The congregation of leading executives within the global rugby fraternity to negotiate details for the much-maligned World Rugby Nations Championship in Dublin earlier this month presented a missed opportunity to discuss a more tantalising proposition.
When details of the competition were exposed by the New Zealand Herald, the annual Nations Championship initially drew criticism from all corners of the globe for diluting the prestige of the quadrennial World Cup and Lions tours, a lack of regard for player welfare and its exclusivity from emerging nations.
Although an updated version of the competition’s structure released by World Rugby presented a pathway for developing rugby countries to compete with tier one nations, concerns lingered about player burnout and the role that the World Cup and Lions tours would play within international calendar.
Complaints from the governing bodies of the English and French club competitions have added to the number of issues voiced worldwide, with their exclusions from negotiations creating a sense of disdain between them and World Rugby.
The extremely negative impact that this proposed Nations Championship has embedded within the rugby world makes it difficult to envision this new competition getting off the mark, despite World Rugby hoping for a start date of 2022.
Even if discussions in the Irish capital somehow satisfied the demands of all involved parties – which it hasn’t, as England continue to stand firm against World Rugby’s proposal amid fears of relegation from the Six Nations – the issue of diminishing the prestige of the World Cup would still be a prevalent concern of which that appears nigh on impossible to resolve.
While the promotion-relegation mechanism implemented by World Rugby in their updated competition proposal is commendable and some national unions have warmed to the competition concept, there remains fierce opposition against the Nations Championship from all stakeholders since its details were first leaked.
So much so, in fact, that it seems far-fetched for the tournament to get the green light from all national governing bodies by World Rugby’s self-imposed April 5 deadline.
Part of that can be attributed to the running narrative of the whole competition proposal by World Rugby since the idea of a Nations Championship first came to light, in that they are trying to fix or improve international rugby by providing more ‘meaningful’ fixtures in an annual competition format.
In reality, international rugby hasn’t been this strong in many years.
This year’s World Cup will have five genuine contenders to stake a claim for the title through New Zealand, England, Ireland, South Africa and Wales, and if Australia can resurrect themselves after a few abysmal seasons, then they will make it a six-horse race.
That’s a far cry from the 2015 edition of the tournament, when the All Blacks were streaks ahead of any other nations in terms of experience and ability as they won their second successive crown.
Aside from perhaps an alteration to the way in which the game’s eligibility laws are structured – which has bordered on farcical as some players represent nations that they’d have no intention of playing for three-to-four years beforehand – and creating an equitable playing field for tier two nations like Fiji and Georgia, there is little to fix or improve in international rugby.
Rather than radically changing something that needs minimal work done to improve it, the attention that has been focused on the debacle that is the Nations Championship by World Rugby should instead be channeled into another side of the game that contributes significantly to the global calendar: professional club rugby.
Super Rugby, the Pro14, Top 14 and Premiership, as well as the Champions Cup, have provided the international game with a myriad of star players since those competition’s inceptions, while also giving fans a team to cheer for at a domestic and continental level.
Given the importance that professional club rugby holds in terms of preparing coaches and players for the step up to the test arena, as well as providing revenue to national unions and private owners who pay the wages of these coaches and players through the financial investment of fans, it’s saddening that World Rugby has neglected this aspect of the game.
While there is little that World Rugby can do to enhance the dynamics of each individual competition given it doesn’t own Super Rugby nor the Champions Cup and its feeder competitions, it could certainly provide more ‘meaningful’ fixtures for clubs without damaging the reputation of the World Cup and the international game.
Instead of trying to pursue a Nations Championship that has proven to be controversial and largely condemned worldwide, why has the concept of a Club World Cup not been explored by the global governing body?
It would be difficult to fit into the existing calendar due to the scheduling differences between Super Rugby, the northern hemisphere competitions, and the international test windows.
However, a condensed knock-out tournament between the semi-finalists from the Champions Cup and Super Rugby over a three-week period would be doable with some of re-jigging of fixtures prior to the July test window, which would suit teams from both hemispheres as that coincides – to varying degrees – with the end of their club seasons.
Such a competition would be unparalleled within the rugby fraternity, and it would yield plenty of interest from players, fans, broadcasters and sponsors as the best teams from both hemispheres compete to determine which club is the best on the planet.
It’s a far simpler concept to the current proposition on the table, leaves the integrity of the international game and World Cup intact, and possesses the potential to be extremely financially-rewarding for World Rugby, which was undoubtedly a major incentive for them to propose the Nations Championship in the first place.
Of course, a multitude of creases would need to be ironed out in order for a Club World Cup to get the go-ahead, and a host of stakeholders and any pre-existing concerns would need to be addressed, but the potential exists for this tournament to explode into a success.
Potential Club World Cup quarter-final fixtures (based on 2018 Champions Cup and Super Rugby placings):
Crusaders v Scarlets
Lions v Munster
Racing 92 v Waratahs
Leinster v Hurricanes
The Short Ball – The World Rugby Nations Championship Debacle:
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