Six Nations countries a long way from backing World League
Sexton says the issue of player load needs to be properly understood in any talks
Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale scoring against the All Blacks last November. Under the new World League proposals, Ireland would face each of the Rugby Championship countries at least once every year. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Reports suggesting a World Rugby League has been agreed by all 12 participating countries and will begin in 2020 are liable to prove premature. Whatever about the proposed World Rugby League coming into being any time soon, it’s highly unlikely to happen next year.
The league, which is the brainchild of World Rugby vice-president Agustin Pichot and CEO Brett Gosper, has some support within Sanzar, but is a long way from receiving the backing of the Six Nations countries for starters.
According to leaked proposals, the 12-country competition would see the USA and Japan join New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina in a revamped Rugby Championship, with each team playing each other once ala the Six Nations.
These two competitions would be supplemented by the teams from the Six Nations travelling south to play against three different opponents in July. The Rugby Championship teams would then play the three opponents from the northern hemisphere who they hadn’t hosted that summer in the ensuing November test window, with the top four countries contesting the semi-finals and the final at the end of November/early December.
According to a report in the New Zealand Herald, a broadcaster has tabled an offer which would earn each of the competing countries circa €6 million to €8.4 million. While that could conceivably be so, the Herald’s claim that the league “has seemingly won universal support from the 12 nations who will be involved” is not the case at all, according to sources within the IRFU.
Pichot and Gosper have met and discussed their proposals with the CEOs and key figures in the relative unions and federations, but far from supporting their plans for a World League, the Six Nations have all raised their concerns about the concept, uppermost amongst them being player welfare.
Aside from the logistics of a new World League, the Six Nations, while open to discussion and keen to retain a collective approach by the leading rugby nations, also have reservations about the potential impact of the league on the game’s existing showpiece international tournaments, and specifically the Six Nations, the World Cup and Lions tours, as well as the Rugby Championship.
The manner in which this league is being foisted upon them, seemingly at any rate, will have further antagonised European unions and federations in advance of World Council sub-committee meetings to be held in Dublin around the conclusion of the Six Nations, at which this proposal is sure to dominate discussions.
Nevertheless, the mix of pronouncements by Pichot, Gosper and others, along with reports in the media, sufficiently alarmed the International Rugby Players (IRP) organisation to conduct a conference call on Tuesday, and subsequently issue a strongly worded statement airing their grave concerns, specifically with issues regarding player welfare.
IRP president Johnny Sexton said: “While players gave this idea a cautious welcome when we met at the end of last year, it now seems like a commercial deal on the future of the game is being negotiated at a rapid pace, with little consideration given to the important points we raised with World Rugby in November.
“The issue of player load has never been so topical. However, it needs to be properly understood. To suggest that players can play five incredibly high-level test matches in consecutive weeks in November is out of touch and shows little understanding of the physical strain this brings.”
The proposed World League, as outlined in the Herald, would exclude the three Pacific Nations as well as other aspiring countries for 12 years, which prompted Samoa captain and player council member Chris Vui to comment: “For countries in this bracket and for Pacific Islanders in particular, our biggest issue has always been the ‘club versus country’ factor. We feel that a 12-year deal is not workable, particularly when it presents no hope of advancement during that period.”
The IRP CEO Omar Hassanein confirmed that these views have been conveyed to World Rugby on several occasions.
“World Rugby are failing to respect the players’ views and genuinely engage on the issues. It will be interesting to see their approach in the coming weeks knowing the current proposal does not have the players’ support”.
The players’ reaction in turn prompted a response from World Rugby on Thursday which expressed its “surprise” at the manner the IRP had expressed its concerns giving regular consultation.
“World Rugby’s commitment to player welfare matters is unwavering, and we will continue to engage and give full consideration to the welfare of players within the ongoing discussions,” the organisation said in a statement.
“It is important to note that some assumptions made in the statement regarding the proposed competition structure are inaccurate, and that important matters such as playing load and emerging nation opportunities are at the heart of constructive dialogue on the overall concept.”
Pichot also distanced himself on social media from the proposed World League as outlined this week, not least in intimating that he was “still fighting” for the concept of promotion and relegation. “I will never support a league that doesn’t have a pathway for emerging nations,” he said.
The sheer logistics of all the participating nations agreeing, and putting into place, a World League makes it well nigh impossible for it to come into being as early as next year. For example, the existing broadcast deals for television and radio coverage of the Six Nations with the BBC, ITV, Virgin Media, NBC and others all run until the conclusion of the 2021 tournament.
The view within the Six Nations is that Sanzar and its financially more troubled unions are in greater need of the increased TV revenue which would come from a pooled broadcasting deal for a World League.
Sanzar’s existing five-year broadcasting deals with Sky in New Zealand, Fox Sports in Australia, Super Sport in South Africa and others expires in 2020, and it is anticipated that a new deal would see a drop in TV revenue, which would explain their desire for a new all-encompassing World League.