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World League not the answer to apparent Test rugby woes

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Expert
1st November, 2018
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Test rugby is struggling, Agustin Pichot has told us, but an annual World League is not the answer.

Sure, international rugby could do with a freshen-up, some clarity and more consideration to the second-tier nations, but all that shouldn’t be delivered at the expense of the World Cup.

Just over a week ago in Sydney, World Rugby officials proposed a shake-up of Test rugby with the idea of a 12-team tournament pitting the north against south every year.

The World League – a concept based on soccer’s new European Nations League.

World Rugby vice-chairman Pichot is apparently leading the sell, with the top 12-ranked countries to be involved over a five-week stretch.

The upside to that is that a few of the second-tier nations would get to play in more meaningful Tests outside the four-year cycle of the World Cup.

That would certainly be beneficial for their development. Given the current rankings, Fiji, Japan and Tonga would be involved against the four Rugby Championship teams and the Six Nations sides – minus Italy.

The proposal is said to be partly rooted in the notion that the end-of-year European Tests haven’t got enough meaning; that these so-called friendlies are a touch hollow. Structured tournaments are allegedly the solution.

That’s rubbish. Called them what you like, but the November Test window that pits the south against the north are high-intensity, hard-fought encounters. There are trophies on offer and Twickenham, Stade de France, Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and Murrayfield are usually packed out.

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Meaningless they’re certainly not.

Try telling an 18-year-old Jordan Petaia, hoping to make his Wallabies debut this month, that 82,000 people rammed into Twickenham is just a friendly.

The crowd at Twickenham.

(Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

But the biggest question is around alternating the hosting of the annual tournament between northern and southern hemispheres.

Does that mean Test match rugby in Australia in November? Or when it’s the southern hemisphere’s turn, it’s played during the year – in say June and July? That would mean Super Rugby would revert to the dreaded momentum-killing mid-tournament break, or the Rugby Championship would be rejigged in some way.

Playing Tests in Australia in November isn’t going to happen. Mid-October would be the latest legitimate slot. And then that would affect the powerful club competitions in England, France and the rest of Europe – which usually start in early September.

Rugby scheduling – the bane of every sporting administrator that’s tasked with maximising revenue and sparking interest, but has to deal with the realities of club loyalties and player welfare.

Jam in some more Tests, and soon after come the allegations of cheapening international rugby. It’s an accusation that Steve Hansen copped on Thursday when he named eight new faces in his All Blacks’ 23 for this weekend’s Test against Japan.

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Hansen is more interested in knocking over England next weekend and has to account for a long Super Rugby and Rugby Championship season.

The fact that the All Blacks haven’t played England in the November Tests since 2014 proves there are problems with scheduling.

The World League would basically give us the World Cup quarter-finals on an annual basis with a few others sprinkled in. The World Cup would lose too much of its sheen. Another tournament isn’t the solution, if indeed – as Pichot states – Test rugby is “under threat”.