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World Rugby insists more opportunity for tier-two nations is priority for future

World Rugby has insisted providing developing nations with higher-level matches more frequently is at the “top of our agenda”.

The inspirational displays of teams such as Portugal at the Rugby World Cup – alongside the disappointing efforts of Italy – have intensified debate on the global game’s structure. Portugal sensationally defeated Fiji on Sunday for their first win at the tournament, after a thrilling draw with Georgia earlier in Pool C, along with dynamic performances in defeats by Wales and Australia.

But with the Six Nations remaining a closed shop it is unclear how nations such as Os Lobos, who play in the Rugby Europe Championship alongside Georgia and Romania, continue their development. Italy defeated Wales in the Six Nations last year but before that were without a win in the competition since 2015. The Azzurri were thrashed by New Zealand and France in Pool A at this tournament and trailed Uruguay at half‑time before recovering to win.

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“For all of these participating unions we must and we will, World Rugby, provide them with greater certainty, and greater opportunity to improve on the world stage,” the tournament director, Michel Poussau, said. “On this you will hear more shortly from us.”

Poussau described Portugal’s performances in France as “heroic”, and when asked to expand on plans to incentivise their development he said: “We are all trying to reduce the gap, trying to help the teams have more fixtures in the future, and be able to play more rugby against more nations than they currently do. So that’s part of what we, World Rugby, are doing, in terms of helping these development unions.

“Providing financial help in their coaching or in their refereeing programmes, for example, or in helping them organise some fixtures, or giving some logistical help as well. And all of this is related, overall, to the discussion on the calendar, and the possibility for these teams to play more rugby, more often, at a higher level … We will display more information on this shortly.”

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Portugal’s outgoing coach, the former France international Patrice Lagisquet, was philosophical about the financial imperatives at stake when asked how his team could build on their successful France 2023 campaign.

“In rugby one needs to play against high-level teams to flourish,” he said. “Even though there is a will from World Rugby there is an economic reality. The tier-one nations cannot play two, three or four matches in a row [against so-called tier-two nations] and that’s what these nations would need.”

The Samoa team perform the Manu Siva Tau before their game against EnglandSamoa came agonisingly close to a shock victory over England. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho/Shutterstock

The issue is significant, too, for Samoa, who endured a late 18-17 defeat by England in their final pool game, and Tonga, both of whom aspire to emulate Fiji’s success in reaching the knockout stages.

Toutai Kefu, Tonga’s former head coach who stepped down following his side’s exit, bemoaned what he referred to as “tier‑two errors” in their games against Ireland, South Africa and Scotland, saying: “We need more games, simple as that. I don’t know how they do it, international calendars are tough to align, but that is what tier-two teams need. We play six games a year – maybe one or two a year against tier-one nations. Tier-one teams play maybe 15. It is hard to compete against well-oiled machines.”

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Samoa’s head coach, Seilala Mapusua, said: “It’s not a coincidence that we’re playing our best by the fourth game [against England]. We seriously need to look at our programme, the exposure we can get to these tough matches against tier-one teams.”

Dominic Rumbles, World Rugby’s chief communications officer, said: “Alan Gilpin, World Rugby CEO, will be joining us later in the tournament to discuss this matter moving forward … There is a commitment from the game, within the global calendar discussions to get this right, and make sure that there is a really good opportunity, but importantly certainty of fixtures within Rugby World Cup cycles. It’s certainly something that is top of our agenda.”

Meanwhile, match officials for the quarter-finals this weekend have been confirmed. On Saturday, Jaco Peyper takes charge of Wales v Argentina in Marseille while Wayne Barnes will referee Ireland v New Zealand in Paris. On Sunday afternoon, Mathieu Raynal is on duty for England v Fiji in Marseille and Ben O’Keeffe will referee France v South Africa in Paris later that evening.

World Rugby also announced that a combined 1.84 million fans attended the tournament’s 40 pool stage matches, an 8% rise on 2019, while 1.16 million supporters have visited 10 fan villages in cities and towns across France. A cumulative TV audience of 164.5 million have watched matches in France, with 1.1bn video views of Rugby World Cup content overall, including 35 million unique users.

The numbers look healthy as a weekend of quarter-final action approaches. Plans for the future calendar of emerging teams such as Portugal will be just as eagerly anticipated.