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'It will kill rugby': Minnows feel shafted as World Rugby hails 'historic' revamp with exclusive Nations Championship

24th October, 2023
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24th October, 2023
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PARIS – The controversial and revolutionary Nations Championship, featuring the top 12 rugby countries, will go ahead from 2026 following a narrow vote in favour by the World Council, while Rugby Australia has been successful in a date change for the 2027 World Cup.

World Rugby chiefs Bill Beaumont and Alan Gilpin held a media conference in Paris early Wednesday morning AEDT to announce the Nations Championship and explain its format.

Beaumont said the Nations Championship was instigated because “if rugby is to become a truly global sport we have to make it more more relevant and more accessible to more people around the world.”

Gilpin, the WR CEO, hailed it as a “historic day” requiring a “huge amount of compromise” which finally delivered a “more relevant and compelling” global calendar 16 years after discussions started following the 2007 World Cup.

It was also announced that the next World Cup, in Australia, would feature 24 teams instead of 20.

Rugby’s powerbrokers agreed to Rugby Australia’s request to shift the start of the 2027 World Cup two weeks later than planned to give the tournament clean air after the NRL and AFL finals. It is thought European club owners, particularly in France, were initially resistant to the change due to its impact on their competitions.

World Rugby confirmed the dates for the Cup as October 1 to November 13, 2027 – the tournament length dropping from seven weeks to six with an additional four teams added.

The draw will be made in January 2026, to partially avoid the issues with a lopsided draw in 2023.

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The Nations Championship competition brings together the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams along with two other nations to be selected by SANZAAR (Japan and Fiji are understood to be the frontrunners for those places) in a competitive series that will be played in the existing July and November international windows.

It was reported that the World Council – representatives of the Test playing nations – voted 41-10 to pass the Nations Championship, with a minimum of 39 votes required for a two thirds majority.

The votes are heavily stacked towards tier 1 nations – and there were reports that both Georgia and Samoa from outside tier 1 voted to support the new competition, while Argentina, a tier 1 team, voted against.

“Certain countries will have their own views on matters,” said Beaumont. “If you look at it, [there was] quite a significant majority of votes in favour. You need a two-thirds majority – not a straight 50 per cent. 

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“I would like to think around the room there might have been a few dissenters but on the whole there was a pretty significant vote in favour of these new competitions.”

The series, to be held in alternate years so as not to impact World Cup preparations and protect Lions tours, will lock out tier two nations such as Samoa, Georgia and Portugal, who all made an impact at this tournament. The 12 top division teams will be locked in until 2032 when promotion and relegation from, and to, a second division would begin.

The series format will see a Grand Final played in Europe in November during the years it operates.

It is understood that the Wallabies will continue to play a two-match Bledisloe Cup series with New Zealand every year.

The new competition is controversial because tier 2 nations believe they will have fewer opportunities against tier 1 opposition. Several coaches and players made the point at the World Cup that they needed to face better opposition to prepare them for the finals, where there were many blow out scores.

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Last week, South America Rugby chief Sebastian Pineyrua told reporters the global competitions would only enrich tier 1 teams.

“It will kill rugby,” he told the Daily Mail. “It will be impossible to compete with those teams in four or five years. They’re going to go up and the others will go down.”

“Is it perfect? Probably not,” said Gilpin. “Is it a hell of a lot better than the current situation? Absolutely.”

Gilpin told reporters that the years when the Nations Championship was not being played would see crossover Tests played between tier 1 and tier 2 nations with an increase of those games of 50 percent. He said he hoped that would involve bigger countries travelling to smaller nations and a revenue share. However, no details were forthcoming on these crossover matches.

A new Pacific Nations Cup competition featuring some tier 2 nations will be launched from next year, in a way to ensure they play more Tests.

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“A new annual men’s 15s competition involving Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and USA will launch in 2024, reaffirming World Rugby’s commitment to increasing global competitiveness on the road to Rugby World Cups in Australia (2027) and USA (2031),” it said in a statement.  

“Approved by the international federation’s Council, the rebranded Pacific Nations Cup, which will be played in the southern hemisphere release window of August and September, will feature two pools of three teams – a North America/Japan pool and a Pacific Islands pool with each union hosting matches.  

“A finals series involving all teams will take place each year, where the annual champions will be confirmed. Japan and USA will host the finals series in alternate years, starting with Japan in 2024.”

World Rugby chairman Beaumont said in a statement: “We have seen at this Rugby World Cup just how the performance nations need certainty of regular access to top-level competition to be able to build, grow and deliver on the world stage.

“This Pacific Nations Cup competition helps address that need as we look to reshape the global calendar to deliver greater opportunity, certainty and equity. By 2026, these teams will have unprecedented high-level competition access.” 

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The Nations Championship is likely to mean the end of the traditional three-Test series in Australia every year by one international touring team.

Both Six Nations Rugby and SANZAAR released statements in July to the effect the Nations Championship had been agreed on.

Samu Kerevi of the Wallabies is tackled during game three of the International Test match series between the Australia Wallabies and England at the Sydney Cricket Ground on July 16, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The two governing bodies will own and operate the tournament, which will feature the ten sides over which they preside, plus the two invited nations. It is understood that expressions of interest will be taken by SANZAAR but that Fiji and Japan are the likely extra teams to form the top division along with the Six Nations sides, and the four Rugby Championship contenders.

