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FEATURE Emerging nations primed to smash the glass ceiling in France

Emerging nations primed to smash the glass ceiling in France
9 months ago

As over 600,000 rugby fans descend on France, to marvel at the collective talents of superstars Antoine Dupont, Eben Etzebeth, Rieko Ioane and Johnny Sexton, standing alongside them will be players who are less household names, but no less worthy of their place at the quadrennial-played tournament. Take Taylor Gontineac, the free scoring Romanian wing, or Tonga’s tough tackling Pita Ahki. Then there’s Waisea Nayacalevu, who gave England such a tough time at Twickenham. You’d also be a fool to discount Georgia’s Davit Niniashvili who has been lighting up Lyon’s backline this season, or Chile’s Rodrigo Fernandez, who scored the 2022 IRPA Men’s try of the year. The list goes on and you could mention similar players from Uruguay, Portugal, Samoa and Namibia on that stellar list.

There is a common misconception, that these ‘Tier 2’ minnows are largely left to their own devices. Left to look upwards with coveted glances at their better funded Tier 1 nations. That World Rugby has forgotten about them, but those generalisations are wide of the mark.

For the nine emerging nations at the World Cup, there has been significant time, resources and yes, blood, sweat and tears to get to this point. They haven’t done it alone.

Peter Horne is World Rugby’s high performance director, who has been overseeing the circuitous road to France strategically. With more than two decades of experience behind him, he knows what is required to enable these naturally gifted athletes, and the coaches and support staff that work with them. The high performance programme has a wide remit, and its yearly spend runs into the multi-millions, Horne says. “In terms of this World Cup, we have a plethora of specialist consultants. We have legal services with lawyers, based out of Paris, where unions contribute some high performance funding for access. That will help them with citings and off-field issues. Then we have a medical programme in place, so all the equipment associated to rehab is there when the teams turn up. What we’re trying to do is level the playing field.”

Uruguay Chile
Chile and Uruguay battled it out in Montevideo in preparation for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Pablo PORCIUNCULA /Getty Images)

Horne says while England and France don’t have any resource issues, some of the emerging nations do. “The top sides turn up with a gazillion staff and a plethora of equipment. We cover all the insurance for all the players, which is a significant outlay, over half a million pounds.”

Above the line, Horne says they have deployed consultants within the teams set-up during the final phase. “Craig White is with Chile. Jon Callard and Victor Matfield are with Portugal, along with head coach Patrice Lagisquet. Vern Cotter is with Romania. Georgia have got Paul Tito and Corey Brown, Tony’s brother, as backs coach. Sielala Mapasua, Tana Umaga and Tom Coventry are all with Samoa. Then you have Simon Rawalui with Fiji and Allister Coetzee with Namibia. Some really sharp rugby brains and they’re recruited with our money.”

For those uninitiated with high-performance and what it means Horne can enlighten us in Layman’s terms.

“High-performance is really a concept because individuals in different countries and different sports see it through a different lens but it’s about best possible performance in the time and resource you have available.”

Not everyone is equal, that’s the game and that’s life. In high-performance, you have to look at what tools you have in your locker. How long you have to prepare, over a four or eight year cycle in order to get the best result possible.

Peter Horne, High-performance director, World Rugby

Horne is a realist and says most teams lacing up their boots all over France will have their private performance objectives. “If you look at the 20 unions going to the Rugby World Cup. Some have plenty of resources and have realistic aim of reaching the final, whereas some are emerging nations, like Samoa, the best case scenario is reaching the quarter-finals, or for someone like Chile, even just reaching the World Cup is their nirvana.”

Of course, since the first World Cup in 1987, one key target has been lowering losing margins, but Horne knows there will always be a discrepancy between elite and emerging teams. “Not everyone is equal, that’s the game and that’s life. In high-performance, you have to look at what tools you have in your locker. How long you have to prepare, over a four or eight year cycle in order to get the best result possible.”

Where high performance can help is in equipping the emerging nations with the same level of support as your Englands and Frances. “We can provide professional management, senior leadership roles, head coaches, sports medicine, you name it. We don’t want to go into the red but every dollar we spend is about getting your optimum result. It’s about return on investment.”

