Whither Goest Thou World Rugby?

The World Rugby League

You may recall in September last year, when we spoke of a possible new World Rugby League of Nations? 

I wrote about it in an article with the same title: https://billsrugbyblog.com/a-league-of-nations/

I said that World Rugby were looking for a complete change to the current international calendar. (This despite World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper being quoted as saying: “We’re looking at a number of different, potential models but certainly the calendar isn’t something we’re seeking to change.”)

We already knew that World Rugby were looking at expanding the Rugby World Cup from the current 20-team format to a 24-team format. 

We learned that the administrators were looking at other changes too. 

The French newspaper Midi Olympique reported that World Rugby were considering a new “League of Nations” format involving the top 12 teams in the world, an annual competition designed to replace of the current November “Silly Season” tours. 

The proposed new competition was said to be the brainchild of World Rugby vice-president Agustin Pichot, and would reportedly kick-off in 2020. 

Pichot had initially proposed the idea in July 2018 at San Francisco’s Rugby Sevens World Cup, where he presented the concept in a meeting with New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew, French Rugby President Bernard Laporte and South Africa Rugby Union CEO Jurie Roux.

The article in Midi Olympique  suggested that the competition would include the 12 teams that sit at the top of the World Rugby ranking system, and would probably be split into four pools of three teams each, with pool games, and then a quarterfinal round, a semifinal round, and a final.

After that report back in September 2018, things went a bit quite, with just the odd rumbling and a few murmurs that the proposal was still being discussed.

Way too quiet, it seems…………

On Wednesday last week the New Zealand Herald published an article, an expose if you like, on the proposed new World League. 

In their report NZH said that the new tournament would have 12 pre-selected nations, with no promotion and relegation from the outset and it would incorporate the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, with the latter expanding to include Japan and the USA. The plan was for it to be introduced in 2020.

The reaction has been instantaneous, and almost universally angry!

There has been almost universal condemnation of the plan. The players are unhappy, the countries who have been left out of the “Super 12” are furious, the professional clubs are angry, the amateur clubs are disgruntled, and the fans are confused.

In essence, the rugby world has rallied against the suggested plans for the new 12-nation, cross-hemisphere, closed-shop annual tournament. 

The game’s top players labelled it “out of touch”,the Pacific Islanders did not like the idea that they were shut out and contemplated boycotting this year’s Rugby World Cup, while at the professional club level a senior figure described the proposals as a “fairyland”when talking to the media.

Since then, Sir Bill Beaumont, World Rugby’s chairman, has called for calm and emphasised how “no decisions have been made” over the structure of the new tournament while inviting a select group of rugby’s stakeholders to an emergency meeting in Dublin at the end of the month.

The Reaction – The Players 

Let’s begin with the reaction of the players to the proposal for the new League.

Almost immediately, Kieran Read, the current All Black captain voiced his opposition, saying that rugby “must balance the commercial needs of the game with the player welfare needs”.

Kieran Read has spoke of his concerns for the integrity of the game and the welfare of the players as he said: “After listening to the issues raised by many of the players, we need to be very careful that we balance the commercial needs of the game, with the player welfare needs and ensure the quality and integrity of matches meets expectations,”

He went on to say: “Fans want to see meaningful games; they don’t want to see fatigued players playing a reduced quality of rugby as part of a money-driven, weakened competition that doesn’t work for the players and clubs.”

“With new technologies, new broadcast deals and new money coming into the sport, this is a crucial moment for rugby and one that many players are generally excited about. However, we have to make sure that the integrity of the game and welfare of the players is protected.”

The international rugby players’ union — International Rugby Players Association (IRPA) – quickly released a lengthy statement in which rugby’s leading players added their voices to that of Kieran Read. They expressed their concern at the proposed tournament. Jonathan Sexton, the Ireland fly-half, called it “out of touch”supporting Read’s statement that rugby “must balance the commercial needs of the game with the player welfare needs”.

