course). Only really Shalva Mamukashvili from the pack is a notable absentee. Plus notable starters like Mamuka Gorgodze, Levan Chilachava (despite Toulon faring poorly this season), Misha Nariashvili or Tamaz Mchedlidze are receiving rave reviews of their form at domestic level.

News regarding Georgian rugby progress has been very positive this year for the most part, and the national side is approaching an all time high point. It will be interesting to see how they wear the burden of being favourites against sides like Japan (who will have had more training time ) or Samoa (who still have a decent squad on paper and will be eager to regain their form of a few years ago). Many believe this group of players can establish themselves as one of the strongest Tier 2 sides now and over the next few years. A repeat of the results from the November series of 2014, would finish a standout year on a bitterly sour note.

November 2016 preview: Fiji

Image result for Fiji rugby Fiji (vs Barbarians, England & Japan)

Fiji are one of the few Tier 2 sides not to have had a major post-RWC overhaul, and the squad remains very similar to the one that played at the World Cup last year, with just a few fresh faces in the pack. Even with some middling performances at home in June, where they were minus players involved in the French playoffs and had a few players involved in Olympic 7s preparation, they are still probably the strongest Tier 2 side at present.

This November Fiji only play two tests with an extra Barbarians fixture beforehand in Belfast (a bit of a curious venue for a fixture that sold over 70,000 tickets in 2013), which has allowed for McKee to hand opportunities to a couple of new players who were part of Fiji Warriors impressive recent run of form.

England at Twickenham looks like tough ask for a side that has had little time together over the past 12 months, it may be hard for Fiji to keep it as competitive as the 2015 RWC opener (where the scoreboard didn't quite do justice to Fiji). Whilst Japan in Vannes, considering the state of the Cherry Blossoms, ought to be a routine win for the Fijians (although they did nearly mess up a similar fixture against the USA two years ago).

2016 has really been a year where the 7s side has taken the limelight in Fijian rugby. But the 15s side has quietly ticked over, putting themselves in a strong position to qualify for RWC 2019 as the top Pacific Island side despite not being at their best. If they can leave this November with two wins that would be satisfactory, and should give them confidence heading into 2017, where they can finish the job of being the fastest RWC 2019 qualifier, and play more big Tier 1 tests (Australia already being booked for June).

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Tonga's missing home tests

A quick summary as to why Tonga haven't played a home test since 2009 and how much longer Tongans will have to wait to see international rugby return to Nuku'alofa.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Players from 'Tier 2' nations playing in Europe (2016/2017)

A country by country breakdown of the 350+ players from nations outside Tier 1 currently playing for clubs in one of the 5 fully professional leagues in Europe (Premiership, Championship, Top 14, Pro D2 and Pro12).

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Another month of progress for Georgian rugby

A brief summary on a highly positive month for Georgian rugby which saw them unexpectedly return home their Pacific Islands tour undefeated and record their first top 10 finish at the World U20 Championships.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Romania becoming forgotten nation of world rugby


As another year passes with Romania playing low profile competition, they are becoming increasingly the forgotten Tier 2 nation of world rugby.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Shuhei Kubo to become first Japanese referee in Super Rugby

Referees from Tier 2 nations are rarely seen, but this weekend Shuhei Kubo will become the first Japanese to officiate in Super Rugby. Kubo has also been awarded an international match in June as well.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

When Namibia beat Ireland

A look back at one of the most startling results in rugby history, when Namibia beat Ireland back in July 1991.

Fiji Warriors continued dominance over their Pacific rivals

Fiji's domestic based players have had notable success over the past couple of years. As the June internationals approach, it will be interesting to see how much of this local talent will be rewarded for their success with an opportunity in the national team.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Why Georgia & Romania shouldn't always be lumped together

In the growing number articles on the argument for some version of 6 Nations expansion that have woken up over the past 2 years, invariably what is said is the 'likes of Georgia and Romania'. Lumping the nations together and implying they are one homogeneous entity in similar situations. However that is a misrepresentation of the reality. These are two sides on very different trajectories, and one of whom has clearly gained some ascendancy in this rivalry.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The rising rugby nation of Georgia

Most by now should have noticed the steady upward trajectory Georgian rugby has travelled since their first match in 1989. Now securely established as the dominant force of the ENC, having won 9 of the past 10 annual tournaments, and as a World Cup regular having also recently automatically qualifying for the 2019 World Cup. Here is a look at their unprecedented rise in world rugby from obscurity, and some reasons as to why that rise may be far from finished yet.

Monday, 14 March 2016

'Old school' Bill Beaumont bad news for Tier 2 nations

RFU Chairman Bill Beaumont is set to finally take the Chairmanship of World Rugby from Bernard Lapasset after narrowly missing out 4 years ago. This is not really such good news for Tier 2 nations.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The new voting structure on the World Rugby Council

An explanation of the reforms to the World Rugby voting structure, which sees three new Tier 2 Unions receive votes, although only a small rise in terms of influence of their vote.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

WR reject change to 3 year residency rule - who gains & who loses?

Following the conclusion amongst the Unions there was at this point 'no appetite' for change to the 36 month residency period for eligibility for national teams. Here is a look at the winners and the losers from the status quo.