World Rugby lays out radical plans for global international league

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Rugby’s world governing body has laid out its plans for a radical new international league made up of the top sides from the northern and southern hemispheres.

World Rugby’s proposed shake-up, variations of which emerged in reports last week, will pit the top six teams in each hemisphere against each other in a global tournament called the Nations Championship.

The expanded league, which will preserve the core of the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, will feature promotion and relegation from a second-tier international circuit.

World Rugby will present its idea to the game’s key stakeholders in Dublin, Ireland, next week in a bid to “build a better, stronger game for players, unions, clubs and fans.”

In the new format, the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship, which comprises New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Argentina, will be expanded with the addition of two more teams – on the basis of the current world rankings these would be Fiji and Japan.

The northern hemisphere’s Six Nations would initially remain unchanged, with England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, and Italy all competing for the title.

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Points accrued in their respective championships would be carried forward into enlarged conferences in which sides from the two competitions meet.

The top two teams from each conference would then enter semifinals and a final to decide the overall Nations Championship winner.

The bottom-placed sides in the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship would face playoffs against the top-placed sides from two lower international leagues, each with six teams, to decide promotion and relegation.

The competition would not run during World Cup years, and a shortened format will be adopted in years of the British & Irish Lions tour.

A third division will comprise 32 teams split into two conferences, with a pathway to be promoted to the second division.

Problems solved?

World Rugby’s move to clarify the organization’s proposals has come amid stinging criticism from both player welfare bodies, who have spoken out amid fears of player burnout, and the Pacific Island nations, who were initially reported to be excluded from a competition that was set to be ring-fenced to prevent relegation.

“Within the original proposal, players would play a maximum of 13 matches if their team reaches the final, compared to an average of between 12 and 14 Test matches presently,” a statement from World Rugby said. “Most teams would play 11 matches.”

Commenting on its stance on promotion and relegation, World Rugby argued that “under this model, the Pacific Islands and all teams outside the current Six Nations and the Rugby Championship would have a potential pathway.”

However, it added that “with the proposed model incorporating competitions that are not owned or run by World Rugby, not all unions are presently in favor of immediate promotion and relegation. We continue to consider the feedback, but remain absolutely committed to an eventual pathway for all.”

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With the competition not taking place in World Cup years and with promotion and relegation being excluded in years featuring a British & Irish Lions tour, the only opportunity to take part in the top divisions – either the Six Nations or the Rugby Championship – prior to the 2023 World Cup would come via promotion in 2020.

BRIGHTON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 19:  Ayumu Goromaru of Japan ceelbrates scoring the second try during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between South Africa and Japan at the Brighton Community Stadium on September 19, 2015 in Brighton, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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There will be no promotion playoff in 2021 because of the Lions’ tour of South Africa, while there will be no competition in 2023 because of the World Cup in France. Therefore, even if a country was to gain promotion in 2022, it would not play in the top tier of the Nations Championship until 2024.

This could also have a major effect on the makeup of the Six Nations. If the bottom-ranked nation in the European conference was to be relegated in 2020 and replaced by a tier-two team, the relegated country would not then have the opportunity to regain its place in Europe’s flagship rugby tournament until 2024.

‘Change is difficult’

World Rugby also hopes the Nations Championship will increase revenue to the sport through broadcast deals, as well as helping to attract new fans.

“Growing the sport’s fan base through more compelling competition is also vital as broadcasters will only pay more for a product that fans want to see,” the statement read.

“As part of the analysis, market research was conducted in the UK and France and more than 60 percent of people surveyed, who saw a video of the competition format, said the concept would increase their interest in international rugby, while only four percent said they would be less interested.”

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The statement concluded by saying: “Change is always difficult, and nobody expected complex multi-stakeholder discussions to be simple, however for a sport to grow and thrive, it must explore ways to innovate and evolve.”

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