Trigger warning. In my opinion, any world-wide championship format put forward by World Rugby has to be discussed with a peg on your nose.
The reason for this lies in the fact that World Rugby, formerly the International Rugby Board, has for over a hundred years acted in the interests of the so-called Home Unions: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Whether the issue is a matter of improving the laws of rugby, abolishing the ridiculous ‘shamateurism’ rules, the establishment of a Rugby World Cup tournament, or a cap on countries poaching talent from other countries, World Rugby has virtually always reacted in a way designed to protect the Home Unions, even if it means that the interests of the wider world of rugby – especially in the southern hemisphere – are harmed by this intransigence.
At a summit of rugby leaders in January at Los Angeles, World Rugby proposed a 12-team World League involving the Six Nations sides together with the four Rugby Championship sides, Japan and the USA.
The suggestion was put forward that because the Six Nations does not have a promotion-relegation system, along with the Rugby Championship, that World League will run for 12 years without a promotion-relegation system.
Apparently, opposition to a promotion-relegation system comes from Scotland and Italy, potential early candidates for relegation.
The reason why we need a peg on the nose to even consider this proposal is that it would destroy rugby in the Pasifika nations and all the other minnow nations outside of the 12 favoured rugby nations.
Gregor Paul, a tough-minded NZ Herald rugby journalist, makes this point very forcibly.
“The prospect of any of Fiji, Tonga or Samoa having credible international teams is dead if the World League, as it stands, becomes a reality,” Paul wrote.
“The self-preservation tactics of those struggling Tier One nations will have won out and incredibly not only will they have saved their seat at the top table, they will have opened the door to picking off the best Pacific talent for themselves.”
Also, and I am speculating here, but the broadcaster promoting the tournament would want no promotion-relegation system because Japan and the United States, two potentially massive markets, are the most vulnerable sides to be relegated.
Each of the teams will play each other once each year in the World League tournament, with semi-finals and finals played in late November or early December.
What happens in a Rugby World Cup when October/November are the designated months for playing the tournament are as yet unknown.
A broadcaster has, apparently, put forward an offer that guarantees about $US 10 million to $US 14 million a season for each nation.
World Rugby claims, without elaborating or giving convincing details, that the proposed tournament has generated high interest from supporters around the world.
How accurate the claim is about high interest from supporters is debatable. World Rugby has made the claim but has not provided any hard evidence for it.
But there is no debate about how unpopular the World League proposal is with players around the world if there is no annual promotion-relegation system built into the format.
There will be another summit at Dublin where the World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont and CEO Brett Gosper will try to push through the World League proposal.
The World League was first mooted last November. Last week saw a tirade of attacks on the concept as many eminent people in the rugby world started to analyse just what was being proposed and how harmful to the world game these proposals will be.
The tirade started on Thursday when the Rugby Players Association (RPA) issued a detailed statement titled: Players Highlight ‘Major Concerns’ Around World Rugby’s proposed International Competition.
“The world’s top players have warned of serious ‘player welfare and integrity concerns’ around World Rugby’s proposed competition structure for the global game,” the statement reads.
“While senior players have consistently voiced their support for the concept, ongoing concerns exist around the detail of the competition format that has been taken to the market in recent months.”
Pause here. RPA is claiming that the World League ‘format’ has already been taken to the market. But what format is being taken to the market?
The RPA also raise concerns around player load involving multiple top-level Tests in different countries and time-zones on consecutive weeks, lack of opportunity for Tier Two nations to progress, and the potential impact on Rugby World Cup and Lions tours.
My straw poll of one – myself – would insist that there would be far more interest in the Rugby World Cup tournament and in Lions tours than a sort of annual rugby ‘Big 12 Bash’ tournament.
Anyway, moving on. The International Rugby Players President Jonathan Sexton complained in the RPA statement that 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.”
This position was endorsed by the Player Council member Kieran Read and England captain Owen Farrell.
The bombshell in the RPA statement, however, came with this allegation and the response from Samoa’s captain.
“The Players Council understands that promotion and relegation will not form part of the new proposal, preventing Tier Two and emerging nations from accessing top level competitive matches and creating a ceiling on their aspirations to advance and improve.
“Samoa captain Chris Vui said: ‘We feel 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 are trying to do’.”
And it is not only the European clubs that will benefit from this ‘knock-on’ effect.
The Six Nations sides will benefit greatly by being more attractive to southern hemisphere players than they are already.
Commentators in New Zealand have noted, for example, that there are 12 players in the Six Nations tournament this year who were eligible to play for the All Blacks.
