This year, Japan have been at it again, dispelling both Ireland and Scotland to much fanfare. They may have fallen to the Springboks in the quarterfinals, but that hasn’t undermined the nation’s many improvements.
It’s a similar story to what happened to Argentina after the 2011 World Cup, with the Pumas joining the then-Tri Nations from 2012. That decision was actually made on the back of Argentina’s successful 2007 campaign, where the South American top dogs finished above both New Zealand and Australia.
Japan’s success at the 2019 tournament certainly justifies a higher level of regular competition for the Asian superpower.
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Underwhelming status quo
Although there’s rarely any sort of regularity to Japan’s rugby calendar, they’ve typically participated in two different tournaments: the Asian Rugby Championship and the Pacific Nations Cup.
The PNC is an excellent competition that has pitted Japan against Fiji, Samoa and Tonga – with occasional guest appearances from the likes of the Maori All Blacks, the USA and even Georgia. It’s provided the Brave Blossoms with regular competition against teams that have been on a roughly even level.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 15, 2019
The ARC, by contrast, is a fairly ho-hum affair. Japan haven’t lost a match since 2002 and have averaged 60-point winning margins since 2008. To even call the ARC a glorified training run for Japan gives a bad name to training runs around the world.
Is it now time for Japan to look for bigger fish to fry, given their recent successes?
Greater competition at the top
The simple answer seems to be yes.
Rugby, despite being played on a global scale, is dominated by just a small number of teams.
Only four nations – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England – have ever won a World Cup. Only one additional side, France, has even made the final of rugby’s flagship competition.
A few other nations like Wales, Ireland and Argentina, have gone through periods of relative dominance but have also struggled for consistency.
Round out the tier one nations with Scotland and Italy, and there’s not exactly a huge number of teams that are competitive at the highest level.
Japan have now leapfrogged Italy in the pecking order and are pushing for higher honours.
Giving Japan more fixtures against top sides should theoretically allow them to push on and compete with the best, increase the competition in the highest bracket.
International competition doesn’t always breed success
It makes sense that playing better teams should improve quality of performances, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case in the past.
It would be difficult to argue that Argentina, despite having played in eight Rugby Championships, are any better now than before they were added to the competition.
Italy are in a similar boat. The Azzurri were added to the Six Nations in 2000 and have finished bottom of the table 14 times. They’ve still never made the World Cup quarterfinals.
Whilst no one would argue that greater international competition is bad for a team, it’s clearly not a golden ticket to success either.
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The more logical method to improve a nation’s performances over the long-term is to grow the game from the bottom up.
Argentina have just one professional feeder team in the form of the Jaguares. Italy are much the same, with Bennetton Treviso and Zebre playing in the Pro14.
Japan have had the Sunwolves but their time in Super Rugby will come to an end after 2020 and that franchise has hardly been utilised to its full potential. There are rumours that the side’s termination could be reversed, but Japan’s international form doesn’t change the fact that the JRFU undermined the small shred of credibility that Super Rugby still possessed by pulling their top players out of 2019’s competition.
Japan’s Top League is still an amateurish level competition run by a frankly amateur organisation and until Japanese players are involved in high-level football throughout the year, the national side are going to struggle for consistency. We’re weeks away from the JRFU unveiling a new competition that could change things for the country, but we’re still years away from seeing anything come to fruition.
Everybody wants a piece of the Rising Sun
Despite all that, regular international matches are necessary to help teams improve.
It’s no surprise that Japan, the tier two side that has developed the most in the last six or so years, has also had the most matches against tier one sides over that same period.
From the end of the 2015 World Cup in England until the start of Japan’s own World Cup, Japan played 13 test matches against tier one teams. They squared off against every tier one team at least once.
Fiji, in contrast, have played tier one oppposition eight times over that same period. No other tier two nation has managed even half as many matches against top opposition as Japan has.
Japan’s ‘friendly’ fixture list (i.e. excluding annual tournaments) is actually on par with Italy.
Friendlies only make up half the year’s matches at present, of course.
Slow growth in annual competitions
Rugby, unlike many other professional sports, has a number of permanent, annual international competitions, with one major one based in each Hemisphere.
The Six Nations is rugby’s oldest international competition, established way back in 1883 as the Home Nations Championship. It was originally contested by just England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales before France were introduced in 1910. 90 years later, Italy were also added to the mix.
The Rugby Championship, the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent, was first contested by New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in 1996. Argentina joined in 2012.
