By Daniel Etchells at the Hilton London Metropole Hotel

Sean Fitzpatrick was speaking at the 2014 IRB World Rugby ConfEx ©Getty ImagesNew Zealand's former World Cup winner Sean Fitzpatrick believes more needs to be done to improve the standard of the lower-ranked rugby nations. 

This follows Hong Kong and Russia last week urging the International Rugby Board (IRB) to introduce a special World Cup for second-tier countries.

Officials from both nations said on Friday (November 14) that a second-tier Cup, played between the traditional quadrennial extravaganza, would greatly help lift the standards of teams ranked outside the world's top 20.

And although Fitzpatrick does not feel an entire new tournament is necessary, he believes the smaller nations' stay at the World Cup ought to be extended beyond the pool games, the stage at which they are eliminated more often than not. 

"For me, some of the greatest memories are the smaller nations, like Portugal in France in 2007 when they played the All Blacks," said 1987 World Cup winner Fitzpatrick, speaking at the 2014 IRB World Rugby Conference and Exhibition (ConfEx).

"They grow from those games.

"But once the pool games are finished, they're gone and maybe for the next three weekends they could play alongside the main tournament to experience it ."

Fitzpatrick formed part of a three-man panel at the ConfEx, alongside former Argentina captain Agustín Pichot and ex-French utility man Thomas Castaignède, which took part in the opening session entitled "State of the Union - Legends of the Game".

Sean Fitzpatrick (centre) was joined by Agustín Pichot (left) and  Thomas Castaignède (right) on the "State of the Union - Legends of the Game" panel ©ITGSean Fitzpatrick (centre) was joined by Agustín Pichot (left) and Thomas Castaignède (right) on the "State of the Union - Legends of the Game" panel ©ITG

The discussion explored the opportunities and challenges that rugby will face over the next decade as it continues to grow and develop worldwide.

"I don't think a World Cup system would be necessary but they need to improve the fixtures, that's for sure," added Pichot on the issue. 

"They need to play games.

"If you don't play games, you cannot get better."

Russia and Hong Kong, ranked 19th and 27th in the latest world rankings respectively, were beaten by Uruguay in the World Cup repêchage qualifiers as the South Americans went on to clinch the 20th and final berth at next year's tournament in England.

Dai Rees, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's head of performance and technical development, said countries who were on the fringes of the top 20 teams needed more opportunities to play outside their own region, so they could learn and develop quicker.

Hong Kong play annually in the Asian Five Nations, but have always lost out to Japan in World Cup qualification.

"I would like to see the IRB introduce a World Cup for countries like us and Russia two years before the main World Cup," said Rees. 

"A cross-continental competition for say 12 countries would help lift and develop the game in second-tier nations.

"A World Cup for us smaller countries would be massive.

"If we knew there was one in between the main World Cups, we could plan and prepare better." 

Russia coach Raphaël Saint-André agreed, saying: "It would be good for everyone and help take us to the next level.

"The IRB needs to help us.

"Right now we play other second-tier European nations like Georgia regularly, but there will be huge benefits in playing teams with different styles like Uruguay, Hong Kong or Zimbabwe."

New Zealand's recent match against the United States caused plenty of debate at the IRB World Rugby ConfEx ©Getty ImagesNew Zealand's recent match against the United States caused plenty of debate at the IRB World Rugby ConfEx ©Getty Images

Talk of how to develop rugby in the United States and the All Blacks' recent match in Chicago also proved a contentious issue.

The world champions thrashed the host nation 74-6 in only their third meeting in 101 years but, arguably the more important statistic, was the capacity crowd of nearly 62,000, three times more than the previous best for a home US rugby match when they played Ireland in Houston last year.

The US have taken part in six of the seven rugby World Cups but their still largely amateur team have never managed to win more than one pool game.

"To grow the game we have to go to parts of the world that aren't traditional areas of the game," said Fitzpatrick, who won 92 caps in a career that spanned the amateur and professional eras.

"There are 100,000 people playing rugby in the United States but as well as aspirations there need to be revenues."

Castaignède supported the game's superpowers including the US in their calendars but said there needed to be local development to capture the imagination of the next generation.

"We need big teams going to America but we also need to have big players coming out of America," he said.

"They have the potential to have two or three guys like Jonah Lomu [former All Black wing]; the sort of players who made rugby well known in a wider area.

"It needs two or three guys who can really create imitation behind them.

"For America they need to focus on who will be the next heroes."

Pichot, however, coming from a country that has been vying for help and recognition for many years, was dismissive of the match at Chicago's Soldier Field. 

"I actually think that was more about the All Blacks' brand," he said.

"If you ask me about the grassroots and how to make a better team in the World Cup, it's not the way.

"It's not magic.

"If you take the All Blacks to countries like Mexico or to Brazil it's not going to happen.

"You need a pathway from grassroots to the professional game and if you don't have that you will never have a competitive team in the World Cup."

Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]

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