For our part of the rugby world at least, these few weeks we’re currently in represent the part of the season where we start searching around for our rugby content, with The Rugby Championship done but the Spring Tours not quite ready to check boarding passes.
Plenty of us in Australia would have taken a look to the east, with the NPC well and truly underway again over the ditch, albeit without the three Auckland-area sides.
Plenty of us, too, would have noticed the excitement around the Harlequins-Bristol Premiership game on Saturday morning, and after the excitement of last season’s semi-final, I was well and truly sucked in by the hype.
And like anyone else who caught the game, I wasn’t left disappointed.
I didn’t really think last season’s thriller could be topped; that was a comeback for the ages, in which the Quins came from trailing 28-0 after half an hour to force the game into extra time, eventually winning 43-36 to win through to the Premiership Final.
This game ran a close second. Bristol again ran out to a 21-7 lead after 25 minutes at The Stoop, but from there, Harlequins proceeded to run in nine unanswered tries to win pretty comfortably 52-24 to maintain their unbeaten start to the season.
It didn’t quite have the same gripping, nervous excitement of last year’s semi-final, but it was a great watch simply because of the tries Quins scored. Tighthead prop Will Collier’s thirty-metre dummy and run for his first ever Premiership try was just pure rugby porn, while no.8 Alex Dombrandt’s second try will compete with his earlier offload for Andre Esterhuizen’s try in the corner as a personal highlight.
All of this, of course, came after ‘Aussie’ Louis Lynagh rocketed Quins back into the game with a double either side of halftime. “He just cannot stop scoring tries,” the commentators exclaimed, and it’s certainly fair to say that whenever he’s noticed in Australia, it’s because of these kinds of highlights.
It’s enough to make you wonder how strong the Golden lure of his fatherland might be.
“Not until he’s capped,” was Dave Rennie’s reply just over the weekend, when asked when he’d give up on securing the Italian-born, England age-rep young Lynagh, who Eddie Jones was quick to include in his broader squad ahead of the northern internationals. We’ll find out one way or the other soon enough.
But watching this game also got me thinking of news last week that was noticed, but not really dwelled upon down our way.
First mentioned early last year, the idea of a Rugby Club World Cup made its brief reappearance when outgoing European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) chairman Simon Halliday noted the new eight-year agreement signed between the clubs and the national unions in Europe in his public handover last week.
“This will guarantee the long-term future of both the Champions Cup and the EPCR Challenge Cup,” Halliday said.
“At the same time, this will create clarity for the international and club calendar. From this new agreement, we are now working on the (European) participation of the South African provinces and building towards a Club World Cup every four years which would replace the latter stages of the Champions Cup.”
There’s a fair bit to unpack in those 66 words. For one thing, the mooted admission of South African sides into the European Cup competitions will do nothing to quell the similarly aligned Six Nations theories.
But the first and obvious point is the intent to now run the Club World Cup only every four years.
When president of the French union and vice chairman of World Rugby, Bernard Laporte, first mentioned the concept in a newspaper interview last April, it was going to be a 20-team tournament comprising four teams each from the English Premiership, French Top 14, and Pro 14, plus six Super Rugby sides, as well as Japan’s Top League winners and the MLR champions from the US, and played every year.
Laporte’s idea – which he said at the time he’d discussed with World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont – was to do away with the European competitions, and replace it with this brighter, bigger international competition with much bigger broadcast and corporate appeal. Much more appeal for World Rugby, that is.
Halliday’s comments highlight that not only have the powerful Euro clubs effectively told Laporte to get back in his box, but that this new accord has already watered the Club World Cup idea down rather dramatically.
And in doing so, it pushes the very obvious question about the timing of the concept to the forefront.
Because make no mistake, if Laporte’s original concept needed to ditch the European competitions completely to find room in the calendar, then the EPRC plans ensure that the concept will not find any room whatsoever.
And this is where the wording of Halliday’s comments is worth considering further.
I bet, for example that “we are now working on the participation of the South African provinces” is a much higher priority for EPRC and has significantly more chance of succeeding than does “…building towards a Club World Cup every four years”.
Why would EPRC build toward something that results in them having to send revenue toward Super Rugby, Top League, or MLR clubs every fourth year? What possible incentive is there for them to do that?
Particularly since the Pro14 has now become the United Rugby Championship with the admission of the four South African sides, thus already weakening the international appeal of Super Rugby.
I don’t think it takes much imagination to see a statement in two years’ time welcoming South African sides into an expanded European competition, but at the same time lamenting in very sincere terms, I’m sure, “the unfortunate inability to find time in the calendar for a Rugby Club World Cup to be played.”
Simon Halliday’s EPRC successor would only need to be slightly more Euro-focussed, and this becomes reality.
The Telegraph in England gave an interesting look into possible timing and format and how it could work, but conceded several significant obstacles.
In pitting the Champions Cup top eight against eight sides from Super Rugby Pacific, Ben Coles lumped South Africa in with Europe from the get-go, but then lamented a lack of Japanese or Argentinean involvement: “Finding a way to involve both of those countries in the qualification process feels imperative given the upward curve both rugby nations have been on over the past 20 years,” he wrote.
Then there was the timing, with the suggestion that the Premiership, URC, Top 14 and presumably Super Rugby and everything else having to finish earlier in the required year to allow the Club World Cup to be played in June.
“That idea would require full cooperation from the different leagues, which may prove difficult diplomatically,” Coles concluded, in the mother of all understatements.
Coles’ analysis asked the right questions in the right open-minded way, and his overall conclusion was stinging.
“The idea seems more likely to happen than the World 12s, for example, but will still require copious amounts of bureaucracy in order to get all parties on board.”
And it’s certainly true that it would be fantastic to see the likes of Harlequins and Bristol going up against the strength of Leinster, Toulouse, the Crusaders, Queensland and so on. Find a way to include Panasonic and the LA Giltinis, and it would certainly look like a quality prospect. On paper.
On the field, and in the rugby calendar, however, it’s another prospect altogether.
Which is probably why the Irish Times headline summed up Halliday’s comments the best:
“Rugby Club World Cup looks more like a pipedream at this stage.”
It really feels like this latest development only edges the concept one step closer to its inevitable extinction.