Oval Talk

Top countries should help bridge gap to minnows

It may have been the perfect start to England's autumn but the 54-12 win over Fiji at Twickenham on Saturday served to highlight that the gap between the top nations and second-tier countries is as big as ever.

Approaching the last quarter of the game many England fans would have found themselves almost hoping that Fiji would stage some sort of comeback - obviously not a result-changing one but one that would at least try and show that the chasm had diminished.

But it was not to be. England steamrolled on to seal their biggest winning margin against the Pacific Island side — a great win for English rugby, but not so good for the bigger picture.

The tiers of international rugby are as rigid as they have ever been with sides such as Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Canada and the USA all fighting a seemingly impossible battle against the larger nations in both hemispheres.

Only Argentina have bridged the gap from also-rans to contender while other nations such as Fiji are still sparring partners for the powerhouses of international rugby and that doesn't look like changing any time soon.

The Pacific Island teams regularly have their players poached by the likes of New Zealand and those who want to play for their countries head to Europe to find clubs. These clubs often are reluctant to release their players for international duty, putting them between a rock and a hard place as there is no professional rugby to be found in Fiji or Samoa, for example.

England have only played Fiji four times and it has been 22 years since they last made the trip to the Pacific Island to play them.

The regular circuit of Six Nations, summer tour and autumn internationals is what most Northern Hemisphere countries stick to - and more often than not it is the same teams playing against each other. Fiji or Samoa may get a look in for one game during the autumn series, but nothing more than that.

Some may argue that such games are just not competitive enough and that they lack spectacle. But how will these teams ever be able to progress without experiencing the level of rugby they need to be able to play at? Fiji's coach Inoke Male voiced his opinion on this at the weekend.

There is no question that phenomenal talent is being produced from the Pacific Islands, hence why so much poaching continues to go on. They are built for rugby: strong, athletic individuals with supreme skills - Fiji's second try typified their natural talent.

So what can be done - and what is being done?

The IRB are making efforts to get better infrastructure going in the second-tier countries and have been pressuring clubs to release players for international duty. But they need to get bigger nations playing against smaller ones: imagine if New Zealand were to one day travel to Samoa to play, for example.

To stop poaching, increasing the qualification time which foreign players must serve to represent the country they are playing in from three years to something more substantial would help.

And if clubs claim that the players are injured at international time, the IRB should investigate to make sure they are not being kept for domestic duty in their given country.

It's difficult to think about the bigger picture when your own team has its issues, but overall creating the most competitive level of rugby possible around the globe must take precedence. It would make competitions all the more exciting.

England's win may have been an ego boost ahead of Australia, but if the playing field is ever more uneven due to the failings of rugby as a whole, then those victories will never mean as much as they should.