In what could be World Rugby’s most game-changing play since the introduction of the Rugby World Cup in 1987, plans for an annual ‘League of Nations’ tournament show the governing body’s intent to keep the international game on top.
According to reports out of France, the days of the Southern Hemisphere’s annual end-of-year tour schedule could be coming to an end. That’s all thanks to plans to institute a yearly, 12-team international tournament based around the Champions Cup format.
On one level, the plan has plenty of merit. Rugby Union remains one of the few professional sports in which the international game remains the big cheese, the top of the pops, the revenue generator for those with power over the purse. It is the aim of every player to take the field for his or her nation, and the aim of World Rugby to retain a tight grip on the sport, but the introduction of the World Cup has rendered the ‘in-between’ years somewhat redundant.
That’s not to say the traditional tours have become meaningless. For the players and the teams involved there is always a peppering of patriotism about these things, a reductive romanticism that remains rugby union’s Mills & Boon in the age of streaming porn. However, no series – perhaps with the exception of the quadrennial Lions extravaganza – can compete with the World Cup for interest. The annual series have been relegated to canapé contests to quell the rumbles before the carving of the roast.
Despite the convenient invention of world rankings, an anally retentive algorithm is a poor substitute for the extrovert’s choice: the zero-sum bet of the knock-out contest. Why bother with the mathematics of rankings when you can see the blood stains on the canvas? The indelible evidence of victory and defeat, winner takes all.
The caring, sharing types at World Rugby have also envisaged a year-about crossing of the equator, spreading the fever of the global game faster than an Avian Virus. The top twelve teams, in four pools of three, with semifinals and a final. Quite enough to have the fans’ temperatures soaring. The only thing missing is the economic impact report, but it can’t be far away. This is professional sport. It’s’ all about economics.
And therein lies the rub. Is this a genuine play to ensure test match rugby’s standard stays aflutter atop the mast of rugby’s flagship, or is this a semaphore signal to union’s burgeoning bourgeois ownership that the traditional fleet shall fire a few shots in order to protect its waters? Maybe it’s a bit of both.
The European game is now a battleground state in which the blitzkrieg of private investment has punched a hole in the punched leather loungers of the stolid national unions. Cronyism is rarely a match for capriciousness, and while some owners have been cheered on as they have marched down the cobblestones, others have been merely tolerated while a necessary resistance can be organised. That resistance seems to have found shape in these plans.
World Rugby are right to think outside the traditional touring model for something that gives the fans more than a morsel. The World Cup, in all its tattooed glory, has become international rugby’s singular song in a chorus of club competition. For test match rugby to survive and thrive, it needs annual, regular, easy to understand tournament play.
Quite how the governing body will get buy-in for this scheme is another matter altogether. The All Blacks tests against England and Ireland are windfall events for the host unions and one would be overly optimistic to think either the RFU or IRFU would be willing to forfeit their own receipts in an overt gesture of global altruism. It would be an even more interesting question to ponder the cost for nations like New Zealand for whom All Blacks gate takings are resuscitative revenues for a body that cannot hope to compete long term with the wallets of the aforementioned club owners.
So many questions.
One answer though: yes, there is life in the international game yet. Yes, there must be life outside the World Cup. And yes, maybe, just maybe, this is something that could give the ‘inbetweeners’ the new lease of life they require.
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