Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Commitment to minnows put to the test

The US will play Russia in an unusually busy month for second tier rugby nations. Photo / Getty Images
The US will play Russia in an unusually busy month for second tier rugby nations. Photo / Getty Images

Usually the poor relation to football, rugby will take centre stage in Europe this month, with an unprecedented volume of tests that will have a major impact on the draw for the 2015 World Cup.

Heavily accused of ignoring the little nations in the past, the IRB has finally reacted to the overwhelming feedback from last year's World Cup and built a meaningful programme of tests during the November window.

The likes of Canada, Japan, Tonga, Romania, Georgia, the United States and even Russia had impressive patches during the last World Cup - in some cases, they looked capable of living with a handful of the lower ranked Tier One nations.

Post-tournament agreement was reached that the emerging nations needed to be supported between tournaments and given access to better and regular fixtures.

The IRB has delivered on that promise and throughout Europe and, to a lesser extent, South America this month there will be seemingly endless test matches.

As well as the usual Tier One heavyweights, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Japan, the US, Russia, Chile, Portugal, Georgia and Uruguay will embark on full programmes. For once, all three Pacific Island nations have at least one fixture against a Tier One nation.

There is also a new addition to the calendar with what is effectively a mini-international series being played in Colwyn Bay, Wales, where among other fixtures Russia will take on the US and Samoa will clash with Canada.

If the next tier are genuinely ever going to challenge the established rugby order, they need regular exposure, as well as quality coaching and resources.

The IRB are determined to not leave themselves open to criticism in 2015. Not only do they want to support the minnows, they want to flood the European market, particularly the UK, with test football to build interest ahead of England hosting the next tournament.

The intention is to create a four-week window of non-stop action that will be close to the World Cup experience. The RFU, only last week, unveiled an extensive legacy plan to ensure hosting the tournament leaves an indelible mark on the sporting public.

"This is an exciting development for the global game," says IRB chairman Bernard Lapassett. "These matches will be crucial to ensuring that there is increased competitiveness on the global stage and at Rugby World Cup 2015. There will be an unprecedented number of international fixtures across Europe in November, which will give sports fans a taste of what to expect in 2015 when England hosts the world's top 20 nations for Rugby World Cup."

There is also a more immediate focus relating to this month's bulging test programme: the draw for the 2015 World Cup will be made on December 3 in London, with the IRB world rankings as they close on December 1 being used to determine the seedings.

It seems a little premature to be talking about the next World Cup with the last one barely digested but the IRB is convinced that making the draw three years in advance is the best way to go. As a consequence, the next few weeks are hugely important - results could make all the difference to how the next tournament shapes up.

The All Blacks, even allowing for a disastrous tour, almost certainly won't be knocked from their No 1 spot. Australia and South Africa are both vulnerable, however, to being pushed down the order by England and France, who respectively sit fourth and fifth.

The Springboks, who play Ireland, Scotland and England, are most in danger, as they sit on 84.69 rating points, only 1.6 ahead of fourth-placed England and 1.66 ahead of France.

The relevance of this is considerable, as dropping to fifth opens the possibility of being put in the same pool as the All Blacks. The draw has a simple structure - seeds 1-4 are put in four separate pools; seeds 5-8 are then split, each nation being put into a different pool, with the same happening with the teams seeded 9-12.

What's also on the cards is for Argentina to slip down to ninth from their current eighth place and open the possibility of a pool containing, for example, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina. While Argentina could end the 2012 season ranked ninth, they will almost certainly be a considerably better side after three more years in the Rugby Championship.

- Herald on Sunday

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