Rugby World Cup: Are Tier Two nations closing the gap?

Aaron Smith of New Zealand with opposite number Helarius Kisting
Namibia, who lost 142-0 to Australia in a Rugby World Cup pool match in 2003, surprised New Zealand in the first half of their meeting in the 2019 tournament
2019 Rugby World Cup
Hosts: Japan Dates: 20 September to 2 November
Coverage: Full commentary on every game across BBC Radio 5 Live and Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, plus text updates on the BBC Sport website and app.

By normal expectations, the scoreline did not look extraordinary.

With 35 minutes gone, the big screen at Tokyo Stadium showed one team leading the other 10 points to nine.

But the team trailing was Namibia, the lowest-ranked nation taking part at Rugby World Cup 2019. Their line-up included a bank worker, a dentist and some farmers alongside low-profile professionals. The opposition was the two-time defending champions and tournament favourites New Zealand.

By the same point in their pool-stage meeting with Japan in the 1995 tournament, the All Blacks had already run in 11 tries to lead 77-3 - they ended up winning by a record 145-17.

The tale of those two snapshots, taken 24 years apart, seems one of a narrowing gap between the game's superpowers and wannabes. But is it accurate?

Is the gap really narrowing?

World Rugby, the game's global governing body and World Cup organisers, divides the global game into Tier One and Tier Two nations.

Tier One consists of the teams in the Six Nations - England, France, Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - and those who compete in the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship - Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Every other nation who plays at the World Cup, but is excluded from those top-level annual tournaments, is Tier Two.

Outside of World Cups, the two groups mix only occasionally, with Tier One nations generally playing each other to maximise revenue in a tight Test fixture list.

So how have Tier Two nations fared when afforded a place at the top table every four years?

While that graph suggests the game's minnows are inching closer to taking chunks out of the rugby's big beasts, it is a little more complicated.

The number of upsets - when a Tier Two nation has managed to turn over a Tier One counterpart - has remained steady and negligible since the inaugural Rugby World Cup.

Tier Two victories over Tier One nations at Rugby World Cups
1987One from 16 meetings

What about if we look at the close shaves as well?

Considering tournaments since the laws were changed to award five points for a try, Tier Two nations have rarely even finished within seven points - losing bonus point territory - or better.

The 2007 tournament, which featured a Tier Two win and three relatively close defeats, remains a highpoint by that yardstick.

Tier Two nations within seven points or better
YearTier Two teamResult
SamoaBeat Italy 42-18
SamoaBeat Argentina 32-26
TongaBeat Italy 28-25
SamoaBeat Wales 38-31
TongaLost to Wales 27-20
CanadaLost to Italy 19-14
FijiLost to Scotland 22-20
RomaniaLost to Italy 24-16
GeorgiaLost to Ireland 14-10
Tonga Lost to South Africa 30-25
FijiBeat Wales 38-34
SamoaLost to Wales 17-10
TongaBeat France 19-14
JapanBeat South Africa 34-32
CanadaLost to Italy 23-18
SamoaLost to Scotland 36-33
JapanBeat Ireland 19-12, Beat Scotland 28-21
TongaLost to France 23-21

Often in this year's tournament, the match has 'felt' closer than the scoreline suggests. Should we look instead at each match's small print to detect a sea change?

After their promising start against New Zealand in Tokyo, Namibia were ultimately swatted aside 71-9 by the All Blacks. The winning margin was greater than when the All Blacks racked up a 58-14 victory in the teams' 2015 World Cup meeting.

But Namibia made only 57 metres with ball in hand in 2015, living off 30% possession and 27% territory. Four years later, and despite the heavier defeat, they made 302 metres and enjoyed 46% possession and 43% territory. By every statistic, bar the scoreline, they were closer to their fabled opponents.

In truth, it is may be that World Cups are too infrequent, producing too small a sample size with too many variables to chart a definite trend.

The differing turnaround times between fixtures can skew a result one way or another. Pool draws may promote the chances of a Tier Two side or protect Tier One teams' modesty. One particularly heavy defeat can artificially inflate the average winning margin between Tier One and Tier Two nations overall.

And even World Rugby's own distinction between Tiers is looking dated. Before the tournament's start, Japan and Fiji were ranked above Argentina while Georgia and the United States were higher than Italy.

While some teams do seem to be making definite progress - such as Japan, who are ranked seventh before their quarter-final with South Africa - others such as Romania, who failed to qualify for the Rugby World Cup for the first time last year, seem to be going in the opposite direction.

World Rugby has committed £60m to help Tier Two nations compete at this year's tournament, but how it is spent by each country varies.

More regular chances for the game's lesser lights to compete against the elite would clarify, and, according to many coaches, improve, a complex picture.

What the players and coaches think

England coach Eddie Jones: "You're seeing the tier-two countries much better physically prepared. We've played against Tonga and America now and both of them had big, physical packs.

"They're fitter than they ever have been and that's a great thing for the World Cup, because we've got these Tier Two countries fighting hard and it's producing some great rugby."

Namibia number eight Janco Venter: "I'd rather play the All Blacks every week than play everyone in Africa and win by 80 points, If we play them every week, eventually we'll be competitive because we'll keep learning, keep getting better.

"That is something Namibia needs. We need to play bigger countries. Japan did that and that's made them the team they are now."

Canada coach Kingsley Jones: "When I first came to Canada it was a reality check, getting players together, in terms of them holding down day jobs, but the introduction of [United States professional domestic league] Major League Rugby is lifeline for Canada and USA.

"It's a pathway for players and coaches and is giving our players opportunities. It's a big step in the right direction. MLR has a way to go but, if it's a pathway into the top level of Pro 14, Super Rugby, that's great, and, in the long term, I am sure it will get up to speed and be good competition itself - and that is critical."

Russia coach Lyn Jones: "It's not another level, it's another sport for Tier Two nations. We've seen great stories from Uruguay and other Tier Two nations who have grown from difficult tournaments in 2011 and 2015, and we're going to get better. We've got some good players, some talented players, and we look forward to the future with some optimism."

Tonga coach Toutai Kefu: "We need more games which will bring more quality time together. We also have a list of players that for some reason or another are not here. So those are the main things to help us compete.

"Everyone can see the improvement over the past three weeks, and the past four weeks if you include the All Blacks final warm-up game in Hamilton. We've improved out of sight."

Uruguay coach Esteban Meneses: "We're playing against world-class sides and we believe we can be even stronger by playing against these strong teams more."

Former England fly-half and BBC Radio 5 Live summariser Paul Grayson: "There's no question the Tier Two nations have definitely improved. The blow-outs of the past haven't happened.

"Tier Two nations need more exposure to Tier One teams with a more cohesive fixture list - that's a potential solution, but some of the core traditional teams in the northern hemisphere seem reluctant to allow that."

Statistical analysis and insight from Russ Petty.

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