As a lover of cricket and rugby union, I often like to compare what the sporting codes can learn from each other.
Whilst there is an array of different fields in which both sports can replicate certain models such as commercial, sport science and data fields, the average fan just wants to see more rugby or cricket. Specifically more high-quality rugby or cricket.
This is why, rugby, although facing some cultural and commercial differences to cricket, can fulfil both Sir Bill Beaumont’s plans of a globalised rugby tournament and potentially feed fans with more marquee match-ups to replace either the autumn or summer internationals that add a degree of competition and breed high-quality rugby. This is not to say I would like to completely end autumn and summer international tours, but the idea of a Champions Trophy rugby tournament is something that could really benefit the elite rugby circle.
Firstly, the ICC Champions Trophy was inaugurated in 1998 (surprisingly a cricket tournament was won by South Africa) as a trophy second in significance to the World Cup. Football has the Euros and Americas Cup as examples of prestigious secondary trophies available in line to the World Cup. Cricket has the World Cup, followed by the T20 World Cup, the current Test Championship and the disbanded Champions Trophy.
Whilst it is hard to compare rugby to Football and Cricket with regards to different tournaments (different cricket formats and wider audience scale in football make these different tournaments inevitable), rugby union, at least, cannot survive with just the Webb Ellis Cup every four years. A Champions Trophy with the top-ranked eight to 12 teams is needed in order to increase viewership and competitive interest in the game.
With the impact of COVID on rugby finances, the home nations boards of the RFU, WRFU and Scottish Rugby have all announced significant austerity in their funding of rugby sevens. Rugby sevens is not rugby’s T20 cricket – it is not marketable enough nor would it draw more interest than a Champions Trophy staged for four weeks in which the best of the best battle it out.
Whilst summer tours are enthralling to see the likes of historic rivalries such as England versus everyone and seeing other home nations fare down South, there needs to be a strong sense of regular knock-out rugby being played in between World Cup Cycles – the Autumn Nations Cup, while showing some unappealing games, unarguably benefitted teams in how to adapt to high-pressure consecutive weeks in which every game is a must-win.
Compared to the World Cup, you know South Africa will play their B team against Namibia or Tonga and still win by 70 points. You know the All Blacks will play their C team against *insert struggling Tier 2 nation here* and still put on 11 tries.
Whilst it is a spectacle to see how smaller, growing rugby nations play the more established teams, there is a stage where you ask, “what’s the point in watching such a predictable game?” The Champions Trophy eliminates this and creates the high-pressure environments of which every game is a must-win.
The same can be said for cricket in its Champions Trophy tournaments; the eventual champions can only afford at maximum one or two losses, making it more open for underdogs to qualify for the quarter or semi-finals. Bangladesh, for example, qualified for the last four out of a group containing England, Australia and New Zealand, although weather did play a part.
Logistically, rugby can feasibly run a tournament like a Champions Trophy with the top-ranked nations. Given that 20 compete in the World Cup, no more than 12 teams should be competing. The number is freely up for debate, but this is perhaps where the biggest issue arises. Having the top eight currently would mean Wales, Japan and Fiji would miss out on the tournament.
The 2017 ICC Champions Trophy saw the West Indies miss out – having fewer teams can make every Test match more important for qualification, but fans must evaluate the risk of seeing a big name miss out at each separate competition.
Secondly, the biggest concern with this is the disparity between Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations. Watching Oceans Apart makes me realise that rugby’s Champions Trophy should only be discussed on fan forums, due to the neglect of the Pacific Island nations and potential growing rugby markets. This is what rugby cannot learn from cricket: rugby wishes to and to an extent is growing in the Americas, Eastern Europe and East Asia, whereas cricket is mainly home to England and former British colonies.
A competition of rugby’s richest and best teams may be one the board members of investment groups and fans would love to see, but it would be one in which the growing and near unsolvable problems of the Tier 2 world will only be increasingly ignored. World rugby cannot afford the Pacific Islands to increasingly become rugby’s West Indian, Zimbabwe and potentially soon to become South African cricket teams in which political and economic divide and inequality kill the sport in these traditional countries.
Overall, it is up for you to decide whether you would like to see a tournament as such. Here’s to 2021.