The RPA statement forced a media release from New Zealand Rugby Chief Executive Steve Tew.
“Any new competition must have a pathway for new and developing countries to join including our Pacific neighbours,” Tew said.
“We cannot add to the work load burden of our players without making other adjustments and we are also mindful of the role of our other competitions Investec Super Rugby and Mitre 10 Cup.
“World Rugby has been proactive and bought an idea to the table, we have been refining it over several months and a positive spin-off has been some real commercial interest backing it.”
Pause here. Is this a case of commercial interest being the key component?
Doesn’t Tew’s statement indicate that the ‘Pacific neighbours’ will be given some crumbs, perhaps even a small slice of the cake, to somehow appease them in the interests of getting the 12-year no promotion-relegation rule through?
If that small slice of the cake be a second-tier tournament with no rights for the winner to move up to the top tier for at least 12 years, then it is totally unacceptable.
It is no concession worth having that the second-tier teams will be offered double the number of Tests they usually play but only against second-tier nations.
Now let’s go to Friday’s media release from Raelene Castle on behalf of Rugby Australia concerning the proposed World League.
“These exploratory discussions have been robust and complex, with player welfare, the growth of developing nations and protecting the great history of the game front and centre in the conversation,” Castle said.
“The competition model must provide opportunities for the Pacific Islands nations and developing nations continuing to grow and compete with tier one nations.
“While these discussions are progressing with representatives from World Rugby and the National Unions in the room, nothing has been agreed and finalised. We continue to work to find a proposal that could have universal stakeholder support, deliver to Rugby Australia’s growth targets and grow international rugby’s footprint.”
Now this is an important point to pay attention to. Neither Steve Tew nor Raelene Castle has categorically ruled out the no promotion-relegation proposal.
Admittedly, in talking to journalists after her statement was published, Castle conceded that “first of all, there is no deal done” and that “SANZAAR’s view is that there should be a promotion-relegation and it should be open to protect the integrity of the competition.”
If this is the case, why didn’t Castle and Tew mention SANZAAR’s view in their official media releases?
My guess is that the no promotion-relegation edict is still very much part of the negotiations.
The reason why I say this is because Gregor Paul has revealed these worrying details in the NZ Herald.
“Last November, Fiji were told they would be in the new competition along with Japan and the Rugby Championship and Six Nations sides,” Paul wrote.
“But when the concept was put in front of potential broadcasters, they said they wanted something with more consumer reach – which was code for kick out Fiji and bring in the USA.
“So neither Fiji nor player representatives were invited to the hastily scheduled meeting in Los Angeles where the new proposal was unveiled.
“Fiji found out through the Herald that they had been dumped and their indignity about that has been intensified by hearing that it was Scotland and Italy who refused to allow for there to be promotion and relegation in the World League.”
There is something very underhand going on here.
This brings us to the architect of the World League concept, World Rugby’s deputy chairman Agustin Pichot.
Pichot is next in line to be the chairman of World Rugby when Beaumont finishes his stint in the office.
But he will only get there through the votes of the Home Unions.
If the “twelve plus twelve” concept – Pichot’s phrase – is introduced without a promotion-relegation rule, Pichot’s elevation to the chairmanship of World Rugby will be assured.
And with this, Argentina’s position as a world rugby power, on and off the field, entrenched for decades.
Remember, it was Pichot who engineered the elevation of the Jaguares into the Super Rugby tournament and the Pumas into The Rugby Championship.
So what does Pichot say about the promotion-relegation issue? “Nothing has been decided yet and I won’t stop trying (to ensure it is put in place).”
This sounds rather like, it seems to me, Raelene Castle and Steve Tew saying that they will try hard but if they fail, they’ll take the money and run with the no promotion-relegation rule if they have to.
Now I go back to Wayne Smith for a comment about Pichot in The Australian.
“The rugby world hopes he is true to his word. Pichot is the man who lobbied for his native Argentina to come into The Rugby Championship: he argued, too, for his Jaguares to be admitted to Super Rugby. He is regarded as an effective rugby politician, which has been seen as both good and bad, but if it transpired that, after securing Argentina’s future, he then pulls up the drawbridge to ensure no other tier-two nation gets to sit at the main table, then his usefulness in rugby would be over.”
This is right. And the same declaration must be made about Raelene Castle and the board of Rugby Australia.
If they vote for a World League, without an annual promotion-relegation rule, they must be forced out of their positions. No ifs, no buts.
Moreover, as it stands now, even with a promotion-relegation rule, the World League is just too problematical in too many areas for it to win the support of the rugby world.
Back to the drawing board, Gus.