The idea of running a plate competition during the Rugby World Cup knockout stages has been put forward by a number of high profile commentators. I for one think it is a fantastic idea, and just what the international game needs right now to help drive the development of tier 2 nations who may be pushing for quarterfinal spots in future tournaments.
The idea would be that whilst the first and second placed teams in each pool go on to the quarterfinals, the teams placed third and fourth in each pool move on to a knockout competition where they battle it out for the plate trophy. This is standard practice in rugby sevens, and could have a host of other benefits for World Rugby.
The plate games would be played midweek and would be played at smaller rugby venues around the host nation. This would mean that games do not overlap with the main competition, whilst also ensuring fans have access to extra World Cup games at lower costs in venues that would otherwise not have seen any international action.
This year for example, Welford Road, Salford City Stadium and The Rec could all have hosted games between the likes of Japan and Fiji that would have ensured the buzz around the World Cup continued on outside of Cardiff and London. The lower tickets prices would also have given fans priced out of the main knockout rounds the chance to witness some more top class action.
It would also address the issue of the lull the Rugby World Cup suffers from during the knockout rounds. With fans having to wait a week between games, there can often be periods where the coverage dies down and interest wains. By having mid-week games during the plate competition, there would be no such risk.
The main benefit however would be for the Tier 2 nations who would have the opportunity to remain a part of the World Cup during the latter stages, whilst exposing themselves to international knockout games. This year for example, we could have found Japan playing England in the plate final which would have done them no harm at all.
The additional international exposure could have proved invaluable for 2019 hosts Japan who will be hoping to push for a berth in the quarterfinals in four years time. It also would have given the likes of Georgian and Canadian players the opportunity to gain additional international exposure which they are unaccustomed to.
The two main criticisms of the idea so far have been the additional costs incurred by the extra games, and the fact that clubs would be deprived of players for an additional couple of weeks. Both of which are valid concerns, but could potentially be addressed both short and long term.
On the issue of the expense, sponsorship expert Tim Crow has suggested that the additional games would cost around £3 million to host which is a considerable additional expense. He does however go on to suggest ticket sales alone would cover £2.5 million, whilst World Rugby could cover the shortfall with the additional sponsorship money generated by extra games.
The extra games would also give Tier 2 nations the opportunity to push for additional sponsorship money as a result of their increased exposure during the tournament. This would allow them to increase their income during World Cup years which could be used to invest in the grassroots game which will benefit the national side longer-term.
The other issue is a slightly more difficult one, as with the growing power of club sides in Europe, it is easy to see issues arising as they already spend large portions of each season without their top internationals. They therefore often rely on players from Eastern Europe, the Pacific Islands and America to help plug the gaps in their squad when Tier 1 internationals are missing.
Unfortunately there is no easy way to address this issue, however in many cases it is simply down to World Rugby and the relevant leagues to work together on how best to minimise disruptions. This may involve increasing payments for internationals, and perhaps even increasing salary cap space in World Cup years to accommodate large squads.
World Rugby could also work with top leagues on how best to schedule the tournament in order to ensure it minimises disruption, and makes as many players as possible available for domestic duties. Clubs must also take a longer term view on how the additional development of players in Tier 2 nations and increased support may infact help these sides longer term in the way we have seen football clubs become truly global brands.
Personally I think this is a win win situation for all involved. Fans get to see more rugby, Tier 2 nations gain more international exposure, and players are given the chance to develop. The biggest challenge is persuading the clubs, but at the end of the day, the Rugby World Cup only happens once every four years.