The Rugby World Cup is in full swing with the pool stages of the tournament soon concluding. France, South Africa, and Ireland have all demonstrated why they are undoubtedly the teams to beat in the competition, thanks to some dominant early displays.

The pool stages have also provided tier two nations with a chance to showcase their talents on the biggest stage. Two-time World Cup participants Portugal entertained the crowd and came away with a well-deserved draw against Georgia at the Stadium de Toulouse, whilst Uruguay put in a heroic performance for 60 minutes to make France work hard for their victory in match week two.

The most talented tier two country by some distance is Fiji, a rugby nation known as the ‘Flying Fijians’ due to their incredible skillset in multiple forms of the game. The team plays in an unorthodox approach similar to basketball.

Tier two Pacific Island nations Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga have benefited from World Rugby’s new eligibility laws, which allow players to switch test nations.

This has enabled these countries to bolster their squads with many top-quality players. For instance, Charles Piutau, a world-class player who won 17 All Blacks caps, is now representing Tonga.

Fiji arrived in France with many rugby commentators tipping them to top their pool ahead of Australia and Wales, having recently beaten the 2003 World Cup champions England in a warm-up game at Twickenham and pushed France close at the Beaujoire Stadium in Nantes.

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Fiji’s recent form demonstrates the importance of providing players from tier two nations opportunities to play regular competitive matches against elite rugby sides.

At club level, it was announced in 2021 that both the Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua would be joining Super Rugby, a competition consisting of 12 teams – five from Australia, five from New Zealand, one from Fiji, and one team consisting of players from Samoa, Tonga, and other Pacific Island territories.

After a poor inaugural season in Super Rugby, the Drua in 2023 were able to show some real improvements on the field and made the quarter-finals of the competition, losing to 12 times Super Rugby champions the Crusaders. On the other hand, Moana Pasifika have not been able to show any real change of fortune and once again finished bottom of the table.

The Drua are run by Counter Ruck Pte Limited which received $6 million worth of investment from the Fijian Government for a 51% shareholding in the company. The ownership group has been able to negotiate several sponsorship deals to help the club generate much-needed revenues.

The Drua’s standout deal is with logistics company Swire Shipping which serves as the team’s title and primary shirt sponsor. The deal is estimated to be worth a total of $1.2 million across its two-year timespan.

Rugby commentators and fans are now calling for the Fijian national team to be introduced into The Rugby Championship, an international competition contested annually by Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Their victory over Australia provided the country with a greater case for being included in the competition and the tantalizing possibility that this talented tier two nation could go deep into the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup if they can get out of their highly competitive group with Wales and Australia.

Playing in the highly competitive Rugby Championship on a regular basis would provide Fijian rugby with an exciting future as the nation strives for a long-term future in which the national team routinely beats some of the best teams in the world and builds a squad that can go to a World Cup and be seen as real contenders to win the Webb Ellis Cup trophy.

The recent form of Fiji is a great motivator for the two other talented Pacific Island nations as it shows a pathway to success.

In the Northern hemisphere, Georgia are the rugby nation that have been banging on the door for more regular matches against tier one sides. In March, the Georgians were crowned Rugby Europe Championship winners for the sixth year in a row, a competition that is no longer a strong enough challenge for the Georgians.

Since 2022, Georgia have recorded two major wins – beating Italy and then Wales at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff to secure a historic victory. For years, there has been a debate across Northern Hemisphere rugby about whether the Georgians should be added to the Six Nations Championship.

The form Georgia have shown over the last few years has strengthened the case for the country to join the Six Nations and compete against the Northern Hemisphere’s best international teams.

Commercially, GlobalData reports Georgia are currently competing at the Rugby World Cup with seven sponsorship deals to their name, estimated to be worth $880,000 in total.

Unfortunately, compared to tier two nations from the Pacific Islands, Georgia do not have the luxury of all squad members playing high-level competitive club rugby week in and week out, though many Georgian forwards play their club rugby in France.

These players with access to better facilities and tough tests against good-quality players have allowed the Georgian national team to develop a very good forward pack which often causes problems for tier one nations. Many of the Georgian players play for the professional domestic team, Black Lion, based in Tbilisi.

The team competes in the Rugby Europe Super Cup, which is essentially a third tier of European club rugby for clubs competing from Georgia, Belgium, Israel, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, and Spain.

The Georgian clubs have dominated this competition since it was constructed in 2021, which comes as no surprise as the country is well ahead of the other nations in overall rugby structure.

The recent announcement that the Black Lions will compete in this season’s Challenge Cup competition, where they will take on Gloucester Rugby, ASM Clermont Auvergne, Castres Olympique, and Scarlets, is a major positive for Georgian rugby.

It will provide a marker as to the quality of the side and highlight how it is essential that governing bodies keep providing opportunities for players from tier two nations, especially Georgia which has earned the right for its top players to have competitive club rugby fixtures every week.

In rugby, there is still a clear gap between tier one and tier two nations both on and off the pitch. Only a few tier two countries such as Fiji and Georgia look truly equipped to compete more regularly against tier one sides.

Providing tier two nations with the best possible competition over a sustained period will be essential to develop players’ skill and fitness levels if this gap is to shrink.

World Rugby provided non-tier one nations competing in the World Cup with $50 million split between them to prepare for the tournament in France. The funds went towards warm-up fixtures, employing consultants to facilitate technical and tactical strategies and high-performance training.

Tier two nations will be hoping for further long-term commitments that will allow them to develop and strive to be the next Fiji or Georgia and become competitive against the best teams.

It would be wise of World Rugby to help build the profile of tier two nations over the next eight years as they build towards the 2031 Rugby World Cup in the United States, a tournament critical for growing the sport in a major global market that presents the governing body with major commercial opportunities.

Making the World Cup as competitive as possible, with tier two teams battling it out with tier one, will galvanize Americans who may not be too familiar with rugby union and boost the recruitment of enthusiastic long-term fans into the sport.

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