As we like to do once the year is done and dusted, we look back at a handful of Tier 2 countries who caught our eye this past year using our usual report card system. Furthermore, with the added frisson of a World Cup in prospect at the end of this year, we’ve chosen the four Tier 2 countries who are most likely to cause problems for the bigger teams in the Pool stages of this year’s global showdown in Japan. Our candidates for top troublemakers in the Pool stages of the World Cup this year are Japan, USA, Georgia and Fiji.
So without further ado, here are our four teams to watch.
Japan – 8/10
Japan only played five Tests in 2018, we’re not including their November match against a World XV, which for a country that is hosting the World Cup this year seemed slightly amiss. However, in all five outings Japan acquitted themselves well and left us in no doubt that at home and in front of an ecstatic crowd they will need to be taken very seriously indeed by their pool rivals in this year’s global showdown in the Brave Blossoms own backyard. Expect Ireland and Scotland as pool favourites to field their strongest sides against Japan to avoid a potentially embarrassing hiccough on their way to the knockout stages – all and sundry being painfully aware of South Africa’s wake up call at the last World Cup courtesy of the Japanese.
Japan got their 2018 campaign underway in a Two Test home series against Italy. The first match saw them comprehensively dispatch a strong Italian effort in the final quarter, with fly half Yu Tamura putting in some exquisite place kicking which showed just how dangerous Japan can be on attack and in space. The second fixture a week later saw Italy just manage to settle the score, as they got the better of another spirited Japanese challenge. Japan scored two brilliant tries in quick succession in the final quarter to get themselves right back in the match and set up a thrilling finale. Japan’s discipline let them down at times in the match which ultimately cost them. However, what both Tests showed is that Japan are perhaps at their strongest and most dangerous in the final quarter. As a result their pool opponents this year in the World Cup will need their wits about them for the full eighty minutes, as any lapses in concentration could prove fatal against a team that is able to produce some spectacular attacking rugby.
Next up for Japan was their final Test of the June series against fellow Tier Two heavyweights Georgia. Once more it was a sublime second half performance which saw Japan leave Georgia in their dust, as the brave Blossoms ran in three superb tries and totally eclipsed their visitors at the final whistle by 28-0.
Japan’s next encounter was a tall order as they played host to the world’s number 1 side New Zealand. While it may not have been a full strength All Black side it was still a signficant achievement for Japan to run in five tries against the world’s best.
Next it was off to England for November and a match at Twickenham. Japan may have ultimately come short against England, and sadly were unable to replicate their second half prowess of earlier in the year, but their dominance of England in the first half and their resulting well-earned lead at half time, went to show what a threat Japan will pose this year at the World Cup. Japan managed to hold onto that lead until just short of the final quarter, but there is no doubt they had one of Rugby’s superpowers on the ropes for a good hour. Furthermore to achieve that kind of dominance on the road can only make you wonder what they will be able to do at home come the World Cup. However, Japan will need to find that final quarter big match temperament, as there is no denying that once England clicked into gear in the final twenty minutes they ran away with the match and Japan was clearly bereft of ideas in response.
Japan’s last match of the year was an entertaining romp against fellow World Cup Pool A rivals Russia in Gloucester. It was a tight affair in the first half but there is no denying that Japan rediscovered their second half form and ran in three tries to Russia’s one, sealing the match and providing a fitting end to a remarkable year for Japanese rugby, and one which will surely put them in great shape as hosts of this year’s World Cup. Ireland, and Scotland in particular, will need to be wary of the Brave Blossoms. Ireland have the fortune of dealing with the Japanese threat after their opening game against Scotland. The Scots however, have to wait till the end of the pool stages and their final match before they are able to confront Japan. If injuries have not been kind to Scotland in the pool stages, Japan are in with a definite chance of reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time in their history. Will fortune favor the Brave Blossoms? We can’t wait to find out!
Player of the year – Michael Leitch
Japan’s Captain extraordinaire was the stuff of legends in 2018. Constantly in the thick of the action and leading by example, Leitch put in some massive and inspirational performances for his team this year. As an example of a Captain who leads from the front there are few better examples than Michael Leitch. His efforts in the England game alone were enough to make him one of the standout players of 2018. He is clearly a talisman for his team, and provided he can steer clear of injury between now and that all important fixture with Scotland, he could well make history for his adopted country in 2019.
