Rugby World Cup reaping reward for embracing developing nations

Aaron Smith of New Zealand talks with Damian Stevens of Namibia after the Rugby World Cup 2019 Group B game between the teams at Tokyo Stadium. Clive Rose - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

TOKYO -- Anyone still doubting the improvement and value of Tier 2 nations at the Rugby World Cup need look no further than Namibia's brave showing against the All Blacks on Sunday.

The Africans trailed by just one point after 30 minutes having taken the game right up to the two-time defending champions, only for New Zealand's superior fitness and skill level to prevail from that point onwards at Tokyo Stadium.

The All Blacks' 71-9 victory was indeed a bigger margin than the 2015 match between these two teams -- 58-14 -- but on that occasion they blew Namibia off the paddock inside the first half-hour to lead 26-0. At the same juncture on Sunday, the All Blacks led only 10-9.

"I'm very proud of the players, the effort that we put and some of the way we played the game, particularly in the first half; the ball retention and some of the line-breaks," Namibia coach Phil Davies said. "But we knew before the game we were playing against obviously the best team in the competition, the current champions, but we went out there and gave it all we could and we couldn't ask any more of the players really.

"So we're very proud of them in that respect. The scoreboard looks a painful but in terms of the performance we have lots to take out of the match."

After Uruguay's upset of Fiji in the tournament's opening week and even the South Americans' dramatic improvement on Saturday against Australia -- they were beaten by 35 points as opposed to 63 in Birmingham four years ago -- Namibia's efforts against the All Blacks in Tokyo provided further proof that rugby can hopefully look forward to even closer World Cups in the future.

At a tournament at which hosts Japan need only to avoid a bonus-point defeat by Scotland and pick up a bonus point themselves to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time, World Rugby should be doing everything it can to highlight the improvement of the game's emerging nations. And investing in them appropriately.

While the International Cricket Council moved to reduce the number of teams due to blowout scores at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups -- the 2019 staging featured only 10 teams -- rugby has stuck solid with its developing nations and is beginning to reap what was sown.

Even Russia, who made the tournament only after some player eligibility issues in the qualifying process in Europe's secondary international competition, -- Romania, Spain and Belgium were deducted points for fielding ineligible players during qualification -- have done themselves proud by conceding no more than 35 points ahead of their final pool game against Scotland.

The United States, meanwhile, recovered from a comprehensive defeat by England to take the fight up to France for 65 minutes; Tonga fought back gallantly in their second pool match against Argentina after falling behind 28-0, and the islanders then threatened to reprise the 2011 upset of France before losing by just two points despite having trailed 17-0.

Uruguay's upset of Fiji and Japan's 19-12 triumph over Ireland may remain the only genuine shocks of the tournament in Japan, but the improvement in the general play of the emerging nations has really caught the eye.

For 30 minutes on Sunday, Namibia genuinely mixed it with the All Blacks. The Africans won turnovers and penalties at the breakdown, made multiple linebreaks, and pressured the world champions into errors such as the usually reliable Aaron Smith's kick into touch on the full.

Down 24-9 at halftime, the scoreboard was only going to deteriorate for Namibia thereafter, particularly given the quality on the All Blacks bench and their superior athletic conditioning.

And it took just 107 second for the world champions to really ramp up the intensity from their first-half effort as Joe Moody crashed over for their fifth try of the match. Sam Whitelock also put his name on the scoresheet while Sevu Reece and Anton Lienert-Brown completed their doubles after also crossing the stripe in the first half. The All Blacks finished with 11 tries in total.

But the Africans never stopped trying, and that was no more evident than in the determination of their talented scrum-half Damian Stevens who put pressure on all but a couple of New Zealand fly-half's Jordie Barrett's conversions. It was incredible commitment and effort that he got reward from with a couple of dusty Barrett strikes, too.

And there was just enough brilliant All Blacks rugby to satisfy not only the fans who have made the trip from New Zealand but also the thousands of locals who on Sunday had traded their Brave Blossom jerseys for an All Blacks strip in the hope of seeing some of the world's best really turn on the style.

They certainly got some of that through Lienert-Brown's first five-pointer -- a brilliant scything effort that reflected the centre's true class -- and also in Reece's sharp feet that danced down the sideline whenever the ball found its way to his right wing.

And the 48,354 fans in attendance were treated to one final piece of All Blacks magic just before fulltime.

Replacement T.J. Perenara, who deputised at fly-half on Sunday, broke free from inside his own half and offloaded to Rieko Ioane, the replacement winger then finding Brad Weber who threw a delightful flick pass back to Perenara for a run to the line that required a superb one-handed put down with his left foot millimetres inside the touchline.

It was a touch of the razzle dazzle and the perfect ending to what was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in Tokyo. The best thing was that Namibia played a genuine role in creating that enjoyment, even in the desperation to try to deny Perenara's try, a fact that wasn't lost on their coach.

"I was off my seat with the effort of the tackle, but also with Perenara's effort to get in there in the corner was incredible," Davies said.

"Again it's just very pleasing to be sort of in a game of rugby where we've made a huge contribution to the spectacle on the field.

"The supporters in the stadiums have been fantastic, and today was no different. So as a rugby man, through and through, it was a good game to be involved, and that last little bit there perhaps epitomised everything that had gone before."