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how to raise the level of small teams?

For Chile or Namibia, the World Cup is over, with their elimination from the group stage. These teams had difficulty competing with the big teams and were inflicted with defeats in the form of corrections. Many denounce their lack of resources and high-level matches to prepare. And several voices within the world of global rugby are calling for significant reforms to help new players, particularly in Africa.

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The speeches of the Argentinian Agustin Pichot have been quite rare since he left his position as vice-president of World Rugby, the body which manages this sport at the global level, in June 2020. On September 23, he chose to react on the “Pablo Lemoine is right… about clowns and the ‘boys club’,” wrote the former Argentinian player.

With this message of cryptic content, Agustin Pichot reaffirms his positions in favor of the development of emerging nations in this sport, present in his manifesto written on the occasion of the last elections for the presidency of World Rugby. Pichot was in the running against the Englishman Bill Beaumont, who obtained his re-election for a four-year mandate at the head of the international federation by 28 votes to 23. “My proposal, in which I firmly believe, did not been chosen and that’s why I’m taking a step aside,” Pichot then reacted.

Supporter of a reform of World Rugby and its governance system, Pichot could only appreciate Pablo Lemoine’s declaration in L’Équipe and his description of world rugby with “the clowns on one side and the big owners the other”. Chile belongs to the first category, just like Uruguay, Romania, Samoa or Tonga. “The bottom line is that we are ecstatic about the little ones who are resisting, that everyone thinks it’s great that Chile is participating in its first World Cup but that behind it, nothing is happening. We are here because we benefited from economic aid this year (thanks to a high performance plan launched by World Rugby for the creation of a professional championship in South America), but for it to be effective, this would have to be sustained over four, eight, twelve years,” explained Pablo Lemoine.

To support his words, the Chile coach bases himself on the results of a team like Uruguay, which he knows well having worn the jersey 48 times. This notably gave a tough time to a France team reshuffled on September 14 in Lille, losing only 12 to 27. “We are talking about Uruguay today, but we were already there in 1999. More than 20 years have passed and nothing has changed. Romania, Namibia, Samoa, Tonga were already there: have they progressed? On the contrary, they are regressing,” he says.

Four matches in 17 days for Namibia

This Teros team, which has one match remaining in this World Cup on October 5 against New Zealand, is preparing to leave this competition with only one victory, against Namibia. Four years ago, she created a sensation by signing a much more prestigious victory against Fiji (30-27). As for Namibia, they have just completed their seventh World Cup and still do not have a single victory in 26 matches.

At the end of its very heavy defeat against France (96-0), some observers highlighted the lack of interest in such a meeting between France and Namibia and recalled that the disparities were far too great between the 20 participants of this World Cup. An observation that former French captain Thierry Dusautoir does not share. “This type of match shows the development work that remains to be done in several countries. It must be remembered that Namibia only has two million inhabitants and 6,000 members. It still manages to have a team in the Cup of the world”, he wrote in L’Équipe, thanking Namibia for its presence.

Like him, many personalities have spoken out in recent days to defend “small nations”. Rugby player Will Hooley, who plays for the United States, recalled in The Guardian that the same Namibia had to play its four group matches in just 17 days, compared to 28 for France. An exhausting schedule for a team which is not used to facing the big names in world rugby such as the Blues or the All Blacks.

The analysis of the performance of the Namibians in this competition must indeed take into account their preparation. Between this World Cup and the previous one, they only played a dozen international matches, compared to 41 for the French XV. And the best team they have faced during this period has been Uruguay, who are ranked 17e place in the world rankings. Difficult in these conditions to gain experience in order to compete against the best in the world.

Four more teams in 2027?

Former international Bakary Meïté had the pleasure of beating Namibia (24-13) in July 2021 with Ivory Coast. Consultant for the program “Planète rugby” offered by France 24, this ex-professional player campaigns for a long-term transformation of world rugby. “If rugby really wants to be global, we need to help small teams more financially. This is work that will perhaps take 20 or 25 years,” he explains.

“This sport exists in many African countries and we must give it the means to grow,” he adds, emphasizing the importance of creating new local competitions allowing national teams to meet more regularly. And they must be able to do it in good conditions. Bakary Meïté thus remembers competitions during which the Ivorian players, barely off the plane, had to play three matches in eight days in order to reduce organizational costs.

The question of the competitiveness of small teams qualified for the World Cup takes on even more importance with the probable increase in the number of participants during the 2027 edition, from 20 to 24 teams. “We want there to be more teams capable of qualifying for future Rugby World Cups, we want more teams capable of competing and ultimately more teams capable of winning Cups of the world of rugby,” Alan Gilpin, chief executive of World Rugby, said last week, without officially announcing a change in format.

If this body really wants emerging nations to be able to defend their chances in the World Cup, it will have to support them effectively, while shaking up the “big owners” of this sport ready to defend their interests. Because the big nations of Europe and the Southern Hemisphere are in the process of developing a new annual competition with a dozen teams for 2026, which will leave little room for the smaller ones and will further restrict the international calendar .


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