Rugby Club World Cup looks more like a pipedream at this stage

Dive deeply into it and there are just too many obstacles in the way at present

EPCR chairman Simon Halliday believes a Club World Cup  is viable. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

EPCR chairman Simon Halliday believes a Club World Cup is viable. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Simon Halliday’s suggestion that a new tournament, the Club World Cup, could soon materialise is demonstrably lacking in detail and substance suggesting that in orientation it is more pipedream than pipeline project.

The former England international stepped down from his position as chairman of EPC Rugby on Wednesday having fulfilled the maximum of two three-year terms in the role. As part of his valedictory speech he noted the eight-year accord signed between the clubs and the unions in Europe.

He said: “This will guarantee the long-term future of both the Heineken Champions Cup and the EPCR Challenge Cup. At the same time, this will create clarity for the international and club calendar. From this new agreement, we are now working on the participation of the South African provinces and building towards a Club World Cup every four years which would replace the latter stages of the Heineken Champions Cup.”

The Club World Cup isn’t a new concept. It was pedalled by FFR president and vice chairman of World Rugby, Bernard Laporte, in April of last year during an interview with French newspaper Midi Olympique.

Laporte’s idea, which he said he’d discussed with World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, was for a 20-team, annual tournament comprising four teams each from the Pro 14, English Premiership and Top 14, six from Super Rugby and the champions of the US and Japanese leagues.

They were to be divided into four groups of five teams with quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final, taking place on six match weekends from late June through July. He went on to outline a re-jigged rugby annual calendar to accommodate club and Test rugby. The collateral damage according to Laporte would be the abolition of the European Champions and Challenge Cups.

He stated at the time: “The European Cup is magnificent, I was able to lift the trophy three times with Toulon and I know what it can represent. But let’s be frank, it doesn’t generate enough income. If we want to develop this Club World Cup, we have to find dates. Without the Champions Cup, there are nine weekends freed up.”

Laporte said that he has also spoken to English RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney and the French Top 14 clubs about his idea and that “all of them are excited by this project”. The fact that the clubs and unions subsequently signed an eight-year agreement in relation to the European club tournaments effectively consigns Laporte’s proposals to the rubbish bin.

Toulouse players celebrate their win in the Heineken Champions Cup Final against La Rochelle at Twickenham last May. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Toulouse players celebrate their win in the Heineken Champions Cup Final against La Rochelle at Twickenham last May. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Within those 18 months his idea has been superseded, the blueprint of an annual tournament swapped for one that takes place every four years. The European tournaments would no longer be scrapped; indeed according to Halliday, EPC Rugby would have a pivotal role in turning theory into practice.

His suggestion that the Club World Cup would be run off in April/May, the traditional dates for the knock-out stage of the Heineken Cup wouldn’t correlate with Super Rugby; for the last staging of the tournament in 2019, the quarter-finals took place on June 19th, the final in the first week in July.

The global harmonisation of the rugby calendar would be a prerequisite and given that it’s been on World Rugby’s agenda for several years without success it is impossible to see how a Club World Cup can pre-date that accord.

Casual background conversation regarding the tournament suggested that it might consist of eight European Champions Cup quarter-finalists and the same number from World Rugby/Rest of World. It would take place in one country over five or six weeks.

There is no way that the English Premiership, French Top 14 and URC would allow their top clubs to disappear for a month and a half, potentially to another part of the world, during the business end of the season.

It presupposes that unions and privately owned clubs across the two hemispheres could not only agree on a new global calendar but also settle on how sponsorship and television money generated by the new tournament would be divided up. The bottom line in a venture of this ilk is money.

Global private equity firm CVC Capital Partners might have an interest in acquiring a stake in a putative tournament given that they have spent northwards of €800 million in investing in the English Premiership, Six Nations Championship, November Test series and Pro14, now the United Rugby Championship.

On a slight tangential note it would be interesting to see what Heineken, the sponsors of the Champions Cup, would make of having their tournament hijacked once every four years.

World Rugby would have to sanction any tournament and might look for a slice of the revenue stream, albeit that they don’t directly involve themselves in the governance of the club game. Unless there is a unanimous agreement between the World Rugby executive, the relevant unions and privately owned clubs in England and France, it’s hard to see how the tournament will get off the ground.

It is being discussed but the only thing that seems certain in the foreseeable future is that it won’t take place ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

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