Rather than focus on Japan's 26-3 loss to @Springboks in Sunday's @rugbyworldcup quarter-final, it's better to remember how far the nation has come since playing in the first World Cup in 1987. #RWC2019 https://t.co/mDqYWN4aYO
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 21, 2019
Despite the presence of the two major competitions, only two additional nations have made any headway since the sport went professional.
Argentina demanded inclusion based on their superb results at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups whilst Italy had performed well in regular Test matches against the then-Five Nations sides in the years preceding the new millennium.
Effectively, to be included at the big boys’ table, you had to already be beating the big boys.
Rugby’s growing pains
The problem with slowly adding developing teams to the bigger competitions is that it undermines the ability for their previous competition to grow.
Every time a team gets close to the cusp of the top tier, they’re incorporated into an already existing competition. In Argentina and Italy’s cases, no other teams were really hampered by their rise, but Japan are in a different situation.
Whilst Argentina and Italy had no regular competitions prior to their promotions, pulling Japan out of the Pacific Nations Cup would harm the greater development of those pacific sides.
The PNC has gone through multiple iterations throughout its almost 15-year history. Japan won the competition in 2019 but they didn’t look like they belong in a completely different league to their opposition.
A fully professional Pacific Nations Cup, where the same teams participate annually and have access to their top players, would both be an excellent showcase of rugby and foster growth in all the nations taking part.
Pulling Japan (and Fiji, as many have proposed) from the PNC would force the likes of Samoa and Tonga to either play matches against teams that are geographically very separate or to settle for games against other developing Pacific sides.
Both these scenarios could kill off the game in nations which are already struggling to fight off the competition from rugby league.
Greater inter-tournament competition
The obvious solution is to keep the current competitions as they are but to promote a greater number of games between the competitions.
Since Argentina joined the Rugby Championship, New Zealand have the topped the log all but twice. The fact of the matter is, despite South Africa’s revitalisation in the last two years, New Zealand are still on a tier of their own, which has made the Rugby Championship grow stale.
Under the current home-and-away format, the chances of New Zealand not finishing in first place are slim at best. The only times they haven’t were during World Cup years, when the competition was reduced to just three games a team.
Are we at a critical juncture for tier 2 rugby? Or is Japan's heroic campaign papering over the cracks
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 13, 2019
Perhaps that’s actually a better permanent option for the competition?
If SANZAAR restrict the Rugby Championship to a four-team, three-week format and tack on an additional fixture at the end (e.g. a deciding Bledisloe match and a South Africa/Argentina equivalent), there would still be time in the calendar to tee up a couple of weeks of games between the Rugby Championship and PNC sides.
By incorporating a few extra inter-tier games throughout the year (two following the Rugby Championship, and maybe two at the end of the year), the likes of Japan and Fiji can continue to test themselves against the best without seriously compromising the development of the nations that get left behind.
Solutions that benefit a greater number of sides
Focussing on Japan, the darlings of the 2019 World Cup, may help grow rugby in Asia, but it won’t do much for rugby across the globe.
There are three problems that need fixing – and finding solutions to any of these issues would have a much more wide-scale positive impact.
The first is the segregation between tier one and two teams. New Zealand, on their own, play more tier one sides in a calendar year than all the Pacific sides combined. Developing nations don’t need to be playing the top teams every week, but even just a few more annual fixtures would allow them to improve their games and track their progress.
The second major issue is the restrictive contracting that mainly seems to be an issue for Pacific Island players who are signed to Top 14 teams. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that French clubs are offering considerably more lucrative contracts to players who are willing to retire from international rugby, thus hampering the smaller nations. World Rugby have supposedly been cracking down on this but it seems that a number of cases have slipped through the cracks.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 11, 2019
The final issue is player eligibility. International eligibility requirements are fairly loose already and can be achieved through ancestry, place of birth, or a five-year residence test. For one reason or another, it’s now very easy to qualify for any country you want, but very difficult to change countries once you declare (yet still possible). Players shouldn’t necessarily be able to change nations on a whim, but the current blanket ban is too restrictive.
Japan would benefit from fixing at least two of the above problems, but nations across the globe would all gain some advantages.
What the Brave Blossoms have achieved at the 2019 Rugby World Cup is incredible and should be applauded, but there are bigger problems affecting our game right now and better ways to help this year’s hosts continue to thrive that don’t involve incorporating Japan into one of the major international competitions.
Jacob Peyper won’t be involved in the World Cup semifinals after posing for a photo with Welsh fans:
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