Rumours have sprung up this week out of France to suggest that there could be a large scale shake-up of international rugby on the cards.
The proposed change would introduce an annual tournament between the top 12 teams in the world, split up into pool and knockout stages.
Whilst there have been cries for change for the last number of years, these requests have typically been to better align the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere seasons at both domestic and international levels – which begs the question: what does this ‘World League’ hope to achieve?
Having an actual trophy to fight for come November does add a little bit more of an incentive to winning the end of year tests, but the potential tournament does seem to be geared more towards giving some extra game time to the Tier 2 teams that have been starved of regular, high-quality opposition.
Whatever the purpose of the tournament, we have some questions that need to be answered before we can really buy in to this potentially massive change to the game.
How will the teams be decided?
If rumours are to be believed and the competition will be battled out between four pools of three, it will be curious to see how these twelve teams are decided. If it’s based on world rankings, then at present you would see the five home nations, the Rugby Championship teams and Fiji, Japan and Tonga competing in year one.
The world rankings, of course, are fluid by their very nature, so it seems unlikely that these twelve teams would be guaranteed permanent places in the competition. Using the rankings would mean that the competition would have new nations involved every year, with the Pacific Island teams, Japan, Italy and the Tier 2 European teams likely swapping places regularly.
Of course, if the tournament takes place every year then we would hope to see the competitors for each year’s competition confirmed as early in the piece as possible to avoid scheduling issues. As it stands, most international fixtures are at least partially locked in a year or two before the matches take place – with many of the June tours finalised at the start of the World Cup cycle. Scheduling would certainly be considerably easier if the competing nations remained constant from year to year, but this throws up a number of other problems.
With the expectation in place that the competition would change Hemispheric host each year, one other possibility is to include the core nations every year (i.e. the home nations and the Rugby Championship teams) and then bring in other sides based on where the competition is located.
Perhaps when England host the competition we would see the likes of Italy, Georgia, Romania and the like taking part, with the Pacific teams getting involved when the competition is hosted in the Southern Hemisphere.
Whichever way the competition goes, it’s important that we aren’t left with the same old teams competing every year, continuing the sequence of the strongest teams growing stronger and the Tier 2 nations being left out in the cold.
How to avoid international rugby growing stale?
The Six Nations attracts a huge audience year after year. Say what you will about the quality of the rugby on display, but the competition is always a tight affair and pundits will pay ample money to watch from the stands or from their couches at home.
The Rugby Championship, in contrast, is stuttering along with questions regularly asked about what value there is to the tournament.
Although there is the odd upset from time to time, it’s almost a given every year that the All Blacks will take out the trophy. Arguably the biggest difference between the Rugby Championship and the Six Nations is the level of competitiveness. Rarely is it easy to call who will win the Six Nations before the tournament commences.
There are other problems too.
Australian fans are dwindling, rumours emerge every second week that South Africa are considering other options, and Argentina have finished bottom of the log in almost every championship they’ve taken part in.
Arguably, the most exciting international matches in the calendar are the tours in June and November – and that’s largely because of their novelty. When the same teams play each other year after year, you can’t help but get a little bored. Though we’ve seen the odd quirk in the schedules (for example, Australia playing England four times last year), the current timetable has meant that we’ve seen at least some variation between matches from year to year.
Any sort of World League must preserve the variability of the one-off international matches; if New Zealand and England play each other every year, the fixture will lose some of its lustre. Signs so far point to a knockout style tournament – which should at least ensure that we’re not seeing the same teams playing one another all the time. Any sort of tournament would have to maintain this structure to guarantee that matches are still savoured by the fans.
What does it mean for the World Cup?
Simply put, a World League would completely undermine the current World Cup setup – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When considering the teams who are actually capable of winning the World Cup, there are only really three matches at most that matter – the finals.
It’s almost a given that New Zealand, South Africa and the other true contenders will always make it out their pools (though let’s not forget England 2015), which means the pool stages of the competition are all but pointless. Given how low the overall standard is, some of the pool matches barely even count as legitimate warm ups.
With the very real possibility of World Cup expansion on the cards and dilution of quality all but guaranteed, maybe it’s time that a new competition is introduced that really pits the best against the best? That’s not to say the we shouldn’t maintain the World Cup as showpiece tournament, bringing in countries from all over the world and growing the game, but there’s certainly room in the calendar for a real ‘champion of champions’ tournament with only the highest quality allowed to compete.
Perhaps the rumoured competition is merely that – just a pipe dream conjured up by some higher ups to create a bit of a stir. One way or another, we’ll hear from World Rugby soon and the picture should clear up. Regardless of what happens, any new World League style competition will need to put a few people’s fears at ease before it can be rolled out.
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