It’s said that a week is a long time in sport and that can be no truer than the week that Rugby Union has just gone through. Welsh regional rugby is in turmoil, the Premiership salary cap is under scrutiny, Scotland’s injury crisis continues and France’s club vs country debate rages on; but the one topic on everyone’s lips is World Rugby’s proposed World League.
Since The New Zealand Herald first leaked initial plans last week, there has been plenty of reaction (sometimes hysterical). World Rugby have taken quite a bit of flack in this time, we need to remember that nothing is yet set in stone. It turns out that rumours surrounding a 12 year ring fence to exclude the Pacific Island nations wasn’t correct. So much so World Rugby have now moved to clarify their stance on the competitions purpose and its potential structure ahead of a hastily arranged meeting in Dublin next week. Now that World Rugby have provided some more detailed comment on the speculation, we take a look at what the new proposals could mean.
World Rugby have outlined the changes on their website with a statement as well as a useful video. In a nutshell, the Championship which would debut in 2022 would retain The 6 Nations, The Rugby Championship and British & Irish Lions. Two conferences comprising the 6 Nations and The Rugby Championship (where two tier two teams would be immediately added to make six in total) would see each team playing the other 11 teams once either home or away with points accumulated throughout counting towards a league table. The top two teams from each conference would then play cross-conference semi-finals, followed by a grand final. A two-division, merit-based format would provide potential promotion and relegation for all unions in non World Cup and non Lions seasons.
I don’t think anyone would argue that know one has done more to help nations in recent years more than World Rugby. But the question needs to be asked – what problem is the new proposal trying to fix? It’s interesting to hear WR’s quote that the new format will provide “season long context and meaning” and that “every match will count”. It can certainly be argued that unlike other team sports, every test match does count and that there doesn’t need to be an official competition to a one off game or tour. The intention here is likely to provide reasoning to a new global audience who may not fully appreciate the games history and culture.
It is undeniable that the inclusion of promotion and relegation opens up a pathway for all tier two nations to compete at the top table. However, although the volume of tier one vs tier two games will increase, this approach restricts the tier one nations all playing the same tier two nation once a year for two seasons. Effectively reducing the exposure of tier two nations across the board. This may actually be more detrimental than the current solution, where most home nations tend to host a (different) tier one nation each November.
We have to remember that these amendments are yet to be confirmed, the introduction of promotion/relegation to the Six Nations needs to be ratified unanimously by all six members, with one of them effectively signing their own death warrant – why would the turkeys vote for Christmas? Thus compromising their main source of showcase and revenue. With proposed relegation only taking place on even years, something may also need to be done to the traditional fixture schedule – in one example Italy would always play Scotland at home in crucial seasons. Hardly fair.
Player welfare is often fronted as a driving force for change. The new suggestion would see a fixed 11 test match season stretching to 12 and 13 for teams that qualify for the playoffs (many think this is still too many). Hardly a radical overhaul of the 11/12 that northern hemisphere teams tend to play now. Perhaps more worryingly is the proposed five consecutive high intensity test matches that finalists will be asked to play; a load that is typically only required once every four years (in a World Cup with plenty of preparation and rest time). This is likely to have a negative impact on respective domestic competitions. With the introduction of a new competition and the need for more down time – something will have to give. Harlequins and England scrum half, Danny Care, has already said this week that he doesn’t see too many positives for the players. Surely this is something that needs to be prioritised?
As with all walks of life – money talks and this case is no different. World Rugby have seen the potential of the World Cup and are trying to emulate what it brings to the sport on an annual basis. There are fears that this may actually work to devalue the World Cup, which is why a proposed expansion to 24 teams for the quadrennial global showpiece has been tabled. One thing is for sure, the new World League certainly provides increased revenue opportunities, the intention is to aggregate broadcast, media, commercial and sponsorship rights and distribute more fairly across the unions. Although this will provide financial stability (boosting it in some cases) it remains to be seen where this will leave the fans – specifically around the broadcasting of the event. If WR are serous about increasing the global audience, they should take a lesson from Cricket’s book and appreciate that the biggest offer isn’t always the best.
Written By James Jones