David Pocock impressed by Tier 2 teams, says eligibility change worth discussing

TOKYO -- Zimbabwe-born Wallabies star David Pocock has enjoyed the improved performances of some of rugby's Tier 2 nations at the World Cup and believes there may be some merit in further relaxing the eligibility laws to help continue that upward trajectory.

Uruguay's upset of Fiji in the tournament's opening week remains the standout result from a Tier 2 nation at the 2019 World Cup, while Japan have the opportunity to sweep their pool when they line up against Scotland on Sunday.

The Brave Blossoms have put in a mountain of work to be in that position and would appear to deserve Tier 1 status in the short-term future. That would certainly happen if they were included in an expanded Rugby Championship, which appears to be a no-brainer for the administrators at SANZAAR given Japan's performance and how the World Cup has been embraced by their supporters.

But it's teams like Uruguay, Georgia and Tonga, which have all at times shown how competitive they can be, so too Namibia who trailed the All Blacks 10-9 after 30 minutes in Sunday, who really have caught the rugby's public's attention

And their performances haven't been lost on Pocock either, with the back-rower impressed by how they have reacted to past games and sharpened up areas of weakness as a result.

"I think some of the Tier 2 nations have put a huge amount of work into their prep over the last four years and you've seen a massive improvement, obviously led by Japan and the strides they've made, but also Namibia against New Zealand, last night in the first half, really held their own," Pocock said Monday.

"I think defensively, if you look at Uruguay and Georgia, you're definitely seeing different pictures every week; they're clearly after every game plugging a few holes.

"If you look at Georgia, for example - Wales scored a couple of good tries back on the inside against them; since then, against Fiji, they were very solid there. So I think defensively, you're clearly starting to see a lot of IP moving around the world; if you look at coaches coaching various teams. It's great for world rugby.

"I've been in touch with some of the people involved with Zimbabwe rugby and they're doing the same, really trying to get their structures in place to be able to hold talent and, sure, you're going to lose your best overseas but in an ideal world they'll be playing overseas and then coming back for international duties.

"And I guess what we see a lot of in the world is players going overseas at a young age and representing another country, which for smaller teams really hurts a lot."

Rugby's Tier 1 nations have long bolstered their squads with Pacific Island talent, either through academies targeting young players, as Pocock mentioned, or with professionals serving the three-year residency period required by World Rugby - as was the case with Australia's Fijian back-rower Isi Naisarani.

But there are also cases where those Pacific Island players have later headed overseas to either Europe or Japan, making them ineligible for Test selection in countries like Australia and New Zealand. And it's those kinds of players for who have long been at the centre of a discussion about adopting rugby league's more relaxed international eligibility rules, where players who do have that clear heritage with one of the Pacific nations are free to play despite having already represented Australia or New Zealand.

Tonga, which on Sunday pushed France right to the wire after a stirring second-half comeback, are certainly one nation that could benefit from having a player of the quality of former All Black flyer Charles Piutau on their books while Lima Sopoaga is on the record as saying "never say never" about a potential switch to Samoa.

The way things stand, the only way a player can switch their eligibility is through the Olympic Sevens loophole, which states a player must firstly stand themselves down from international rugby for three years and then also participate in at least half of the World Series tournaments ahead of the Games.

Asked about tweaking the eligibility laws to help foster the growth and development of Tier 2 teams, Pocock agreed it was worth a discussion.

"It's worth talking about, I guess it gets pretty complicated. I'm not too sure. In my mind if you're not playing for a country that you've been capped for, for a while, and clearly aren't in contention, then potentially [you should be free to play]," he said.

"But I guess that's a discussion for players' unions and World Rugby to be having."

Zimbabwe remains close to Pocock's heart after his family were forced to flee to Australia in 2002 during a period of civil unrest in the African nation.

Zimbabwe's loss has certainly been the Wallabies' gain but the star back-rower hopes to one day see the Sables return to rugby's greatest show for what would be just their third appearance at the tournament and first since 1991.

"I don't really fancy myself as a coach to be honest, but I would love to see Zimbabwe at a World Cup," Pocock said. "They've got so much talent at a schoolboy level and, man, it would make me so so happy to see them running out on the world stage again."