Reads comments were made after an IRPA meeting and conference-call that involved nearly 40 players, including captains, from a large number of the world’s 10 top rugby nations.

The payers are united in their concerns about the proposed format, including:

* Player load challenges around multiple top-level test matches across different countries and time-zones over consecutive weeks
* Increased long-haul travel in short time frames
* A lack of real opportunities for Tier Two nations to progress
* Increased conflicts between country v club demands and Regulation 9 release periods (nations being able to select their top players)
* Potential impact on the Rugby World Cup and Lions tours
* The long-term quality and integrity of the international game

Touching on World Rugby’s consultation, or lack of, with the players, the IRPA made mention of “inconsistent engagement”– effectively code for little or no engagement.

IRPA president Johnny Sexton, said: “While players gave this idea a cautious welcome when we met at the end of last year, it now seems like a commercial deal on the future of the game is being negotiated at a rapid pace with little consideration given to the important points we raised with World Rugby in November.”

“The issue of player load has never been so topical, however it needs to be properly understood. To suggest that players can play five incredibly high-level test matches in consecutive weeks in November is out of touch and shows little understanding of the physical strain this brings.”

England captain Owen Farrell added: “Players are definitely open to discussing a new global season, but what we develop has to work with the club game in order to reduce conflict, deal with player release issues and make sure their welfare is looked after”.
“The proposal presented to us at the moment doesn’t seem to have considered this properly and shows no
signs of improving this already difficult situation.”

Samoa captain Chris Vui said: “For countries in this bracket and for Pacific Islanders in particular, our biggest issue has always been the ‘club versus country’ factor. We feel that that a 12-year deal is not workable, particularly when it presents no hope of advancement during that period. This will have the dangerous knock-on effect of luring senior players away from their countries and more towards the clubs, which is the exact opposite of what we’re all trying to achieve”.
It is fairly evident that the administrators at World Rugby have neglected to consult with the game’s primary resource, the players themselves!

In a quick about face, World Rugby responded to the IRPA’s statement by saying:

“World Rugby recognises and values the importance of player considerations and input into the annual international competition discussions. However, the manner the International Rugby Players (IRP) organisation has expressed these is surprising given regular engagement throughout this ongoing process. World Rugby’s commitment to player welfare matters is unwavering and we will continue to engage and give full consideration to the welfare of players within the ongoing discussions.”

Whatever the administrators say, the players have found their voice. They will no longer be silenced by being fobbed off as the “hired help” as their minds and bodies are sacrificed on the altar of World Rugby’s Grand Ideas.

Quite simply, the already over-played and exhausted players are rightfully wary of any changes proposed by administrators, of even more matches being added to an already enormous workload, and have warned the administrators to consider the players’ needs when weighing up the potential eight-figure annual income the tournament would generate.

The Reaction – The Tier Two Nations

The voices of the players were not the only ones raised against this new proposal.

The Pacific Islands nations are not at all enamoured with the proposal. They have reacted with understandable anger at the proposed plans which seem to shut them out of international rugby at the highest levels.

Without a promotion-relegation system at the heart of the new league they, along with many others, were to be shut out. 

Leading figures including the likes of Manu Tuilagi, as part of Pacific Rugby Players Welfare (PRPW), said they would consider boycotting the 2019 World Cup in protest.

Both New Zealand Rugby and the Australian Rugby Union quickly separated themselves from the plans out of solidarity with the Pacific Islanders, while Sir Graham Henry said the new tournament would “kill the Rugby World Cup”.

Fiji, one of the Pacific Islands nations, are particularly miffed, and rightfully so, considering that they are ranked 9thin the current World Rugby rankings, above Italy, Japan, and the USA, who have all been included in the “12 Nations League.” 

(The USA, just to make World Rugby a little more uncomfortable, lost to Uruguay this last weekend!)

