Gerry Thornley: 'World League' could seriously devalue the Six Nations

Subsuming tournament in a new ‘World League of Nations’ would be fraught with danger

Under Agustin Pichot’s proposal, the League of Nations would bring the Autumn internationals, summer tours, the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship together into one annual league.

Under Agustin Pichot’s proposal, the League of Nations would bring the Autumn internationals, summer tours, the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship together into one annual league.

 

Tills at the ready.

Next weekend the annual jamboree that is the Guinness Six Nations – and the golden goose of the European game which generates over €100 million for the six participating unions – kicks off.

It does so to the backdrop of a meeting in Los Angeles on Monday, at the behest of World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot, at which the CEOs of all the tier one and tier two unions and federations were invited to attend.

Pichot was set to give a more detailed outline of his proposed “World League of Nations”. The IRFU chief executive Philip Browne was unable in person but was linked up to the meeting from Dublin, and it is understood the Union remain, akin to their fellow Europeans, relatively open-minded.    

Under Pichot’s proposal, the “League of Nations” would bring the Autumn Internationals, summer tours, the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship together into one annual league.

It has been reported that the unions and federations will be offered between €5.8million to €11.5million were they to sign up to the new annual tournament.

Pichot has vowed not to allow the demise of the global international game, but the threat is far greater in the Southern Hemisphere.

Pichot’s own Argentinian Rugby Union is one of the poorest in the game, largely because of the state of the country’s economy itself. The Australian Rugby Union and South African Rugby Union are constantly fighting against the tide, whether internally or externally, and the NZRU’s relatively healthy state is in large part due to the 2017 Lions tour.

While the introduction of Uefa’s League of Nations was largely a success, this was at least partially because international football friendlies had become increasingly devalued. Not so in rugby, witness the four full houses at the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham last November.

As in all these things, the devil will be in the detail. But one of the biggest concerns arising from the “League of Nations” is its likely impact on player welfare.

For example, countries would play a greater variety of opponents in their league, or group within a league. This will assuredly mean the end of three-match June series, to be replaced by three or four matches in different countries on successive weekends.

This would, in turn, almost certainly lead to more travel demands being placed on frontline test players, and perhaps mean travelling through different time zones. Imagine, for example, the consequences of Ireland (or any other European team) playing Tests on successive weekends against South Africa, Australia, Fiji and Japan, instead of three Tests in one country?

Less scope

The “League” may also incorporate one additional weekend in the November window and that would assuredly agitate the English and French club owners. There is also talk of semi-finals and finals which, on an annual basis, can only devalue the quadrennial World Cup. It’s also worth noting rugby has nothing like the same variety of competing countries as football has.  

Furthermore, no matter how Pichot and World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper dress it up, if every result matters in the context of a “League of Nations”, there will be less scope for coaches to experiment and thus rest frontline players.

It also remains to be seen whether a global “League of Nations” with the Six Nations as a component part, would thus heighten calls for promotion and relegation in the Six Nations, another of rugby’s great red herrings. For there really would be a better chance of turkeys voting for Christmas than the unions and federations voting for relegation from, and promotion to, the Six Nations.

Last year, the Irish, Scottish and Welsh Unions and the Italian Rugby Federation, were guaranteed in the region of €18 million from participating in the Six Nations, with prize money on top of that (which in the case of Ireland, amounted to circa €6.33 million for winning the Grand Slam).

As bigger unions presiding over bigger playing bases, for England and France their basic dividend was greater still.            

Such guaranteed revenue streams from the Six Nations underpins the professional and, indeed, amateur games in all six countries. Furthermore, guaranteed participation in the Six Nations must be inextricably linked to sponsorship deals, gate receipts, corporate hospitality etc, etc. For without it, the supporters and spectators wouldn’t be long walking away. And no amount of parachute payments could compensate for all of that. Nope, relegation won’t be happening any time soon.

However, you get the distinct impression that whether or not the “World League of Nations” comes into being, rugby is at something of a tipping point.

One equity firm has bought into the Premiership in England already and as the recent history of Formula One demonstrates, such firms don’t do this without expecting, and insisting upon, a return on their investments. They are not charities, doing this out of generosity, nor the first cousins of.

Bigger slice

The current free-to-air deals for television rights to the Six Nations expire in 2021, with new deals to come into place from 2022 onwards, and it’s increasingly hard to see how terrestrial television can continue to fund major international team sports.

One thing has remained constant though. The Six Nations is the biggest annual rugby competition in the world, by a distance. Those from the club game in Europe, and from the Southern Hemisphere, look through the window with envy.

Of course, the six European unions have an obligation to help out the rest of the world from time to time. But whatever about helping to generate a bigger slice from a bigger pie if, say, after five years of a World “League of Nations”, the Six Nations were to become more of a means to the new League’s ends, then it could become seriously devalued.

The Six Nations is a stand-alone success story because it is, well, a stand-alone tournament.     

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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