All Blacks coach Steve Hansen speaks about the situation surrounding Israel Folau.
Picture the scene. It’s November 2022 and Fiji are facing Scotland.
The last time these two teams played each other, in 2018, Scotland cantered to a 54-17 win. The perennial strugglers of the Northern Hemisphere normally expect to comfortably beat Fiji, regardless of ranking or the known strength of Fijian rugby.
But this year something is different. This year the game is a part of the Nation’s Championship and Fiji are a contender.
They win this game and they are through to the Nations Championship Finals. Scotland are playing at home, but they are in the doldrums.
Safe from relegation with a superior record to Italy, they can’t crack the top two of the European teams.
The bookies have Fiji as narrow favorites. How is this scene possible you ask? How can things have changed so dramatically since the last time these two sides met?
The Fijians are being paid.
That one sentence changes the entire complexion of international rugby, of the success of Pacific Islander teams, and of the ability of tier-two nations to grow and maintain talent. But how?
Casting our minds back to that game in 2018, there was a reason Scotland could be confident of the win. The Fijian players were barely paid. The game took place during the Northern Hemisphere club seasons.
Many Fijian players playing for French clubs are ordered to feign injuries or ‘retire’ from international rugby so as to not be available for international matches. Threats of pay cuts and contracts being torn up are made.
In the end, like they often do, Fiji field a weakened team with almost no preparation leaving Scotland the heavy favourites. This is considered normal.
Looking forward to 2022 however, there is a potential for a radical change.
The Nations Championship has enabled the payment of match fees paid directly by World Rugby to players.
Please note: none of the following represents what will actually happen with player payments in the Nations Championship. At this point there is no public information available regarding the sharing of revenue from the proposed new competition.
But why is this such a massive change? Because it shrinks, or even eliminates, the earning gap between club and international rugby for players from poorer unions.
As it stands clubs can put pay pressure on their overseas stars to not compete in international matches.
While this is a contravention of World Rugby regulations, it’s is widely believed to be the case, especially in France.
The Nations Championship provides World Rugby with a revenue stream which it then distributes to the competing unions. Part of that distribution could be directly to players as match payments.
Those payments would offset any financial disincentive from a players club to not play international rugby. I would suggest this should be on a reporting basis so wealthy nations’ players don’t get a top up from World Rugby, say a cap of $10,000 per game, for argument’s sake.
Without the threat of financial pain, clubs will likely resort to reducing their average salary bill. This will allow for larger squads so they can balance losing players to international matches.
At this point the sheer impact of the opportunity becomes clear. A normalization of wages will reduce movement between countries.
Match payments will make playing for their home country, rather than waiting out a residency period in a different country, more attractive to Pacific Islander players and players from other tier-two nations.
Larger club squads in Europe could open up room for more players to get opportunities, including potentially players without strong domestic competitions.
A Nations Championship which provides World Rugby to directly remunerate international players would be a massive step change for rugby, and would go a long way towards balancing the playing field at the international level.
If the Nation’s Championship does go ahead I hope it’s something seriously considered by World Rugby!