As Sir Bill Beaumont and Agustín Pichot both vie for the mantle of chairman of World Rugby, it has become apparent how strikingly similar both candidates’ bids for the role are, despite being painted in a contrasting light, with the Nations Championship, or variations upon it, still at the heart of both men’s plans.
Described by one media outlet as the “dinosaur versus the dynamo” earlier this week, both candidates want the same thing – to grow the game – and many of their promises, such as creating a more diverse World Rugby Council, a global season, strengthening the nations of Tier 2 and below, and improving player welfare, are more or less identical.
Pichot has leaned heavily on the prospect of developing a video game that would rival household names such as FIFA, Madden and NBA 2K, and though something that would undoubtedly grow the sport, it remains to be seen how viable that is, without buy-in from one of the major developers. His latest idea is to incorporate rugby kits and emblems into Fortnite, as a way of engaging new fans. Whether that is a level of insight rugby has been missing, or patronising to assume players of the game could be swayed so easily, remains to be seen.
Given the similarities in their approaches, video game politics aside, it seems odd that Beaumont and Pichot would still cling so fervently to the idea of a Nations Championship, something which was arguably the most unpopular development of the pair’s previous tenures as chairman and vice-chairman respectively.
Whilst a great move for Fiji and Japan, who would have emerged from the Tier 2 pool of nations to join the stalwarts of the game in the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, it only further cut adrift nations such as Georgia, Uruguay, Spain and the remaining Pacific Islands. Their exposure to a higher standard of opposition would have vanished in an instant. No more trips to Twickenham, no prospect of the promised tours to the Pacific Islands by England and France.
Promotion and relegation may as well have not even been included, such were the permutations around the concept, which could not occur in a Rugby World Cup or British and Irish Lions year. Then factor in the varying trajectories of development that teams from the top league of the competition would have in comparison to the second tier and the prospect of movement between the two would be extremely slim, even for the most optimistic of critics.
Then you come to the Rugby World Cup itself, the biggest and brightest jewel in the sport’s crown. It is a competition which, for many nations and for World Rugby itself, keeps the sport living and breathing. If you start crowning the world champion every year, with the Nations Championship even having a semi-final and final stage, then you dilute the one thing that rugby arguably excels at, with little controversy or criticism, in this showpiece event. It is the one time the world is watching the sport, not just the hardcore and devoted fans, and you want to take away from that?
And yet here we are, with both candidates again pushing the concept, albeit both admitting that it would have to be a “revised” version of the initial proposal. Well, here is a potential revision, forget Tier 1.
Tier 1 nations are big enough and ugly enough to look after themselves at this point and the sustainability of the game in those countries should be down to their governing bodies. They’ve had long enough now in the professional era to know the way of things in this sporting landscape and how best to ensure the game flourishes within their borders. If they do not, that is, with all due respect, their own problem.
Both candidates want to grow Tier 2 and the global support of rugby outside of its heartlands, so focus the Nations Championship on those territories. Create a global and annual championship for those outside of the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, using the periods of those two competitions to play out the internal fixtures within the Nations Championship, whilst keeping the July and November windows free to continue playing Tier 1 nations.
In recent years, World Rugby made great strides in increasing the amount of Tier 1 versus Tier 2 fixtures moving forward, not to mention pushing for the Pacific Islands, Japan, Georgia and Canada all to host tours from Tier 1 nations. It is not worth sacrificing this for any form of Nations Championship, assuming the actual goal is to grow Tier 2 nations to the point where they can consistently compete with Tier 1 sides.
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A Tier 2 Nations Championship, consisting of Japan, Hong Kong, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Namibia, Georgia, Spain, Portugal, Uruguay, Canada and the USA initially could be based in a northern hemisphere nation for the first block of fixtures in February and March, before decamping to the southern hemisphere for the fixtures in August and September. Home and away fixtures are also an option, but logistically, especially if World Rugby funding is provided, bringing the competition to singular locations could cut costs for participating nations and create an atmosphere and excitement that only major tournaments normally provide. Depending on their respective hemispheres, they would then have international matches to host domestically in July or November.
What better way to force the Rugby Championship’s hand than to see Japan or Fiji excelling in this tournament and the tournament’s growth in terms of quality on the pitch and interest from broadcasters? Similarly, how do you show the Six Nations that Georgia or Spain are ready to come to the party? You let them showcase it in a tournament such as this, which would be a more competitive environment than Tier 2 sides are used to, as well as a route to grow fan interest and subsequently revenues and participation.
At this point in time, Japan should be a Tier 1 nation. They have the infrastructure, player pool and potential for growth that only a few Tier 1 sides can match, and why the Six Nations or Rugby Championship are not bending over backwards to include them is baffling. Give the Brave Blossoms three games in February against their Tier 2 rivals, and then the same again in July. Have them host sides in November and go on tours to Tier 1 countries in July. That is a formula, beyond their obvious Rugby World Cup successes, to show everyone watching that they are ready for more.
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In 10 or 15 years’ time, that’s what we could also be saying about Spain or the USA if given a pathway to sustainable growth, rather than being further cast out by a Tier 1 cabal, which is essentially what the Nations Championship would have created in its former guise.
If financially viable, a Tier 3 championship below that could be formed, or regional tournaments could take place, with a centralised playoff, as teams such as Brazil, Russia, Romania and the Netherlands compete to join the Tier 2 competition.
Neither Beaumont nor Pichot can afford to dismiss or anger the Six Nations and Rugby Championship nations, as they are, after all, the kingmakers in this election. That said, a plan to push forward and grow the game at the Tier 2 level, potentially in this revised form of a Nations Championship, is not something that would adversely affect them. In fact, the Six Nations would almost certainly support the concept, as it would allow them to continue with their championship in its current format, one which has been proven to work, engage fans and in turn be extremely lucrative.
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There would potentially be less support from the Tier 1 nations of the southern hemisphere, with the Rugby Championship, commercially at the very least, sitting very much in the shadow of the Six Nations. The original Nations Championship was viewed by plenty in the southern hemisphere as a way of getting a slice of the money on offer in the northern hemisphere. Any significant move to strengthen Tier 2 financially through a designated championship could, perhaps, even be seen as a threat by the SANZAAR unions.
With those unions reportedly backing Pichot in the upcoming election, Beaumont is positioned perfectly to push for a Tier 2 Nations Championship, should the growth of the second tier and below be something that he really wants to achieve.
Both Beaumont and Pichot have described the Coronavirus outbreak as an opportunity for rugby to reset and realign, and, amidst the chaos it is causing, they are not wrong. This is an opportunity for rugby to get its ducks in a row and move forward more harmoniously, but that is not an excuse to rehash bad ideas that were rightly condemned.
Rugby is a small sport and the only way it can be sustainable in the long-term, in a marketplace dominated by football and US sports, is if it grows. The old Nations Championship concept was not one of growth, it was one of ringfencing and protecting interests. This proposal for a Tier 2 Nations Championship might not be the answer, either, but it is certainly an improvement on what came before.
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