The idea of a World Club Championship in rugby union has been around for a long time.
As far back as 1997, Auckland’s Blues – winners of the first two Super Rugby titles – destroyed European Cup winners Brive 47-11 in a match billed by the French hosts as a World Championship.
All Blacks centre Lee Stensness led the way with a hat trick of tries, while Fijian winger Joeli Vidiri chimed in with a dazzling individual effort.
Britain’s Independent described the New Zealand team, who were on an unbeaten tour of Europe, as “stronger, faster, more skilled technically and more cunning strategically.”
“It was like spending 80 minutes in a washing machine,” said Brive captain Alain Penaud. “It was like being run over by a bus a hundred times.”
The Southern Hemisphere stole a march at the dawn of the professional era, and Super Rugby teams won the vast majority of their early encounters with European clubs – often by wide margins.
Things have evened up since then, however, and when the French again staged an unofficial world championship a few years ago, Natal’s Sharks struggled to a 12-10 victory over Toulon.
The Sharks were not actually the Super Rugby champions at the time. They were standing in for the New South Wales Waratahs, who were unavailable for the fixture.
Toulon scored the only two tries of the game through Kiwi import David Smith, while Springbok Pat Lambie kicked three penalties for the Sharks and Fred Zeilinga added a late winner.
We have also seen the inclusion of South Africa’s Orange Free State Cheetahs and Southern Kings in Europe’s Pro 14 League since they were axed from Super Rugby in 2017.
Originally known as the Celtic League for competition among Welsh, Scottish and Irish clubs, the Pro 14 now includes Italy’s Zebre and Benetton, as well as the South African pair.
The Cheetahs, having made the top ten only once in a dozen years of Super Rugby, finished third on debut. The Kings, who had three disastrous seasons in the Southern Hemisphere competition, have proved equally inept in Europe.
This has given rise to the inevitable claims of Northern Hemisphere superiority, reminiscent of the long-established rivalry at international level.
Of course, the World Cup has settled the latter issue, notwithstanding England’s victory in 2003. Prior to 1987 it was nigh impossible to get a Northern Hemisphere fan to admit to southern superiority.
The debate has since changed from “Who is the best?” to “Is the gap closing?”
European fans seem adamant it is, though there seems little evidence of this, and the last World Cup semi-finals were an all-Southern Hemisphere affair.
Nonetheless, the battle of the hemispheres has often been cited as one of international rugby’s greatest assets. So why not extend that to club level and organise an official World Championship?
Such a fixture has existed in football for almost 60 years. The Intercontinental Cup was first staged in 1960 as a one-off clash between the European and South American title-holders.
FIFA stepped in at the turn of the century and transformed it into a mini-tournament, also involving the winners of the other confederations. This year’s edition in Qatar will involve seven teams.
A more inclusive format might also become a prospect for rugby in the future, with professional leagues already established in Japan, Russia, North America and elsewhere. South America is also planning to launch a professional competition next season.
Rugby league first staged a World Club Challenge fixture in 1976, and has held it most years since 1987. Involving the winners of the Australian NRL and the European Super League, this has drawn some huge attendances.
Probably the time has come for rugby union to put more emphasis on developing the global club scene. Test rugby appears to be approaching overload with national teams playing more and more often.
This has put a huge strain on the professional leagues, as well as the players themselves. So why not organise an official world championship for the clubs themselves and see how things develop from there?