Player to watch in 2019 – Rikiya Matsuda
At 24 years of age and only a handful of caps to his name, Matsuda is one of Japan’s rapidly rising stars of the future. A master of the line break, his scintillating club form is likely to explode onto the international stage this year, especially in front of his home crowd at this year’s World Cup. One of those players who is absolutely lethal in any kind of space, as well as possessing a handy boot when it comes time for goal kicking duties, Matsuda is more than likely to get some headline space this year in the Brave Blossoms jersey.
Match of the year – England vs Japan – Twickenham – November 17th – England 35/Japan 15
The thriller at Twickenham really exemplified just how far Japan have come and how much of a threat they are likely to be on home soil come the World Cup. Despite the ultimate loss, it was without doubt the highlight of Japan’s 2018 season as their dominance of England in the first half and their well-earned lead at the break made all of us sit up and take notice. The fact that Japan were well in the match until the final twenty minutes, will no doubt set alarm bells ringing in the Irish and Scottish camps as they are clearly the two heavyweights’ most dangerous opponent in Pool A should they let their concentration slip. Japan are only going to get better, and at home the miracle against South Africa we saw in the last World Cup is even more of a possibility should Ireland or Scotland not take them seriously.
USA – 9/10
11 games played in 2018, we’re not counting the game against the Maori All Blacks, and only one lost. Whichever way you cut it, that’s a pretty impressive record and one which continues to reinforce the belief that Rugby in the US is clearly developing some unstoppable momentum. The tight win against Scotland was clearly the highpoint of the year for the USA, and although the Scottish team had more of an experimental feel to it, it was still boasting some of the world’s best as a certain Stuart Hogg was wearing the number 15 jersey. Furthermore many of those same Scottish players are causing havoc at club level in Europe this year. The bottom line is that the USA can be competitive and although their final game of the year against Ireland may have been a bridge too far, there is no doubt that their heavyweight Pool C opponents in this year’s World Cup, England, France and Argentina will not be taking the threat they pose lightly.
The USA started their 2018 campaign in fine form as they recorded a clean sweep of the Americas Rugby Championship and were crowned champions for the second time in a row. In a feisty opener with Argentina, the USA were ultimately the better side. From here the Eagles simply got better and better as they summarily dispatched Canada, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay.
June saw the USA host Russia in a completely one-sided contest as the Eagles ran in 9 tries to the Russians one. Next up was the USA’s historic win over Scotland and their first ever win over a Tier 1 nation. Scotland fought them to the very last whistle as evidenced by the scoreline standing at 30-29 in favor of the Americans. The USA kept their composure in a very physical and tense contest and showed the kind of big match temperament they will need this autumn in Japan. Their final match of the month saw them demolish their age-old rivals Canada, and send the Canadians on their way to a repechage tournament for the last spot up for grabs in this year’s World Cup with the USA taking the much coveted Americas 1 spot.
A European tour in November continued to build on the Eagles remarkable run of form in 2018. This was put to the test initially against Samoa, which saw the Americans just edge out the Pacific Islanders by one point in a scoreline which was a mirror image of the Scottish Test earlier in the year. They then proceeded to dispatch Romania with ease before ending their year in Dublin. Sadly for the Americans this was perhaps a sobering way to end an otherwise remarkable year, as they were given a rather rude schooling by the Irish. The Men in Green ran in 8 tries to the Americans two, and sadly the USA never really looked in contention. Ireland ran proceedings from start to finish and the Eagles will know that they will need to step it up several gears, especially defensively, if they are to stand any chance against the strike threats that their Pool opponents England, France and Argentina have at their disposal.
While it has been a remarkable year for the USA, the Irish Test proved that there is still plenty of work for Coach Gary Gold to do to get the Eagles to the point where they can cause upsets on a regular basis. Their World Cup Pool is challenging to say the least, with Argentina starting to peak at just the right time, while England are on the rebound and France are once again the dark horse they invariably tend to be at World Cup time. If the USA were to finish third in such a group then it would be a notable achievement and help to consolidate and build on the growing interest in the game in the US. While we can’t help feeling that a place in the knockout stages is beyond their reach this year, we expect them to make life exceptionally difficult for their opponents in some highly entertaining matches. When the USA is playing in Japan at the end of the year you’re probably not going to want to miss it.