Frank Lomani
Fiji are now in the world’s top 10 sides and registered a historic win at Twickenham last month (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

The Rugby World Cup, of course, is the economic driver of the global game, generating 93 per cent of all income, to reinvest in the game. “Our mission critical is improving the international competition in the game. It’s what we’re here for. It’s what we do and that goes back to our strategic plan. By doing that, we enhance our global competitions, generate greater revenues and have more money to invest. It’s as simple as that.”

All these programmes are integrated but not everyone delivers the same, and they have a much wider net than the 20 nations duking it out at the World Cup. “The unions that we invest in are all the Pacific Island nations, the African continent with Namibia, Kenya, South Africa; South America, with Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, of course two in the North in US and Canada. In Europe, it’s Portugal, Spain, Georgia, Romania, but we also work with Netherlands and Belgium.”

So how do you prepare a team to go into an international competition, watched by hundreds of millions of people? “In the lead-up to this tournament, of the 140 plus staff from the emerging nine unions, we’ve funded about 90 per cent of them. Take Fiji Rugby as an example. Going to the World Cup, we’ve effectively funded the majority of the management team. We’ve provided investment to recruit management and coaching teams and helped create a training environment with the right academies and pathway structures, all levels from U20s through, science and medicine.”

What we’re trying to do is bridge the gap between Test rugby, domestic rugby and importantly trying to stem their best players having to go overseas to find work.

Peter Horne

What has pleased Horne most is those development plans from the franchises coming to fruition. “A number of those individuals made the World Cup squad, which was always the intention. What we’re trying to do is bridge the gap between Test rugby, domestic rugby and importantly trying to stem their best players having to go overseas to find work. The longer we have to develop better players, the more likely they are to understand the Fijian way, so we’re not trying to pull 33 players back from 33 clubs, all with different coaches and different styles of rugby and then trying to jam it altogether to have a unified playing style in a matter of weeks.”

For all emerging nations, through the high-performance programme, there are 35 consultants, available to assist with the specific needs of aspiring elite team. “Our consultants go in and work with the unions based on their critical success factors, may it be technical coaching, lineout specialists, scrummaging, science and medicine or high-performance structures like management and leadership. We have global workshops which we deliver. Our wider academy online has over 270 practitioners delivering eight streams. That’s how we develop new leaders.”

Working closely with Horne, is Mike Chu, the programme’s Elite Education Manager. Chu, a New Zealander, with extensive experience in high-performance has been developing programmes to broaden the consultant’s skillsets, as the World Cup approaches.

“In 2022, a year out, we focused on campaign planning, so we had a range of speakers. We had someone from Google, giving us great insight into how to work with Gen-Zers. Andy Walsh, a world renowned former performance director with Red Bull and Eddie Jones gave us some pearls of wisdom. A highlight was going to the Navy Seals base in Coronado, to get insight from Seals on their former operations, including the Bin Laden incident. They took us through campaign planning, team selection, event planning, scenario planning when s**t goes wrong and how to review. We could compare and contrast that with a rugby team, going through a campaign, plan with your management and players. Except for them there are massive geo-political consequences and if they get it wrong, people die. The Toronto Blue Jays also gave us a great insight into how they work. We had someone who worked for Rolling Stone. It was really diverse couple of days. We had insight from behind the scenes at WWE and had Matthew Sparks, a coaching consultant at Cirque du Soleil, who allowed us to watch them train for the show and then talking to the coaches.”

Eddie Jones
Eddie Jones has been a guest speaker to World Rugby’s high-performance consultants (Photo by FRANCIS BOMPARD / AFP) (Photo by FRANCIS BOMPARD/Getty Images)

At the top of the funnel, lies the rapidly expanding franchise programme, something Horne believes is making a difference. “Over the last three years we have created 16 franchises to play in cross-border competitions. We know about Fiji Drua and Moana Pasifika, but we also have the Penarol in Uruguay, the Selknam from Chile and the Pampas from Argentina who play in the Currie Cup. We’ve taken the Black Lions out of Georgia and into the Currie Cup and then you have the Romanian Wolves and Lusitanos of Portugal. These are all franchises we’ve created to bridge the gap between domestic rugby and the international game because a lot of unions can’t control their playing pool. The franchise programme enables us to hold them longer in the development phase.”

