The proposal of World League has been lambasted by players, fans, and unions alike. Stars like Owen Farrell, Jonathan Sexton, and Kieran Read are majorly concerned with player welfare, and at one point, rugby players of Pacific heritage were considering a boycott of the World Cup. It couldn’t have gone worse for Bill Beaumont and World Rugby, but I truly believe the World Rugby Nations Championship has the potential to be great for our sport.
This belief comes after World Rugby put out their statement about the proposed tournament structure. In response to outrage that countries such as Fiji wouldn’t be included, World Rugby pitched a structure that would finally reward ambition from developing nations. The ‘Nations League’ would consist of a European conference (the 6 Nations), and a conference of the Rest of the World (the Rugby Championship plus two new countries based on the World Rankings). Teams play everyone in both their own, and the other conference with the top 2 of each entering semi-finals. The crucial part is that the bottom team of each conference will encounter a relegation/promotion playoff against an up and coming nation such as Georgia or Samoa.
Currently, elite tournaments such as the 6 Nations are tyrannous to developing rugby nations. It is an invitational tournament where participating unions accepting promotion/relegation is like turkeys voting for Christmas. Additionally, tournament executives may be reluctant to ever accept Georgia or Romania because their economies are less luring than the likes of Italy. If these tournaments will ever accept meritocracy, an enforced World Rugby initiative is the only way to do it.
This tournament could also capture the imagination of thousands, or even millions of new fans around the world. Admittedly due to logistical difficulty, there are barely any leagues between the best countries in major global sports. This could be a gaping hole in the market, and if rugby can capitalise, the sport could finally break major markets such as the USA. Spreading the life-changing values of rugby should be a massive vision for our community, and an attention-grabbing competition could be a successful way to achieve this.
There are obviously still major problems to iron out with the current proposal. Player welfare is the primary concern, which many have alluded too. An average 6 Nations side will have 10 or 11 tests per year, so a potential increase to 13 tests for World League finalists (due to a semi-final and final) is not welcomed news to already over-worked players. But this is an issue that can be easily resolved. If there is one division (rather than two conferences, with the bottom team at risk from relegation), we can abandon the play-offs, ensuring teams have no more than 11 tests per year. Fixtures can also be planned accordingly to ensure travel time is limited in one test window (for example, 6 Nations teams could have away fixtures to Japan, Australia, and New Zealand in one test window).
Any support for this tournament must be conditional. Without promotion/relegation, or amendments to support player welfare, the tournament should immediately be discarded. Yet if done correctly, this Nations League could bring our great sport into countless new homes, in countries around the globe.
Written by Connor Dickins