Player of the year – Cameron Dolan
The big number eight was at the centre of everything the USA did well this year, and in the game against Scotland in particular he put in a massive shift. Highly mobile and very effective in the loose Dolan is exactly the kind of workhorse and solid back row platform teams need at this level. A reliable and consistent player that the USA will be expecting big things from come the World Cup.
Player to watch in 2019 – Will Hooley
Although the fly half until recently, has had to live in the shadow of AJ MacGinty, he is rapidly becoming an exceptional understudy and lends some real depth to the USA’s stocks at fly half. He is likely to get much more game time in the runup to the World Cup and expect to see him featuring heavily in the USA’s forthcoming Americas Rugby Championship as the Eagles look for a third consecutive title, and a fitting start to a World Cup year.
Match of the year – USA vs Scoltand – Houston – June 16th – USA 30/Scotland 29
Definitely the highlight of the year for a remarkable USA effort. Pushed to the absolute limits by the Scots, the Eagles managed to hang on and claim an historic victory. It’s precisely this kind of grit and determination that they will need against three exceptionally challenging opponents in this year’s World Cup. This is definitely a team on the up and up and the prospect of a big upset at this year’s World Cup is definitely not beyond the realm of possibility for Coach Gary Gold and his Eagles.
Georgia – 7/10
Georgia’s campaign started well with a comprehensive showing in the Rugby Europe Championship. With a solid Grand Slam under their belt they remained undefeated, and were clearly in a league of their own. All of which served to solidify their claim for a shot at inclusion in Europe’s premier tournament the Six Nations. While the debate continues, there is no denying that Georgia’s progress has been commendable, though whether they are ready for inclusion at this stage is likely to remain in doubt until they can beat Italy on a regular basis. However, of one thing we can be certain, while Georgia may still possess a forwards heavy game, there is no denying that they now have a much more balanced game with some equally talented players in the backs.
Next up for Georgia was a trip to the Pacific Islands in June, for a modified version of the annual Pacific Nations Cup, with Georgia being the only participant not from the Islands. Playing in the heat of the Islands is always a challenge and Georgia clearly struggled to find their feet at times. They were able to put up a credible showing against Tonga, and squeaked out a narrow win, but were outclassed by Fiji’s dazzling set of skills across the park. Considering that Fiji are their leading Tier 2 opponents in their World Cup pool this year, they will need to address the deficiencies shown against the Fijians quickly despite enjoying a half time lead over the Islanders. Georgia then travelled to Japan for a match against this year’s World Cup hosts. This was clearly a bridge too far and a match Georgia will most likely want to forget in a hurry as they lost by a score of 28-0. Georgia suffered from a lack of discipline and seemed to have no answers to Japan’s fast paced brand of attacking rugby.
Georgia’s biggest game of the year was without a doubt their November Test against Italy. A big performance here was vital if the calls for Georgia to be included in the tournament, possibly at Italy’s expense, were to be taken seriously. Consequently Georgia made the trip to Italy knowing that the stakes were high. It was an entertaining match from both sides, who were clearly aware of the what was on the line in terms of bragging rights. Both teams played well, but ultimately Italy showed they had the better big game temperament, and in the final ten minutes slowly got a stranglehold on proceedings. However, it was a close tussle for much of the match, and if these two sides were to play each other regularly few would doubt that Georgia could soon be getting the better of their Italian rivals.
Their final two matches of the year saw them take on Samoa and Tonga at home. The fervor with which rugby is supported in Georgia was clearly on display and the home team pulled out all the stops in two brilliant displays. They first dispatched Samoa and then put Tonga to the sword in a much more convincing performance than that displayed in their narrow win over the Islanders earlier in the year in the Pacific Nations Cup.
While clearly continuing to build and with a much more rounded team on display this year, Georgia still have plenty of work to do if they are to be one of the favorite underdogs of this year’s World Cup. Their discipline in the heat of the moment continues to trip them up, and the interchange between their bruising forward pack and their backs is still a work in progress. However, improvement continues and with another strong performance likely in the Europe Rugby Championship this year and some exciting warm up games against Scotland prior to the World Cup, we still hold that they could end up being one of the surprise packages of the tournament. Either way, when Georgia plays you probably don’t want to miss it once the World Cup gets underway.
