Can Rugby Union’s top tier be broken?

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Japanese players celebrate their shock victory against Ireland

Too much money is focused on the big nations in rugby union, making it harder for others to reach the top tier, an ex-England international says.

Rugby Union is played in 119 countries, but only four – England, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia – have won the World Cup since it started in 1987.

Andy Gomarsall, who played in two World Cups for England, thinks it is hard for newcomers to compete with the funding.

He told BBC 5 live that there needs to be a better balance of the money,

“When England play to a full house at Twickenham, the expense, the money they make – it doesn’t sit well with current and former players that you could be playing Fiji, who are struggling to pay the bills just to get players to the game,” he told the Wake Up To Money Business of Sport programme.

“It just seems extraordinary that in this day and age this could ever be a possibility.”

Rugby has a rich pool to pick new host nations from and, according to Deloitte, a potential television reach of four billion.

Mick Hogan, executive director of Newcastle Falcons, says: “None of this exists without money and with World Rugby 85% of the money generates comes from the World Cup, and you have to have big games and big showpiece events that fund the game.

“What we should be doing is looking longer term and not looking at how much money we need to pay the bills next year. How do we get a tier one nation to actually go and play in Fiji, Tonga or Samoa? It just never, ever happens.”

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Namibian player Wian Conradie is tackled during a Group B game against South Africa

One method of promoting the sport in new rugby playing areas includes World Rugby’s Beyond Legacy programme, which is aiming to grow broadcast audiences for rugby in Asia, and to get one million new Asian players participating in rugby by 2020.

They aim to do this through schemes such as holding rugby lessons in Japanese schools in the host cities of the World Cup and investing in the growth of local teams.

Japan pulled off a shock victory over Ireland in their World Cup Pool A game, defeating them 19-12.

Su Carty, who sits on the World Rugby council and the committee of the Irish Rugby Football Union, reflected on the defeat, saying: “It was a tough day for the Irish, but an amazing day for Japan and an incredible day for the tournament.

“You want teams like Japan coming through and making a statement on the world stage. Their day in the sun isn’t done, and they’ll be committed to build on that great day against us.”

In a major change, this year also marks the first time an Asian nation has ever hosted the World Cup, and there is speculation that the United States could bid for the 2027 World Cup, which would be the first time it has ever been hosted in North America.

Mr Hogan added: “It proves the value that bringing major tournaments to new areas can do. It really can ignite a passion for the sport in that area – and hopefully we see that in the legacy in five, 10, 20 years’ time in Japan and Asia.”

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Japanese fans pose outside the Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa

Hosting the Rugby World Cup could also be a wise investment for a nation new to the sport – with EY estimating that the six-week tournament could bring in £1.5bn to Japan’s economy and support 25,000 jobs across the 12 cities hosting matches.

Japan has also invested 40bn yen (£290m) on infrastructure. This has included boosting transport links between the cities, and enhancing the stadiums and team camps with the aim of using them for Japan’s growing domestic rugby scene after the World Cup has ended.

Developing the domestic rugby scene is an important step, especially for Japan as it seeks to capitalise on its continued success. According to Statista, Japan has almost 3,000 recognised clubs with 95,000 active players.

Akira Shimazu, head of Japan’s rugby organising committee, said that the tournament was “on track to deliver a significant economic legacy for our nation”.

Japan’s continued success could lay the framework for other nations in future tournaments – and with the support of the top tier nations, the Rugby World Cup finals could start seeing other teams making their way to the semi-finals and finals of the World Cup.