Plans for a global Nations League are up and running again according to the Six Nations chief executive Ben Morel, who has said that an annual competition giving more meaning to the July and November Test windows could begin in 2024.
“We are really happy to be able, for the first time, create that series and present it in such a way,” Morel said at an Autumn Series launch on Tuesday.
“That’s thanks to the input of all the unions to create the right narrative for what are really fantastic matches. That for us is already a massive step forward as it’s never been done before. Also, making sure that the scheduling is right and limiting the overlaps as much as possible.
“Looking forward we are having a lot of discussions as to what could be the future of the international calendar when looking at July and November. That obviously needs to be compatible with player welfare and whatever adjustments we could make.
“We’re all pretty happy with what we have but that could be improved and whether that leads to a final or some sort of ranking that would be a positive to add. It is a complex matter but the Six Nations is playing a leading role in addressing that.”
As to when this ‘competition’ might come into being, Morel said: “It’s ‘24 onwards, I would say, that we are looking at right now.”
Morel was less revealing in outlining the specifics of any such competition but maintained that the existing July and November windows would effectively stay intact.
“Some kind of final is always exciting and what the fans would want to see but, at the same time, we need to make sure that all the unions benefit in terms of hosting matches at home and in a sufficient way to promote the game in their own country while being compatible with player welfare. So complex discussions but where there is a will there is a way.”
An annual Nations League has been flouted for years and World Rugby first gave real sustenance to the concept when unveiling its plans to the various Union chief executives and the International Rugby Players in September 2018, with the intention of starting it in 2022.
With the Six Nations, The Rugby Championship and British and Irish Lions tours to be ‘protected as jewels in the calendar’, the Nations League was to have a two-division format with promotion and relegation, and ‘a potential pathway for all unions’.
Two conferences were to comprise of the Six Nations and The Rugby Championship (two tier two teams would be added to the latter to make six in total, with Japan since becoming tier one and highlighted as a probable addition). Each team would play the other 11 teams once, either at home or away.
The top two teams from each conference would play cross-conference semi-finals, followed by a grand final. The competition, which would not run in a World Cup year and would have a truncated version in a Lions year, met with resistance from the Pacific Islands and leading players.
“Not only do we support it, we are actively at the table discussing what that can be,” Morel said today. “We believe that this would be a great further improvement, and we are definitely heavily involved in those discussions.”
The Six Nations chief executive did not envisage this will mean that next year’s July tours, such as Ireland’s three-Test tour to New Zealand and England’s to Australia will be the last of their kind.
“No, I wouldn’t say that. It depends on what the various outcomes will be on the various scenarios we’re looking at. At the same time, there might be different scheduling whether it’s a World Cup year or a Lions year.
“We are looking at a holistic solution and that will require the input of many, many stakeholders, and that is what is taking place, “ added Morel. “So it does take time. Patience and resilience are required, as well as willpower. We’re putting all our energy behind it.”
The notion of the Six Nations acting as one half of a proposed Nations League, with an expanded Rugby Championship the other half, would also make it unlikely that South Africa joining the United Rugby Championship is a precursor to them joining an expanded Six Nations.
“I don’t think it’s a question of what I would like or not,” said Morel when asked if he would like South Africa to join the Six Nations.
“It’s not currently a question. My understanding of it is that South Africa is committed to the Rugby Championship and at the same time, our focus right now is on the July and November windows and we believe that this could be a great platform to create global growth for the game, not just for our six unions and the Rugby Championship unions, but also for the rest of the countries involved in rugby.
“So the current focus is that. The Six Nations have added and reduced the number of teams in it in very few moments in its 140 years, so it’s something we would be very cautious of doing.”
This year’s Womens Six Nations was a truncated affair due to the pandemic but moving it to a separate window after the men’s equivalent, rather than the two running concurrently, would be retained.
“The specific window and showcasing of the women’s game and putting it in the limelight is something that we definitely want to continue.
“The Six Nations next year will be in a separate window, but coming back to its original format with five matches per union. So, that will be happening right after the men’s. We will be announcing the precise fixtures shortly.”