Georgia, who are currently 12th in the World Rugby rankings, three places ahead of USA, are less than happy, with Georgia Rugby president Gocha Svanidze taking a swing at World Rugby and its administrators over the concept. He said that Georgia were shocked by the development and that the idea is unacceptable. “I will say that all those who are fond of rugby and who share rugby values, cannot accept the outlook which recently leaked, probably, a couple of snub-nosed retrograde officials, who cannot see further than their own noses.”

“This is how I can see certain World Rugby representatives, in whose minds this idea was born. This is absolutely unacceptable for anyone,”he said.

“We were aware that some changes were about to happen and were ready to accept these changes, though not in their present shape, which cuts off all possibility of development and is more likely to lead rugby toward darkness,”Svanidze added.

Georgia have been hoping for a promotion to the Six Nations, but have now been left out of the new 12-team proposed format.

“I’m sure we will be supported by a certain group of Tier 1 countries, who think progressively, differently from what we all recently found out,”he said.

South American Rugby boss Sebastián Piñeyrúa joined in the discussions, with a focus on a pathway for more Tier Two teams to be given the opportunity to get promoted to the potentially lucrative top 12 competition.  He expressed the need for a promotion-relegation system to be included should the new format go ahead to give emerging nations a platform on which to get regular rugby and improve their game.

“Rugby must be honest with itself and decide if it wants to grow and work seriously with its regions in order to conquest and develop big new markets in Europe, such as Spain and Germany, in Latin America with Brazil and Mexico, and Asia with China as an example; or if it wants to continue playing the same eight teams in the finals at the Rugby World Cup,”

“Having a tournament with two tiers, with promotion and relegation, is crucial moving forward towards a global game whilst motivating rugby fans all over the world.”Piñeyrúa said.

The Reaction – The 6 Nations & The Professional Clubs

The commercial side of the game offers another stumbling block for the World League plans. Reports in the Telegraph suggest the Six Nations are looking into plans to pool their own broadcast rights, which would effectively shut out their southern hemisphere rivals.

If the new “12 Nations” is to have collectively-sold television rights this could jeopardise the plans of the 6 Nations, who would not willingly give up their own parochial financial interests. 

The professional clubs in England have an agreement with the Rugby Football Union over player release, and were both surprised and critical of the proposed outline with one senior figure describing the plans as having “no chance of working whatsoever”, smacking of “desperation”and, unless they managed to get club approval, “dead in the water”.

Of course, lest we forget, the Premiership Clubs in England have just concluded a deal with CVC Capital Partners, a global private equity giant who previously owned Formula One motor racing. In this deal, worth £200m, CVC now own 27% of Premiership Rugby. 

Premiership rugby has just become a closed shop too!

They say that they have created a brand new “A” League to serve as a feeder league for the Premiership Clubs, but even that seems to be another closed shop. 

The end result is inevitable. 

The 13 Premiership Clubs (12 of whom play in the actual Premiership and one other, London Irish, who play in the Second Division) are not open to new members joining their circle.  

As Exeter’s Chairman, Tony Rowe, puts it: “What people have got to understand is that money is driving rugby union in England,”Rowe says, bluntly. “Every Premiership club [following the CVC deal] is now worth in excess of £50m. All of a sudden the thing has ring-fenced itself.”

“For anyone who wants to come into the Premiership now it’s going to cost them at least £50m to buy into that pot. Then they’ll need a ground. If you start from scratch that’s going to cost you £25m-30m. At Exeter we would like to see a route for any ambitious club that has the facilities on and off the pitch. We would not support a club that almost makes itself bankrupt by chasing a dream. I say to those chairmen: ‘Stop dreaming.’ Professional sport at our level is about reality: you need money and the right facilities.”

Or, more bluntly – “Go Away, we do not want you!”

Will the Premiership put their own parochial interests aside and support a World Rugby League that requires them to release some of their hugely expensive stars?

I think not.

The next few weeks of negotiations will be interesting; once the Six Nations is over and the CVC money materialises, there really could be some lively debates on a variety of fronts. For now, even the Eddie Jones succession plan is on the back burner.

