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FEATURE The rich will get richer when the Nations Championship kicks off

The rich will get richer when the Nations Championship kicks off
11 months ago

It’s certainly not a bad idea for the world’s major nations to be looking at ways in which they can add a bit of meaning and context to the July and November Test windows.

These two parts of the rugby calendar have sat a little like derelict wasteland amid the architecturally designed Six Nations, Rugby Championship and World Cup.

Since the game turned professional, no one has really come up with a good idea how to structure Tests between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere nations.

Everyone has, perhaps strangely, been happy to leave it all to chance and randomly determine the schedule years in advance, never knowing what sort of state each nation will be in by the time things play through.

Some years it works brilliantly and others it doesn’t. In 2021, the All Blacks finished their November Tests with a game against an in-form Ireland and then went to Paris a week later to play an even better French team. It was the teams ranked first, second and third in the world and it made for compelling rugby.

100 days to go <a href=
Rugby World Cup Gilpin” width=”1920″ height=”1080″ /> France hosted the All Blacks in an epic game to sign off the 2021 Test season. (Photo by Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

Just as the July format of playing a three-Test series in the South provided amazing entertainment last year when the Irish were in New Zealand, England in Australia, Wales in South Africa and Scotland in Argentina. All four series went down to the wire and the drama was amazing.

But then there have been quirks that haven’t made life so interesting. Such as the All Blacks playing England four times in 2014, but not again until 2018. Or the fact that Scotland haven’t played in New Zealand since 2000.

The lack of certainty has made it hard for casual fans to fully invest in the sport and for the major national unions to harness the full commercial value of Test rugby.

When confirmation came early this week that the Six Nations and Sanzaar have now agreed to begin what will provisionally be known as the Nations Championship from 2026, it was a breakthrough moment.

This concept – the details of which are still to be worked through but will essentially see the Six Nations sides, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and most likely Fiji and Japan play each other in a two-year cycle – has been kicking around since 2019.

We saw an opportunity to, every two years, do something interesting around bringing all the teams together.

NZR chief executive Mark Robinson

A similar plan back then, which had a reported $10bn guarantee of broadcast income behind it, was scuppered when an agreement couldn’t be reached about allowing for promotion and relegation.

That initial plan wanted to build a second competition for emerging nations that was similar in format and would give the likes of Georgia, Chile, Uruguay, Samoa and Tonga regular rugby, but also the hope of knowing there was a chance to make it to the next level.

Without that, it felt like the emerging nations would be cut off from any opportunity to develop their full potential and the gap between them and the established elite would only get wider and ultimately never be bridged.

Four years on, an agreement has finally been reached – and for the 12 participating countries, the Nations Championship is not only going to deliver a huge broadcast windfall, but also give the fans something more structured and meaningful.

“We saw an opportunity to, every two years, do something interesting around bringing all the teams together,” New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson says. “We could create some more tension around those games in July and November and have a global champion at the end of it, in a slightly different format to what we see at the World Cup.

Robinson NZR CEO Moffett
New Zealand Rugby have thrown their support behind the Nations Championship concept. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“It provides the fans something to [use to] compare the two hemispheres and how they’re tracking throughout the last six months of any given year. We think it would be fascinating and there will be some great storylines around it.

“Over time, hopefully it grows the strength and identity of a real competition. When you look at the next five years for the All Blacks, with the Lions not long after the next World Cup, it’s a pretty exciting time for our players with the level of competition coming.”

No one would dispute Robinson’s claims that the future looks great for New Zealand’s players and fans. It also looks much better for the union itself, knowing that it will likely bank anything up to another $40m a year in broadcast income from the Nations Championship content rights.

But two questions have emerged in the days since confirmation came that the Nations Championship has its green light.

The first is the issue of player welfare. The All Blacks, for example, will play 15 Tests next year and this number will likely become the norm for them.

When the Nations Championship begins, the November Test window will extend to four weeks, which means that if the All Blacks make the final, it will give them a week less recovery time before the 2027 season kicks off.

At the start of the professional age, the All Blacks played a record 10 tests in 1996. Now they have seen that number increase by 50 per cent.

Also, the period in which these games will be played has shrunk – in 1996 they played 10 Tests in six months, whereas in 2024, they will play 15 in five months.

When the Nations Championship begins, the November Test window will extend to four weeks, which means that if the All Blacks make the final, it will give them a week less recovery time before the 2027 season kicks off.

For South Africa, Argentina and Fiji, the problem is yet more severe as their players are now linked into the European club season but Southern Hemisphere international programme.

Many of them are now playing year-round, leading former All Black and current International Rugby Players’ Association head of welfare and high-performance, Conrad Smith, to say recently: “That needs to be addressed as it is leaving some players with no rest periods across a 12-month calendar, which in a contact sport is crazy.

RPA representative Conrad Smith (left) has expressed some reservations about the Nations Championship. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“We want a minimum [rest] period for every player. No one should be arguing with that – but with the current way things are, that’s not what is seen because it’s not written anywhere, so the players fall through the gaps.

“We now have South Africa – a well-established nation – with players in the URC, effectively a Northern Hemisphere competition, but they have a Southern Hemisphere union who play in the Rugby Championship. It’s just not working.”

