World Rugby’s new proposal for a Nations Championship – pencilled in for 2022 – is a necessary development to grow the international game by providing context to otherwise meaningless cross-hemisphere friendlies. In addition, it will take back some of the power away from mega-rich clubs in England and France who for too long have dictated the state of play around the world.
After World Rugby met with chief executives and chairmen of the world’s unions in Dublin, where they promised a windfall of £5bn to the Six Nations, more coherent plans have been drawn for this cross-hemisphere championship.
By introducing a promotion and relegation structure, as well as expanding the Rugby Championship to six teams, World Rugby will allow smaller nations a chance to earn a seat at the big table of the sport.
However, not all are happy with this idea because the growth of the global game is not a universal ambition.
Leading French and English clubs have voiced their criticism of World Rugby’s plan. In a joint statement earlier this week, Premiership Rugby and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), said their clubs believe that these proposals run roughshod over agreements signed with various stakeholders in San Francisco two years ago.
That agreement was meant to secure the international calendar until 2032 but the Nations Championship would now expand the Test window beyond its current confines. Premiership Rugby and LNR have also voiced concern about not being involved in the latest meetings.
“The professional leagues now seem to be excluded from this new work,” the statement said, that included the threat of legal action. World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont outlined that clubs were not invited to yesterday’s meeting because the intention is to only involve them if the unions agree to the championship.
What these leagues have failed to acknowledge is their track record when it comes to playing ball with national unions and World Rugby. Faf de Klerk, South Africa’s talismanic scrumhalf, was embroiled in a tug of war between Sale Sharks and his national team last year and missed a Test against Scotland against Edinburgh.
This is just one example of many where national coaches in the south have had their hands tied after being strong armed by powerful European clubs. Equality can feel like oppression for those who have enjoyed the status quo. Now, club owners with deep pockets are coming to terms that money cannot buy all their troubles away.
For too long the French league has served as a stark contradiction to the French national side. Racing and Toulon, packed with household names from a multitude of nations, have spent fortunes on players without significantly contributing towards the betterment of Les Bleus.
Despite the club’s aprhensions, there is precedent for optimism in the Nations Championship. The European Nation League in football has confounded expectations and has seen a rise in stadium attendances as well as last minute goals – suggesting that players are committed now that there are repercussions to their performances.
The International Cricket Council has followed suit and will launch in July offers fans and players meaning to a Test schedule that has been allowed to meander for too long.
South Africa Rugby CEO Jurie Roux outlined his support for the Nations Champions when he said: “Creating a meaningful season-long competition out of the current patchwork of events and tournaments has an obvious appeal as well as proving a clear development pathway for emerging nations, which speaks directly to one of the fundamental goals of World Rugby.”
He added: “It would also create potentially lucrative opportunities for the sport as well as a single point of purchase for existing and new broadcasting players.”
That last point is perhaps most pertinent. Rugby is a world game. It does not belong to handful of elite clubs.