Rugby World Cup
Rugby World Cup should feature Plate, Bowl and Shield finals to boost 'minnows'
Greg Growden
October 13, 2015
Rugby World Shield would support 'minnows'

The gap is tightening. The minnows are making a concerted stand, and it's time to reward them by giving them greater World Cup exposure.

One of the pleasures of being at this World Cup has been witnessing the improvement in numerous second-tier teams, including Fiji, Japan, Georgia, United States, Romania and Canada. Their commitment has provided countless tournament highlights, bringing about a carnival atmosphere and giving rewards to those who love following the underdog.

My favourite 2015 World Cup moment remains Japan's triumph over South Africa. Thank you, First Great Western Trains.

I was at the Millennium Stadium that day, at the Ireland-Canada match, and had planned to head straight back to London after full-time. But the logjam of several thousand people being herded into dangerously over-crowded holding pens outside Cardiff Railway Station, and the threat of several hours delay before anyone could get on a train to anywhere, left no option but to seek refuge at a nearby pub.

The South Africa-Japan game provided the ideal diversion, with the moment enhanced by hundreds of Welsh, Irish and Canadians cheering the Japanese home. The true spirit of rugby overwhelmed. And to think that just eight years ago Japan suffered an 88-point World Cup loss to Australia.

Who wouldn't want to see more of Japan? © Julian Finney/Getty Images

Then there was the rousing moment when Georgia full-back Beka Tsiklauri scored against the All Blacks, and Fiji's mighty performances against Australia and Wales.

Fiji showed, even though they lost, that they were able to show they now have the nous upfront to become a threat to the main nations. Fijian rugby has for some time thrived in the Sevens game, but its XVs format has often been neglected. Not so now, with Fiji's New Zealand coach, John McKee, putting in the work to ensure they now have their set-pieces functioning.

Fiji were unfortunate to have been drawn in the tough Pool A, with England, Australia and Wales. Had they been in Pool B or C, instead, they could have come close to a quarter-finals berth.

As encouraging has been how the large World Cup crowds have embraced the lesser-known teams. Attendances have certainly not dropped off when they were involved, with many fans lured to such games in the hope of witnessing an upset.

So the support is there for the minnows, and it is time to utilise that.

The World Cup format can be improved in so many ways, with the most crucial change involving ending the farcical situation whereby the make-up of the pools is determined three years before the tournament. Wales coach Warren Gatland was 100% right when he said the pool process was "ridiculous". It should instead be done one year out -- and no earlier.

Rugby World Cup authorities should also borrow some ideas from the international Sevens format. For years, Sevens tournaments have provided incentives for all teams right until the end of the event by offering to those who miss out on the big prize the chance to play in Plate and Bowl sections. It adds to the spectacle.

So why not the same at the World Cup? Instead of 12 teams departing straight after being knocked out of the pool stage, and most being virtually forgotten for four years, why not have them stay for the rest of the tournament and play in Plate, Bowl and Shield competitions?

Mamuka Gorgodze celebrates Georgia's victory over Tonga
Mamuka Gorgodze and Georgia were stars of the tournament© Matt Lewis - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

The Plate section could involve the teams who finish third in their pool with two semi-finals and a final; the Bowl, the fourth-ranked teams; and Shield the fifth teams.

If the next best rugby nations are to continue improving, they need more international games, more exposure, more opportunities to play in front of large crowds, and also more chances to play opponents of equal ability on the biggest of stages. From there you develop self-belief and confidence. And going home with some sort of silverware after a World Cup tournament is the ideal promotional tool to lure more support towards the game in those countries where rugby struggles for attention and an identity.

These Plate, Bowl and Shield matches could be played at lesser-known rugby venues and involve cut-price tickets as a way of promoting the code. Revenue raised from these games should be channeled straight back to those countries who really need it -- which includes the bulk of the 12 teams who now have to disappear early.

Nemani Nadolo is a firm fans' favourite© Michael Steele/Getty Images

As the healthy attendances at this World Cup has shown, the punters are not just lured by the big guns; there is also enormous interest in following the minnows. The punters are not dumb. They know the World Cup will become a better, more viable event only when there are more countries who have genuine title chances.

Besides, a Plate/Bowl/Shield format would give poor old England a chance to win something ...

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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