As much as many of the top executives might disagree, rugby isn’t known as a sport that likes to change. That is particularly true when it comes to designating teams as Tier I or Tier II nations. All you have to do is look no further than Scotland’s poor play over the last few years to see that they probably don’t belong as a Tier I nation anymore. The reverse can be said for countries like Tonga and Samoa who are considered Tier II nations but should probably be Tier I.
Let’s look at Scotland’s record over the last two years. They’ve played 21 matches earning seven wins and 14 losses. Of those wins, they’ve beaten Ireland, Australia, Fiji, Samoa, Japan, and Italy (twice). Of those victories, only one of the wins over Italy and the wins against Japan and Fiji were more than 12 points. One of their wins over Italy and their win over Samoa were by one point. The win over Australia was played in dreadful conditions against a poor Australian team and they won by three. They beat Ireland by four.
Also consider that aside from the win over Australia, Scotland has not beaten a SANZAR nation nor ever really challenged them. They’ve also lost to Tonga (at home) and Samoa (in the South Africa quadrangular). That’s the kind of record that is hardly befitting a Tier I nation. At the last World Cup they failed to make it to the quarterfinals and had difficult times with both Romania and Georgia. If you took Samoa or Tonga and gave them the same opportunities to play Tier I nations on a regular basis they would equal if not surpass Scotland’s record.
In reality, Scotland are only considered a Tier I nation because of their history but in the modern game they simply can’t keep pace. The Glasgow Warriors have been doing well in the RaboDirect Pro12 but Edinburgh haven’t. Below the two professional franchises the game lacks development. All in all, Scotland needs the same kind of investment as other Tier II nations. Possibly the best thing that could happen to Scotland is for them to fail to automatically qualify for the next World Cup. Only then would they take a true assessment of themselves and make changes.
While Scotland are barely holding on to their Tier I status the Pacific Islands nations have been consistently knocking on the door. Maybe it’s time that the IRB create a new class of Tier. Let’s call it Tier I-A and Tier I-AA. Tier I-A will comprise of New Zealand, England, South Africa, Australia, France, Wales, and Ireland. Tier I-AA will be made up of Samoa, Scotland, Argentina, Italy, Tonga, and Fiji. The Tier I-A nations will all play each other but will also play one Tier I-AA nation every fall tour while every Tier I-AA team will play each other the remaining times.
As for having Tier I nations visit Tier II nations once a year as IRB policy now stipulates, those spots will be reserved only for Tier I-A nations. While fool audiences into thinking they are getting a top rugby nation when instead they are getting a team that could conceivably be beaten? In addition, having an extra tier would incentivize a country like Japan or Canada to break through.
What’s clear is that the current system is misleading. IRB politics are the reason that countries like Samoa or Tonga can’t break through and why a nation like Scotland is continually propped up. That’s shortsided and not good for the game. Rugby needs to grow and current Tier II nations need to be more competitive. The Pacific Island nations have already proved that they can compete with the best and now it’s time for them to be full integrated into the system.