English Rugby as we know it may be on the very edge of ripping itself to shreds.

For the record, from the English RFU’s side, it responded to the proposed World League format with unease, with a source expressing concerns over the lack of confirmation over the status of the British & Irish Lions, the long-haul travel and, ultimately, player welfare.

And then there is the Six Nations, already notoriously unwilling to change into a meritocratic promotion-relegation system, they are likely to offer yet another stumbling block for the World League as they look to protect their own competition, their sustainability and boundaries.

They do not want to see the 6 Nations playing second fiddle to any new international competition.

World Rugby’s Reaction To The Furore.

World Rugby, perhaps caught out by the publication of their plans before they had a chance to plan their own “Big Reveal,” had to react to the outcry and anger. 

After a couple of days of silence they responded by emphasising that no decision had been made over the long-term plans for the World League, but cited “consumer research”as confirming “a structured annual competition would make fans and new audiences more likely to watch, attend and engage with international rugby, exposing the sport to new fans worldwide”.

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont has convened a meeting of chairmen and CEOs from Tier One nations as well as Fiji and Japan later this month in Dublin.

“Contrary to reports, no decisions have been made,”Beaumont said in a statement.

“This is an ongoing and complex process with multiple stakeholders, some with differing views. Only by working together in the interests of the global game can we achieve something truly impactful in this important area for rugby’s future global growth. I look forward to a constructive debate with my colleagues and productive outcomes.”

We are told that World Rugby will shortly be releasing a detailed outline of the model as originally proposed, which will provide broader context to the project.

We do know that World Rugby’s vice-chairman Agustin Pichot, who was the one to originally punt the idea of a World League back in September last year, has made it very clear that the last thing he would want would be a closed-shop competition. 

Pichot is all for global expansion and would like nothing more than a World Cup with 10 realistic challengers.  He tweeted: “My position and my proposal has always been the same since day one. (Two divisions of) 12+12 with promotion/relegation, with enough rest periods for the players,”  

“If we can’t make this happen it won’t be because of the people who wanted the growth of the game worldwide, and working with clubs and leagues to make it work for all of us.”

Where To Now?

Whichever way World Rugby want their proposal to work, there will need to be compromise at its heart. 

Plenty of compromise, and a whole heap of adjustments to the model that was publicised in the New Zealand Herald.

Without a doubt, a “closed shop” arrangement where the 12 initial members of the new league are guaranteed their place in the competition for some extended period of time is simply unworkable. 

It will not receive the support of any of the members of World Rugby who are excluded from the cosy little arrangement. Such an exclusive little club might even spell the end of World Rugby as we know it!

Sustainability

To kick off a 12-Nation competition that would be worthwhile for all concerned requires that each of the 12 has some level of sustainable rugby development model back in their home country. Each of those participating nations must have their own sub-Test level competition that provides a feeder competition, call it a conveyor belt of talent, for the national side to draw upon. That feeder system must be sustainable in its own right, and should somehow be protected from the predatory poaching habits of some of the wealthier nations and clubs. The playfields needed to be evened out!

It is early days, but a country like the USA is on the right path with their ambitious and impressive new domestic competition, called Major League Rugby. They are on their way to building a solid, sustainable feeder system.

Other Tier Two countries are not as well equipped, nor do they have the financial resources to upgrade their domestic level competitions to the point where they can sustain a professional international team playing around 12 Test matches in any one year.

Word Rugby will need to find a way to help those Tier Two countries develop a sustainable domestic model.

A Two-Tier Structure

Gus Pichot’s idea of a Two Tier, 24-team competition is perhaps the best idea to come out of the entire discussion. 

This is workable, but only if it includes a Promotion/Relegation structure that is cast in concrete. Every participating country must have the goal and the opportunity to make it into the top level of the competition. There can be no closed shop, and no permanent members ala the UN Security Council. 