Though the United States have missed this World Cup, with the 2031 tournament being hosted there, Horne thinks it’s imperative to grow the game there. “Currently 67 per cent of the broadcast money comes from two markets: England and France. To move into the US is vital. To unlock the largest sports market in the world, which would be fantastic. In that States we have a Pacific Islands combine, which is a talent ID programme. Before Drua and Pasifika came along, we’d place the best talents into the MLR, before they were shipped out to the best possible clubs we could find. We’ve also invested in a lot of personal development programmes because there have been a lot of suicides by players getting incarcerated and not getting contracts. We’ve been partnered with players to improve their social support mechanisms and the education around financial interests. We have two relationship managers in Europe.”

We have a real worry with three unions. Chile have never been to a World Cup, Portugal haven’t been there since 2007 and Romania haven’t been there since 2015.

For all the hard work, there are still issues that furrow Horne’s brow, as the big kick-off approaches. “We have a real worry with three unions. Chile have never been to a World Cup, Portugal haven’t been there since 2007 and Romania haven’t been there since 2015. Romania wouldn’t have made it, but for the Spain ineligibility issue. For those less established unions we’ve had to accelerate their growth and development. That’s why we formed the Pacific Island working group formed in 2016; to try and identify all the issues. We came up with eight clear mandated areas for strategy which included better finances for the game, improved governance structures and removing issues around pro clubs setting up academies locally. No longer do you have Clermont or Brive operating out there. We have broadened our investment so there are academies all over the country protecting the talent.

Romania
Romania were a late entrant to the World Cup after Spain’s expulsion and haven’t been at the tournament since 2015 (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

Chu agrees, recognising the importance of rearing local coaching ecosystem in future, to give players a pathway post-rugby. “One hundred days out from the World Cup we gave our final training days before the World Cup. The agenda was just about getting things right in France. We want to get to a point where we rear the local talent, rather than just hiring coaches from the Tier 1 nations, so we ran a specific Pacific Islands workshop. Seremaia Bai will be an intern at the World Cup for Fiji. The Tuilagis are here for Samoa and they’ve already spent some time with Moana Pasifika and the Blues. Our objective for France is having teams getting into the top eight and also reducing the scoring margins, so the games are closer.”

We never talk about our story. It’s not our thing. We just want to get the job done.

Another area of support is match officials and laws. Samoa, Fiji and Tonga, along with Chile and Uruguay have all benefitted from coaches embedded to provide advice on trying to reduce cards over time, Horne says. “The idea is to work with the playing group and actually improve their knowledge of the laws to affect change before they took to the field. A good example would be Tonga’s Nili Latu. He used to be good for a yellow card per game, and sometimes a red. We worked hard with him before the 2015 World Cup and found out most of his issues were around understanding. In that World Cup he had no cards, which was fantastic. We want to help those players who are serial reoffenders to get a better disciplinary record. This time out, we know Thomas Lavanini and Marcos Kremer have had their issues. If we reduce cards, we will have 15 players on the field and if we reduce penalty kicks, we will have a faster, more free-flowing game.

For all the work that the high-performance department does in, their work isn’t highlighted, which is just how Horne likes it. “I’ve been working here for 14 years and we never talk about our story. It’s not our thing. We just want to get the job done. We’re a part of the puzzle. We spend a lot of time trying set up high-performance programmes and working to an exacting calendar.”

The untold story is compelling and worthwhile and there could be some seismic shocks in the coming weeks.

Case study: Peter Drewett, Namibia

At ground level is Peter Drewett, a Londoner, who has lived in Sidmouth since 1978, and has extensive experience with England Rugby and the Welsh Rugby Union. Drewett has been helping Namibia prepare to the tournament. “Simply put, without World Rugby’s support and funding, we wouldn’t be here, because a lot of the emerging nations have had trouble securing the funding to be able to run a programme at the level they want. In Namibia’s case, it’s key to our continued development. Every cycle, the biggest challenge for a country like Namibia is how do we sustain our progress in the year after a World Cup. In fact, we’re already trying to plan for the 2027 Rugby World Cup.”

