Watching the last fixture of the Rugby World Cup pool stages on Sunday night between Japan and United States confirmed one. The term 'Tier 2' might need to be re-addressed sooner rather than later. Two more high quality performances from sides that before the tournament were seen as making up the numbers. Japan have stolen my heart over the past three weeks. I'm trying to find some sort of Japanese heritage as we speak. When you see what their progress means to them (including Ayumu Gomoramu who was in tears receiving his second Man of the Match award) it makes you realise the rugby landscape has changed for ever.
Everyone will remember Japan and their heroics during their win over South Africa but don't forget that the Cherry Blossoms, hosts in 2019, also beat the USA and stormed past Samoa. Had they not backed up one of sport's major upsets by facing Scotland a few days later, who knows what might have happened, they could have topped a group containing the Springboks and the Scottish. The game against Vern Cotter's men was close until the second half when it became clear fatigue was playing a part. Japan have closed the gap on the 'big dogs'. I'm convinced USA are a sleeping giant and their participation in next year's Olympic Games will thrust rugby into every American's heart adding even more to a sport that is the fastest growing team sport in the country. Their resources combined with players who don't quite make the cut in American Football means we will see household names of the future. Don't forget that many of these will be some of the best athletes in the country. Look at Thretton Palamo playing in the centre, a former running back. His physical capabilities combined with rugby development over the next four years will mean come 2019 he will be a nightmare to play against. Take Samu Manoa as a current example.
Samoa should arguably have beaten Scotland last Saturday in Newcastle. If Ray Lee-Lo had picked off one of the simplest 2 v 1's and sent Paul Perez over, Samoa would have won. They undoubtedly have had a poor tournament but I think this is more of reflection of what is happening within the Union. It's lead to real instability. Their performance against the Scots was at times amazing. Yes, there were moments of madness that created problems but the fundamentals are there. Scan all the team sheets of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, there are world class names scattered throughout. Nadolo, Goneva, Matawalu, Latu, Kalamafoni, Nanai-Williams, Fotuali'i and Jack Lam. Proper players who can make a dent on the world game. Should the foundations of the game in these countries create a decent platform for their professional players, performances will improve. The hardest thing for these sides is getting the players together on a regular basis to train. Their squads are dotted all over the world and logistically it's a nightmare. Simple changes and regular fixtures would help the Pacific Islands.
Georgia's performances have improved massively since the last two World Cups. Most of their players play in France within the Top 14 and Prod D2 exposing them to high level of competition and they have been lead from the front by Mamuka Gorgodze. He was even Man of the Match in their loss against New Zealand. Their result against against Argentina reflects where the South Americans are rather than the Georgians. Their ability to defend against some dangerous Tongan runners for so long showed real discipline and defensive understanding. They made more than 200 tackles, phenomenal in Test rugby.
Romania and Canada had very similar results. They weren't sent packing as some might have thought. Both frustrated the French and pushed Italy all the way. Players like Ursache and Fercu for Romania with DTH Van De Merwe and Jamie Cudmore for Canada are all clear examples that these countries are capable of producing top players and their development over the next four years is key to them demonstrating continued progress in the next World Cup. We regularly see players from these countries in the English, French and Italian leagues which helps. Namibia are the one side seriously underpowered. It doesn't help when you have less than 10,000 registered rugby players. That said, they seriously frustrated the All Blacks at the Olympic Stadium. For them to keep up with the progression of other sides they are going to have do something out of this world. However, you can't say that watching them though was anything more than a pleasure. Farmers and teachers coming up against top professionals like Ma'a Nonu and Richie McCaw.
The days of teams being beaten by a hundred points of more have gone. The professional game is now truly global and it's effect is rippling throughout the countries regularly in the Rugby World Cup and we can expect to see upsets in every competition from now on. Japan 2019 seems like a long way off but it will give the 'Tier 2' sides enough time to continue their progression giving them the best chance to produce a result like Eddie Jones' humble Japanese. It will take time but I know everybody would love to see it happen again. Perhaps the sleeping giant of America will have woken from it's slumber by then. If so, look out world.