This is why IRPA has only given the Nations Championship tentative approval. It likes the concept but needs to understand how player workloads are going to be managed.

And the second issue is how many opportunities will be open to the emerging tier of nations in this brave new world.

Robinson says: “There’ll be a similar concept stood up as soon as reasonably possible — hopefully to hit 2026 as well — and that’ll give the emerging nations the opportunity to not only get more regular competition among themselves, but then step up and have that right to play promotion-relegation.”

With so much money and opportunity attached to the Nations Championship, the Island nations have little prospect of being able to persuade dual-qualified players to reject the All Blacks, Wallabies, or Japan.

But the danger is that by 2030, with the financial inequity that will inevitably develop between the elite 12 and everyone else, it will become hard to realistically promote an emerging nation.

It’s a valid point to question whether, in seven years, a nation such as Georgia will have the ability to compete against the likes of Ireland, France and the All Blacks given the disparity in wealth and lack of access to topflight fixtures.

As for the likes of Samoa and Tonga, it’s almost impossible to imagine they will be able to hold on to their players and be in any position to graduate to the Nations Championship.

They are barely managing to do that now as evidenced by the continuing selection trends within the All Blacks and Wallabies.

There are six players in New Zealand’s Rugby Championship squad who were born in either Tonga, Fiji or Samoa and one-third of the players identify as Pasifika.

The new competition could spark bad news for the likes of Samoa. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Some of this is simply a reflection of the wider socio-demographics of New Zealand, but it also alludes to an increasing number of school-age Islanders being sent offshore to try to fulfil their rugby dreams.

Australia have picked 16 players who identify as Pasifika, and there are seven Tongan-born players in Japan’s squad.

With so much money and opportunity attached to the Nations Championship, the Island nations have little prospect of being able to persuade dual-qualified players to reject the All Blacks, Wallabies, or Japan.

This is why IRPA released a statement about the Nations Championship: “The ‘Nations Cup’ is viewed as an exciting development across the July/ November window that the players’ union has put its weight behind, subject to meeting appropriate standards of welfare as well as increased opportunity for emerging nations to strategically grow the game.”

It would seem that rugby can take one large step forward with the Nations Championship, but the sport needs to be careful that it doesn’t soon after take two bigger ones backwards.


Scott 344 days ago

There are more NZ- born and raised players playing for Samoa and Tonga than Samoan or Tongan born players (all who come through the NZ rugby system by they way) that play for All Blacks.

And all of the Pacifika heritage All Blacks (most NZ- born by the way) will now play for Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga once their All Black careers are done.

Jon 345 days ago

A weird artcile that finishes by saying this could be a large step forward but tries to come up with every negative.

We need to listen to release of SANZAAR and hold them accoutnable rather than worry. The rest of the world conference (that will compete against europe, rather than realistically be NH v SH) could invite all 3 pacific nations (Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji) before relegation kicks in in 2032. WR will also be able to pitch in and help these nations secure young talent for u20 WC's, conceivably even NZ and Aus would have the depth to coordinate with these nations to spread talent evenly over these tournaments (being a factor in the 'invitational' selection process). These nation's will continue to have access to international players that decide to leave NZ and Aus's shores (think PGS or Leicester Fainga'anuku) in future. You will see the example to this later in the year were both Tonga and Samoa will surpass the other two in my expectation. If the financial windfall is as influential as feared then it could even be enough to see all Pacifika talent playing locally.

Back to this article though, I think the real fear is it failing. In its beginning implementation it will play like the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition did, except that (as i've seen some commentors adamantly post) if the final is between one of each conference, we could have a final of 1st seed playing 4th seed (as would have been in SRTT) and no one is going to get behind that long term. The same is true for relegation, were Wales, Scotland, and Italy might not win a match. Who do they choose to relegate? And why should a world side that beat all 3 have to fight against relegation? Hopefully its not as imbalanced as that (though we have clearly seen it as the case in the past with SH domination, and even just recently one might have expected England to join Ireland and France in an unbeaten season) but I feel it would make much more sense to also have the invitational sides squeezing in games against the RC teams (easily done but possibly onerous on the invited sides) to make it a full roundrobin.

My initial delight with the Nations Cup idea was that the 6N's sides had agreed to relegation with the assurances that the members would still receive revenue from their 6N share. That it was the whole reason for ownership belonging to the both comps. Hopefully there is still desire to head in that direction by 2030/32.

Jeremy 346 days ago

As rugby fans we should be excited about this, I reckon. A league format is a much fairer way to determine the best team in the world than a world cup, and this will give two tier two nationals the chance to play consistently meaningful games against the big teams.

Spew_81 346 days ago

International rugby needs to survive for the second tier international teams to flourish. The Nations Cup should be seen as part of the battle between national unions and clubs.

National unions are losing players to overseas clubs at an increasing rate, they need more money to hold onto their players. How will pacific rugby grow if the NZRU and Rugby Australia can’t afford to keep their better players? Rugby won’t grow if the only solvent competitions are in Britain (not so much at the moment), France and Japan.

If the second tier international unions want to develop their own competitions they need money to pay the players. Once the second tier of the Nations Cup is established it will provide the money required to set up their own competitions.

carlos 346 days ago

Gregor, it’s always about the money.

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