If some of our players go abroad with a good club, with good coaches, good S&C and it improves them, it works, but ideally, we’d like them all to stay and be able to offer them a credible alternative.

Drewett explains that as a consultant, his role is to gauge past performance and how to move forward. “It’s essentially where are we? What have we done, and what is our future potential? We then put together a very thorough World Cup plan. This includes coaching, sports science, administration, logistics, operational, sports medicine, I could go on. The challenges are massive for these countries. You have to have a realistic approach to what is possible. People are playing rugby just purely for the love of the sport. I spent two years with Georgia and their passion for the game is very humbling. Yet without finances, it’s difficult to sustain programmes at the level required. The countries that have done well at World Cups are those with a good franchise teams. In my eyes, you have to get regular competition participation right and be able to coach the same group of players. Our challenge is that our players fly in from all over the world, so in reality it’s a two-month preparation period, not four years. Our franchise team, the Welwitschias play in the Mzansi Challenge, which is part of the Currie Cup. At least that gives us 10 high intensity games that gets us prepared to play international Test level rugby.”

With two years of Covid interrupting player development systems, Drewett is thankful for the support of Namibia’s Board of Directors in getting the show back on the road. “Together, we’ve put our national academy programme back in place. We now fitness test our U16, U18 and U20 sides and we are going into schools at lower ages. We take national coaches all around the country to present because you need to make these kids feel part of it. Namibia do have a lot of talented players. For these 660 players, the World Cup is a shop window and an opportunity. If some of our players go abroad with a good club, with good coaches, good S&C and it improves them, it works, but ideally, we’d like them all to stay and be able to offer them an alternative.”

Namibia
Namibia’s Andre van der Berg passes the ball to scrum-half Damian Stevens during a rugby union friendly match between Uruguay and Namibia (Photo IGNACIO SANCHEZ MELLO/AFP Getty Images)

Even though Drewett has been with the Welwitschias for less than a year, the honesty, grit and hospitality has had an impact on him. “I’m not Namibian but I feel it. We are as professional as a Tier 1 nation is and our coaching group is outstanding. We’ve even got five guys who have played for Namibia who are now coaching with us, and heading up our Currie Cup team, with Allister and myself. Supporting developing coaches is vital to those smaller nations.”

So with Italy first up in Saint Etienne, it begs the question what are the expectations in a group also featuring France, New Zealand and Uruguay? “For us, it has to be to win two games. We’ve been to seven World Cups, but never won a game. We have to be ambitious. To do that, we want our age-grade teams to go out and compete. Look at the Georgians. They signed a participation agreement with South Africa for their sides to play against them at U18 and U20 level and lo and behold, look what’s happening. The former President of the country got behind rugby and put government money and his money into building facilities. There are now 10 centres in Georgia, so a youngster doesn’t need to travel a long way to get good coaching. That’s what we want to replicate here in Namibia.

Drewett’s final word goes to his players. “They have made massive sacrifices. Being away from their families, getting up and training at 5am in the morning, because they have to do a full day’s work and then coming back at 5 to work them until 8.30pm at night, that’s commitment. I grew up in the amateur era, so I get it, to an extent, but they have an incredible drive. These are dedicated lads and I take my hat off to them.”

Comments

2 Comments
M
Michael 283 days ago

Good article, full of detailed information most rugby fans don't know about. The Franchise system is a very good step in right direction. How about extending your u20 World championship. We had a brilliant one in South Africa this year. Scotland, Japan, Spain and Uruguay could compete in this. And allow 4 other nations into the World Trophy. Post World Cup tournaments of a higher intensity would also help developing nations. Maybe the established nations A sides could compete in them. An Atlantic shield tournament would help the likes of Canada and Namibia. Japan, Mlr and Super Rugby America, could organise a tournament for their clubs. Good article, hope tier 2 nations do well at World Cup.

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