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06 Mar 2019

World Rugby: This is our new championship plan; no one said it would be easy

World Rugby, rugby union’s international governing body, today issued a detailed statement on the concept of its proposed new World League or ‘Nations Championship’, in a bid to stem a damaging flow of headlines reflecting apparent consternation over the proposal among some of the sport’s stakeholders, especially the smaller, ‘tier-two’ unions.

The proposal was made, World Rugby said, after it was “tasked by unions last May to examine the feasibility of competition structures that had the potential to reinvigorate the July and November windows.”

The statement added: “The current rugby broadcast market is complicated, which impairs the overall ability of the game - including players, fans, unions and clubs - to realise its full potential. World Rugby is undertaking this important work on behalf of our unions to secure the long-term growth and stability of the sport in an ever more competitive sports and entertainment environment.”

Last week, it was reported that the proposed competition would be limited to established northern hemisphere Six Nations and southern hemisphere Rugby Championship sides, along with USA and Japan, with ‘tier-two’ emerging European and Pacific nations excluded from the competition for at least 12 years.

The reports led to accusations that the proposal was purely commercially-driven. There were also concerns over player welfare as a result of the extra demands that the new championship would place on them.

However, in today’s statement, World Rugby responded: “It is incumbent on World Rugby to champion and represent the whole game, not just the top of the game, and we are committed to working with our union and player representative colleagues to ensure an equitable solution that works for all.”

The proposed model, World Rugby said, is as follows:

• “Nations Championship to debut in 2022
• “The 6 Nations, The Rugby Championship and British and Irish Lions completely retained and protected as jewels in the calendar
• “Two-division, merit-based format with promotion and relegation and a potential pathway for all unions
• “Two conferences comprising the 6 Nations and The Rugby Championship (where two tier two teams would be immediately added to make six in total)
• “Each team plays the other 11 teams once either home or away with points accumulated throughout counting towards a league table
• “Top two teams from each conference would play cross-conference semi-finals, followed by a grand final
• “Running in two of the four years in the Rugby World Cup cycle (not running in a Rugby World Cup year and truncated version in a Lions year)
• “Broadcast rights aggregated and collectively sold, increasing revenue potential. Possibility to centralise some sponsorship rights
• “The competition would provide qualification and seeding for future Rugby World Cups
• “Rugby World Cup to be enhanced as the pinnacle global event, potentially moving to 24 teams in 2027.”

The statement added: “Player welfare is fundamental to our sport. 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. Most teams would play 11 matches.

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

“Contrary to reports, our proposed competition provides opportunities for all teams to compete at the top level on merit, with promotion and relegation. Under this model, the Pacific Islands and all teams outside the current 6 Nations and The Rugby Championship would have a potential pathway. With the proposed model incorporating competitions that are not owned or run by World Rugby, not all unions are presently in favour of immediate promotion and relegation. We continue to consider the feedback, but remain absolutely committed to an eventual pathway for all.”

The plan faces possible resistance from the Six Nations, the latest competition to be linked with an investment from CVC Capital Partners, the private equity firm that paid £210 million ($269 million) for a 27-per-cent stake in Premiership Rugby, the body which oversees English rugby union’s top league.

Negotiations are reported to be under way between the Six Nations and CVC, after earlier reports that the unions which compete in the tournament are in advanced talks about pooling their rights for Six Nations and autumn home international matches against touring sides, mostly from the southern hemisphere.

The World Rugby model is based on all of the leading test nations pooling their broadcasting and commercial rights, a proposal that would be negated by the new sets of Six Nations talks.

However, World Rugby’s statement concluded: “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.”