Player of the year – Otar Giorgadze
The big number eight is one of Georgia’s most industrious players and a proven ball carrier who can make the most of the physical exchanges. With some solid experience in France which continues this year at club level, expect Giorgadze to be causing all kinds of problems come the World Cup.
Player to watch in 2019 – Zurab Dzneladze
We really liked seeing the left winger in action this year for Georgia. While not exactly a spring chicken at 27, he seems to have really come into his own this year in the national jersey and exemplifies the new look backs that Georgia are starting to develop. With a good strike rate with ball in hand and some solid defence, this player exemplifies the new versatility that Georgia are seeking in their backs. Definitely one to watch in 2019.
Match of the year – Georgia vs Tonga – Tbilisi – November 24th – Georgia 20/Tonga 9
A match where Georgia got the better of Tonga by a healthy margin, after running them so close in the Pacific Nations Cup, was a fitting end to another solid year of progress for Georgia. Add to that the phenomenal atmosphere clearly on display for home matches in Tbilisi and this had all the hallmarks of a classic Test match, with Georgia putting in a dominant display.
Fiji – 8/10
It has been quite the year for Fiji with the win over France being the crowning achievement. Fiji have shown in the last five years that they have finally made the transition from a pure running game that, although showing off some dazzling skills,usually fell apart against teams with dominant forward packs, to a much more holistic approach. Fiji now have some devastating forwards who possess the handling skills of their sevens stars but also are increasingly more proficient at the nuances of the modern game up front. In short, expect Fiji to be one of the biggest smoking guns come the World Cup for their pool opponents Australia and Wales.
Fiji got their year off to a flying start by beating both Samoa and Georgia in the Pacific Nations Cup. However, their discipline in the Samoan game was poor and it almost cost them the match. Nevertheless they were able to make a comprehensive statement against World Cup Pool D rivals Georgia by beating them by a healthy margin of 37-15. In the final match of the tournament, their discipline let them down once more costing them the game against Tonga. While they still managed to win the tournament, they know their discipline will need to be better by the time they head to Japan.
Fiji finished 2018 with a three Test tour to Europe where they took on Scotland, France and their other Tier 2 Pool D opponents Uruguay. In their opening match against Scotland their discipline was once more their Achilles Heel despite running in two very impressive tries. However, they completely eclipsed Uruguay, running in a 68-7 scoreline. Their last game of the year was their finest as they took on France at the famous Stade de France in Paris. It was a consummate performance from Fiji which ticked all the boxes. A watertight defence, solid discipline and some exceptional handling skills as their backs and forwards interlaced almost effortlessly, ensured that Fiji ran the match from start to finish. It was a textbook effort and one which has clearly fired a warning shot that Australia and Wales will need to heed carefully as they look to play Fiji in Japan this year at the World Cup. If Fiji play like they did in France, then they are more than capable of securing a place in the knockout stages. Whichever way you cut it, we imagine that this is one team that neutral supporters will be watching with great enthusiasm this year in Japan – we know we will!
Player of the year – Peceli Yato
The blindside flanker who plies his trade at club level with French giants Clermont Auvergne, is a force of nature and someone who most defences will be ensuring they work hard at containing come the World Cup. Fast, powerful and possessing some extraordinary handling skills for a big forward, Yato is the complete package and exemplifies the kind of new generation of forwards who are making such a mark for Fiji.
Player to watch in 2019 – Semi Radrada
This extraordinary centre has been making headlines since he made his Test debut for Fiji in 2018. Blindingly quick and almost impossible to bring down, this try seeking missile is set to light the World Cup on fire this year in Japan. If he is in the starting lineup for Fiji you won’t to miss it!
Match of the year – France vs Fiji – Paris – November 24th – France 14/Fiji 21
Controlled, focused and with some breathtaking skills on display, this was one of the highlights of the year Test wise – full stop. Fiji never took their foot off the gas from the opening whistle and it was a spectacular demonstration of running rugby coupled to some resolute defence. Rugby World Cup 2019 – you have been warned!!!
Next up we’ll be looking at a turbulent 2018 for Canada, but which still managed to end with them grabbing the last slot up for grabs at this year’s World Cup. After that we’ll be putting out our 2018 report cards on Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and then into the Six Nations! Watch this space!