Rugby around the world has experienced tremendous growth since turning professional almost quarter of a century ago.
Its World Cup is among the most-watched events in international sport, rugby sevens has been added to the Olympics programme, regional competitions are up and running on every continent and more than 100 nations are now affiliated to the World Rugby organisation.
This has brought numerous innovations of course, from expansion the of the World Cup to the formation of a Six Nations championship in the Americas, Argentinean and Japanese involvement in Super Rugby and a professional club competition in North America. So what changes is the next decade likely to have in store for the game?
Firstly, the World Cup should expand again. For the second tournament in a row this year’s edition will not feature a debutant, and there will be only one change from 2015 – Russia for Romania. It’s beginning to look like the same thing every four years. Rugby’s world order has become stagnant and it’s time to shake things up a little.
A 24-team format would not only allow more teams to qualify, but it would turn the post-group stages into more of a lottery, while so-called ‘second tier’ teams would be given a more realistic chance of progressing. If based on the 1986-94 FIFA World Cup formats, it need involve only four more fixtures than the current model and could actually be played in a shorter time frame with more fixtures per round and none of those pesky byes.
Next, the Six Nations should merge with Rugby Europe and introduce a promotion-relegation fixture (or a home-and-away series). This one simple step would create an annual pan-European championship in which every nation on the continent is given the chance of working their way right to the top. Rugby Europe has already done all the hard work itself, with 35 nations now involved in its seven conferences, right down to Bulgaria, Turkey and Montenegro in the development division.
Given the Americas, Rugby Europe and Africa now have their own six-nation first divisions, perhaps the Pacific Island trio ought to join Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea in an Asia-Oceania equivalent. This would help strengthen Asian rugby and give the islands a meaningful competition to play in. The winners could perhaps join their Americas, African and Rugby Europe counterparts in a four-team Confederations Cup.
New Zealand and Australia, meanwhile, should open the annual test season with a match against one of their Pacific Island neighbours. South Africa could do the same with Namibia. This would be the ideal fixture to blow out the cobwebs – and, after all, if they can play them at the World Cup, why not in between to assist their development?
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The proposed ‘world league’ concept, transforming the increasingly congested autumn tours into some kind of meaningful competition, looks interesting, but fears have been expressed that it may exclude some of the non-elite nations currently getting involved. Perhaps, therefore, all participating teams could be required to play a warm-up match against a non-participating team.
South American competitions often use a format whereby teams in one pool do not play each other but play all teams in the other pool. So if you had New Zealand, Argentina and Fiji in Pool A and France, Scotland and Japan in Pool B, the Southern Hemisphere teams would play each of the Northern Hemisphere sides and vice versa.
New Zealand’s schedule might therefore feature matches against USA (mandatory warm-up against a non-participating team), Scotland, Japan and France. So if you had four groups of three, England, Wales and Scotland would make up another and South Africa, Australia and Tonga would make up the fourth based on current rankings.
Regarding Super Rugby, it should return to a 14-team Southern Hemisphere competition with the Sunwolves no longer involved. It seems their inclusion was desired by World Rugby to help Japan prepare for this year’s World Cup tournament, but they have lowered the standard of the competition and destroyed its regional identity. It seems ironic to me that the Western Force have effectively paid the price for this.
A return to the conference system should not be ruled out in the future, however. At some point Super Rugby will need to expand if professional rugby in the Southern Hemisphere is to grow. Alternatively, South Africa and Argentina might need to part ways with their Australasian counterparts and form an entirely separate competition.
And, finally, a proper world club championship fixture between the Super Rugby winners and their European counterparts is long overdue.
So often in the knockout stages of rugby tournaments – indeed, most sports if we think about it – the games themselves can become dour, overly-defensive, minimise-mistakes-at-all-costs affairs as teams knuckle down to progress to the next stage by any means necessary.
The line often used to explain why our female rugby players aren’t given an equal showing in broadcast deals, merchandise sales, membership deals, sponsorship and general exposure is that “they don’t have the same revenue power that men’s teams do”.