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'Rebel isn't a word I'd used for this': 12s boss fights his corner

By Liam Heagney

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Former England rugby boss Ian Ritchie has insisted Tuesday’s launch of a new World 12s tournament isn’t a rebel action mirroring some previous attempts to corner a piece of the rugby pie. Ever since rugby voted to go open in 1995 and become a fully-fledged professional sport, there has been regular stories about interests outside World Rugby trying to force their way into the market.


World Rugby has somehow managed to retain its authority as the sport’s overall global ruling body, but its ability to fuel the game financially has often been questioned and the launch of an ambitious World 12s tournament that aims to create revenues of £250million in five years is the sort of innovation that World Rugby has been accused of lacking. 

Backed by an anonymous UK-based financial consortium that is bankrolling the 12s concept, Ritchie, the ex-RFU boss who was also in charge of Premiership Rugby, has now re-emerged as chairman of World 12s where is joined by non-executive directors, ex-New Zealand union boss Steve Tew and former Welsh union boss Gareth Davies. 

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Matt Dawson and Mike Brown on their favourite rugby memories
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Matt Dawson and Mike Brown on their favourite rugby memories

Their ambition is that the tournament, set to be played for the first time in England next August, will feature 192 men’s players from tier one and tier two nations to be picked via auction to represent eight franchises consisting of squads of 24 who will be overseen by established coaches – and they are adamant that the event complements the existing global calendar and not detract from it. 

Finding support will be an interesting challenge. It’s one thing to row in Steve Hansen and Jake White, a pair of World Cup-winning coaches, as ambassadorial cheerleaders and quite another to make the concept work with the unions and clubs that pay the stay players their wages and who control what they can and can’t do.

A veteran of numerous meetings regarding the global calendar and other regularly troubling issues affecting the progress of rugby, Ritchie was adamant that World 12s should be regarded by World Rugby and other governing bodies as a friend, not a foe and he insisted he was looking forward to the negotiations ahead to make the new event happen with rugby’s global stars reporting for duty. “We want World Rugby approval whether we formally or officially need it,” he said at the virtually held media launch.  


“This is a collaborative venture so we very much want to engage with World Rugby, we want to engage with the unions and the clubs so this is something we want to achieve in an agreement. Rebel is not a word I would use for this. This is not a rebel. Most of the people on the call would not necessarily describe themselves as rebels. This is something we want to do on a collaborative and friendly basis and that is our objective.

There are a lot of stakeholders and this is the beginning of the process. We want to consult. We have talked to some people in advance of this, but that is only the beginning of the process. We all know that the calendar and player release are going to be issues of difficulty but the overwhelming point is does rugby need to embrace change, embrace innovation? 

“What we are wanting to do now is start the serious process of further negotiation and consultation. Some people that we have spoken to undoubtedly see how positive an idea this is. Many people said this when I first raised it with them, ‘We have been waiting for this for rugby and that is the general view’. So what we hope is people will listen to change with an open mind, will recognise the positive nature of what we are bringing to the party here and will engage and embrace. 

“When you introduce something into most sports, that change is difficult to achieve but it is right to start the process now, to begin the serious business of talking and getting an agreement… we think we stand a good chance of getting that done. 


“We think that getting eight franchises, getting 192 of the world’s best players and eight of the world’s best coaches into a format is going to be truly exciting. The difficulties are there. I speak with feeling having sat in global calendar discussions over the last few years. We know how difficult it is but testament to our two board members, Steve Tew and Gareth Davies, we hopefully can enter those conversations and get a result. All innovation has its challenges, has its difficulties and this is the start of the process. This is an idea really worth progressing for rugby.

“Everybody I speak to in rugby loves the game. I hope everyone would recognise this is a seriously good idea to try and promote it. We need to make it sufficiently financially interesting to get them involved and get them to agree. This is a voluntary situation. This is not something that falls in the international window. 

“We have no ability to force people to agree with this. We have two things: Isn’t this a cracking idea, isn’t this something that rugby should be doing? And by the way, we recognise totally that you need some financial recompense in order to release the players and for the players to play. I absolutely get all of that and that is what we need to try and develop but all of us on this call think this is really worth a shout.”


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