Damian Hopley has warned rugby chiefs they could face another backlash if they ignore the views of the world’s leading players in any plans to expand the Six Nations by including South Africa.
Hopley, chief executive of the Rugby Players Association which looks after England’s leading players, believes the failure of World Rugby’s plan for a Nations Championship which was due to start in 2022 should act as warning to those bidding to create a new-look championship in Europe.
Ireland captain Jonny Sexton, in his role as president of the International Rugby Players’ Council, last year led the chorus of disapproval from the sport’s leading players for the Nations Championship and Hopley is confident the united front delivered in the face of that threat to player welfare would be triggered by any change to the Six Nations that increases the demands on those taking part.
A Seven Nations, shoe horned into an already packed Northern Hemisphere schedule, would put extreme pressure on players with an expanded championship giving the competing teams just one week off.
If a team had their bye on the opening weekend of fixtures it would leave them facing six successive test matches without a break.
Hopley said: “If you look at the failed attempt at launching the Nations Championship by World Rugby, that effectively died a death when seven of the sport’s leading captains came out and said it wouldn’t work based on player welfare.
“That sent a very clear message that we are all partners in this game and everyone should be afforded that importance when you are talking about how the game operates. Clearly, the players’ voices are the most important because you want to make sure you have a team to run out there for the matches.
“You would expect there would be a strong player consultation going forward as you don’t want to go down the same road again because it becomes self-defeating.
“When the Six Nations has discussed moving to a six week schedule for the tournament there were concerns about player welfare, and Scotland were concerned about not having the strength in depth to be able to get a team through the intensity of that kind of six week window.”
The successful campaign against the Nations Championship showed the impact a united approach by the top players could have, and with a seemingly constant search by administrators for investment through new television deals, a number of new tournament scenarios are reportedly being discussed.
“The opposition to the Nations Championship was a massive step forward,” added Hopley.
“One thing that doesn’t happen enough around all of these ideas is player consultation, and we can get better at it.
“The 2019 Rugby World Cup was a massive success and the players had a huge role in that, and going forward on the back of what happened to the Nations Championship you would expect players to be consulted and I am sure they will have strong views.
“The players are pretty much aligned around tournament structure, player welfare and rest periods and trying to find a better formula.”
Watch: Eddie Jones warns against Six Nations expansion
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