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What a potential Club World Cup for rugby should look like

By Alex McLeod

Trending on RugbyPass

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If reports in recent days and weeks are to be believed, rugby could be on the brink of creating a revolutionary, and long-awaited, new global tournament.

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For years, fans have wondered which club team is the best in the world. Would the Crusaders replicate their dominance in Super Rugby against the might of European giants such as Toulouse, Leinster and Saracens?

That question, and many others, could finally be answered in three years’ time as speculation mounts that a Club World Cup could soon be added to the global rugby calendar.

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Former Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika talks about handling pressure
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Former Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika talks about handling pressure

Whether there is any room for such a competition in an already congested calendar, which isn’t even aligned between the northern and southern hemispheres, is a sticking point that springs to mind when discussing this proposal.

In saying that, it cannot be denied the concept of a Club World Cup certainly holds plenty of intrigue.

Following in the footsteps of FIFA’s Club World Cup and the ICC’s Champions League, the prospect of a World Rugby Club World Cup appears to have drawn the attraction of Kiwi administrators.

According to United Rugby Championship [URC] chief executive Martin Anayi, New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises are interested in throwing their collective hats into the ring in what is a promising sign for the tournament’s future.

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It comes after Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark voiced his excitement about the idea after having discussed the project with other franchise bosses for a year.

Anayi, who said his league is involved in discussions about staging a quadrennial Club World Cup, added that Rugby Australia’s Super Rugby teams are also keen on getting involved.

Others reportedly eager to get the tournament up and running include Top League chairman Osamu Ota, Scarlets board member Sean Fitzpatrick, Toshiba Brave Lupus coach Todd Blackadder, and Panasonic Wild Knights boss Robbie Deans.

To put the cherry on top of all the anticipation surrounding a potential Club World Cup, outgoing European Professional Club Rugby chairman Simon Halliday last week confirmed plans were advancing about bringing the competition to reality.

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All of this should be music to the ears of rugby fans worldwide, while the financial lure of the competition is also likely to be enticing for rugby’s leading figureheads.

However, to uphold the integrity of the competition, any iteration of a Club World Cup must include teams from every corner of the planet – or at least gives teams from all parts of the world a chance at qualification – to be a truly global tournament.

While the support and enthusiasm of this concept is encouraging, the apparent radio silence from English and French clubs in all of this hype may be a point of concern.

The Premiership and Top 14 are two of the richest and most powerful competitions in rugby and have some of the game’s biggest names in their ranks.

It is, therefore, imperative both of those leagues have teams participating in a Club World Cup from competitive, credibility and financial viewpoints.

At the very least, some kind of acknowledgement of getting onboard with the rest of the rugby world would alleviate any source of concern.

Perhaps the idea of splitting revenue with Super Rugby Pacific, URC, Top League, Major League Rugby [MLR] and Super Liga de Americana Rugby [SLAR] teams is off-putting for those within Premiership and Top 14 circles.

Or, as addressed earlier, it could be that there is a sense of uneasiness about the scheduling of the Club World Cup, which would require all of those competitions to be wrapped up simultaneously in order for the global tournament to be played in June.

That would enable the July tests to go ahead as planned every four years from 2024 onwards, but getting all the different leagues from across the planet to cooperate with one another, with their own self-interests at play, presents numerous difficulties.

Nevertheless, Anayi’s comments that there is a genuine interest in providing a pathway for the minnow competitions like the Top League, MLR and SLAR is positive for the globalisation of the tournament.

There is also plenty make note of from Halliday’s comments as he suggested the Club World Cup would effectively replace the latter stages of European Champions Cup in the years that the former competition is held.

In essence, it seems as though the eight teams that qualify for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup would progress to the Club World Cup rather than the play-offs of Europe’s premier club tournament.

That presents a big indication of what shape a prospective Club World Cup would take should it come to fruition, and it goes against the format proposed by Bernard Laporte in the lead-up to last year’s World Rugby elections.

The World Rugby vice-chairman suggested a Club World Cup could comprise of six teams from Super Rugby, four each from the Premiership, Top 14 and URC (then known as the Pro14), and one each from the Top League and MLR.

Laporte’s proposal came before the downfall of Super Rugby as it was known in April of last year, as the South African franchises have since shifted to the Pro14, thus creating the URC, while neither the Jaguares nor the Sunwolves exist anymore.

As such, gifting six qualifying berths to the revamped, 12-team Super Rugby Pacific, also featuring Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua, would be excessive.

Furthermore, the idea of 12 teams from Europe’s three main leagues competing at a Club World Cup appears to have been shot down by Halliday’s comments, which are indicative of a 16-team knockout competition rather than Laporte’s vision of 20-team tournament with pool play followed by a play-off series.

Based on what Halliday suggested, half of those 16 teams will be the best eight from the Champions Cup, but who would join the eight top clubs from Europe remains to be seen.

As already mentioned, filling the remaining eight spots with Super Rugby Pacific franchises would be counterproductive to the credibility and globalisation of a Club World Cup.

However, qualifying berths for the semi-finalists from New Zealand, Australian and the Pacific Island-based competition reflects a more equitable spread of teams while allowing for representation from Japan, North America and South America.

With four spots up for grabs, the Top League, rebranded next year as Japan Rugby League One, would be worthy of claiming two of those berths given the growing reputation and star power evident in that competition.

That leaves two available spots to join the Champions Cup quarter-finalists, Super Rugby Pacific’s semi-finalists and the finalists of Japan Rugby League One, and those could be handed to the champions of MLR and SLAR.

In doing so, teams from each continent have a chance of featuring on rugby’s global stage in a four-week, straight knockout competition that pits Europe’s best against the rest of the world.

Possible Club World Cup layout (based on 2021 competition results)

Champions Cup qualifiers: Toulouse, La Rochelle, Leinster, Bordeaux Begles, Clermont, Sale Sharks, Exeter Chiefs, Racing 92

Super Rugby qualifiers: Crusaders, Blues, Chiefs, Reds (based on cumulative points total in Super Rugby Aotearoa, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman)

Top League qualifiers: Panasonic Wild Knights, Suntory Sungoliath

MLR qualifier: LA Giltinis

SLAR qualifier: Jaguares XV

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What a potential Club World Cup for rugby should look like

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