The decision to lock out some countries from the top division until 2032 was criticised by Samoa during the current World Cup with fears their chances of improvement were hampered by being shut out of the Nations Championship.

Samoa coach Seilala Mapusua said after his team’s one-point loss to England: “Well, we wouldn’t see games like we saw tonight. It was a great contest between two proud countries. You’re basically seeing an expanded Six Nations and Rugby Championship.”

Asked what Samoa needed to improve, he said: “I’ve got a long list. The main thing is time together on the field, which means more games. It’s one of the biggest resources we don’t have. We have players across the globe, it’s always going to be hard.”

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However, Mapusua was quoted in World Rugby’s announcement of the Pacific Nations Cup series on Tuesday and a former Samoa player, Daniel Leo, suggested on X that the island nation might have helped vote the Nations Championship through

“I am excited at the potential of the expanded Pacific Nations Cup as it provides important high quality fixture certainty to grow and develop Manu Samoa,” Mapusua said in a statement.

“This means we will have more Test matches and more time together as a team which we have lacked in the past. This new environment will enable us to keep growing and developing as we look towards Rugby World Cup 2027 in Australia.” 

 (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Chile’s coach Pablo Lemoine was another who called out rugby authorities for a lack of support of minnows.

“People rave about the small teams putting up a fight, and everyone is thrilled to see Chile play in their first World Cup, but behind the scenes nothing changes,” he said.

“We have never played before at a World Cup. We are coming here and we are part of the show but we can’t play the game.

“We haven’t played that kind of game in the cycle between the World Cups. I hope that changes because it’s not good for the game or the supporters.

“Every game gives us positive things but at the moment we are only thinking about what happened today. The score is completely unfair.

“This is the reality of the tiers in the World Cup when you are playing against one of the top-10 teams. We play them every four years and we are facing tier 1 countries at the top of their form and they’re competing against themselves. It’s our reality but it’s a shame.”

He cited fellow South American squad Uruguay, which he played for, and who put in an impressive performance against Namibia.

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“People talk about Uruguay now, but we (Uruguay) were already at the World Cup in 1999. More than 20 years have gone by and nothing has changed,” he said. “Romania, Namibia, Samoa, Tonga … They were all present [in 1999]. Have they progressed since? On the contrary, they have declined.” 

His remarks won the backing of Argentina’s Agustin Pichot, the former deputy chief of World Rugby. In a message posted on the social media platform X, Pichot – who played with Lemoine in the early 2000s – said his former teammate was right to complain.

He told the Daily Mail he believed “the old boys club” of tier one teams were looking out only for themselves.

“You have the Six Nations in one corner and the Rugby Championship in another. It’s self-preservation, survival,” Pichot said. “The system is done to protect the core. They have to see that bigger is better but they won’t take that risk. But they are already at risk. They are in the red (financially).

“This is the rule of insanity — keep doing the same and getting the same outcome. What is the point of Uruguay arriving in four years if they don’t play one relevant game in that time? In the first week in 2027 (World Cup) they’re going to get smashed. Then they will have a decent game and everyone will say it’s great to see the colors and passion of Uruguay. It’s the same every four years.”

This is how World Rugby framed the changes to the men’s calendar in their release on Tuesday.

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First-ever global calendar for men’s rugby with new competitions and increased opportunity

  • Establishment of an enhanced global calendar for men’s rugby from 2026 with clearer international windows, including confirmation of the release window for Rugby World Cup 2027 (Australia).
  • Expansion of Rugby World Cup to 24 teams in 2027, providing more qualification opportunities for more teams and regional competitions.
  • Launch of a bi-annual new international competition from 2026, comprising a top division of 12 teams (Six Nations unions, SANZAAR unions and two further unions to be selected via a process run by SANZAAR), and a second division run by World Rugby of 12 teams with promotion and relegation commencing from 2030. Played in the July and November international release windows, it will provide crucial opportunities (and certainty of fixtures) for unions currently outside of the existing annual competitions, and in turn provide opportunities for unions and regional associations through to the second division.
  • The competition provides players and fans with compelling matches, to build audiences and value for all.
  • A significant uplift in the number of cross-over matches between unions in the respective divisions are included in the global calendar in the two other years, providing performance nations with annual competition certainty against high performance unions.
  • Launch of new annual expanded Pacific Nations Cup competition in 2024, featuring Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga and USA with home fixtures and Japan and USA alternating as finals hosts, guaranteeing a minimum of three additional matches a year in addition to the new international competition and cross-over fixtures.
  • The global men’s calendar provides additional clarity for elite league and cross-border club competitions, supporting value growth investment opportunities for all.

It also made the following statement on the women’s calendar

First-ever global calendar for women’s rugby with dedicated release windows

  • First-ever dedicated international release windows (regional release window of seven weeks and global release window of eight weeks) from 2026.
  • Clarity of release periods for club/league and cross-border competitions, to allow certainty of planning and investment.
  • A commitment to more effectively manage player load and welfare in the fast-evolving women’s game, working with all stakeholders
  • A framework to review the women’s global calendar and international competition structures on an ongoing basis to recognise that fast-evolving environment and opportunity.
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