The entire competition or league simply has to be a meritocratic system.

A two-tier structure will address the needs and aspirations of a growing audience and the expansion of the game into new fields across the world.

Player Workload

Rugby has changed, inevitably, since the arrival of the professional game after the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

The game has become much faster, much much more physical, and vastly more demanding on the players themselves.

There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the current player workload is unsustainable. A recent survey conducted by the IRPA amongst their members (international players one and all) suggested that the players themselves feel that somewhere around 25 games per year is as much as they can physically and mentally handle.

Consider then the impact of a new World Rugby league – an additional 5 Test matches per year, at the very minimum? What then of the 15 Super Rugby games, or the 22 games in the Premierships regular season, what about the playoff rounds of those two competitions? What about the June International season? What then of the southern hemisphere’s domestic rugby competitions like the Currie Cup and the Mitre Ten?

How do you realistically accommodate the playing workload of the players?

Something has got to give!

Rugby at The Crossroads

I have no doubt that rugby, in all its guises, stands at a crossroads, facing some of the biggest decisions in the game’s entre history.

Already the game itself is in need of some serious rethinking and reworking. The Laws have changed as the game has developed into the professional era, and this has had the effect of strangling the game as entertainment, as a spectacle that draws the fans to the game. All over the world the complaint reverberates – rugby has become a slow, static mess. 

Something needs to be done about the way the game is being played at the moment, and it needs to be done very quickly.

But this is just one of the decisions World Rugby must take.

The developments in professional rugby in the United Kingdom are scary, even suggesting that the game in that country is about to split into two distinct and separate segments. On the one hand, the Premiership, an elite, closed shop with, flush with money, and providing massive barriers to entry, and on the other, the lower tier clubs and teams, a mishmash of professional and amateur clubs and players. The Great Unwashed, if you will.

One can foresee the two parts of English rugby eventually having very little in common. 

The Premiership could, conceivably, break away from the RFU and World Rugby, choosing to “go it alone” with little concern for the future of international rugby or even domestic rugby at the lower levels in their own backyard. 

They may even adopt their own version of the Laws, safe in the knowledge that their survival is guaranteed by a huge financial benefactor who owns 27% of the competition.

World Rugby and the newly proposed World Rugby League must take a long hard look at the English model and learn from it. They cannot afford to even contemplate a “closed shop” arrangement that shuts out the aspirations of the majority of rugby playing countries of the world.

This leaves World Rugby in an invidious position – what do they do to maintain and grow global rugby?

Consumer research certainly confirms World Rugby’s statement that a structured annual international competition would make fans and new audiences more likely to watch, attend and engage with rugby, exposing the sport to new fans worldwide. 

There is also no doubt that a structured annual international competition would deliver significantly greater long-term global media revenue for reinvestment in the global game. 

This suggests that the World League project has at its heart long-term growth and stability, not short-term wins, and that includes greater opportunity for the majority of players.

Every indicator suggests that this is the correct way to go, but the stumbling blocks are immense.

How do you accommodate the players and their demands for a decreased and better managed workload?

How do you accommodate existing structures and competitions, such as the 6-Nations, the Rugby Championships, the Americas Rugby Championships, the Pacific Challenge, the U/20 Championships and all the various domestic competitions?

How do you accommodate and sustain the great traditions of the game, encompassed in the likes of the British & Irish Lions, the New Zealand Maoris, and the Barbarians?

How do you maintain and preserve the mystique and integrity of the Rugby World Cup?

And, critically, how do you accommodate and encourage the needs and aspirations of the Tier Two countries?

World Rugby has to deliver a model that ensures the best-possible competitions and commercial outcomes for all and a truly exciting and meaningful annual international competition structure that is great for players, clubs, fans and unions.

From the protected environment of my Armchair, it looks like an impossible task! But then so was climbing Mount Everest until someone did it, so was landing on the Moon, until someone did it. 

I, for one, will be watching this story with interest…………………………