Players must flex their muscle to make World Rugby take note

Union president, our own Jonathan Sexton, described aspects of the new calendar as “out of touch”.

Four years on and the decision by the International Cricket Council to cut the number of teams for their blue-chip World Cup from 14 to 10 still manages to induce a volume of bile that shows no sign of abating.

And the stench from that betrayal will reach toxic levels this summer when the showpieces plough ahead in England and Wales, while nations like Ireland — who have given the tournament some of its best moments in modern times — now on the outside looking in.

Defeats of Pakistan, England and the West Indies ultimately counted for little within the game’s political boundaries and the disillusioned words of Ireland captain William Porterfield on hearing the original decision back in 2015 still strike a chord.

“To have a door seemingly shut in your face is frustrating,” he told the BBC. “I can’t get my head around it. Not only me, but a lot of high-profile players like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Mahela Jayawardene.”

The logic, as everyone knew, was money. The 2015 tournament lasted six weeks and involved a marathon of 49 games. The 2019 edition will need the same stretch of the calendar and involve just one game fewer. The big difference is that the Indias and Pakistans and Englands of this World Cup will be guaranteed nine games apiece as opposed to a half-dozen.

Cricket’s run for the money should have inured us to this type of thing by now, but the revelations about World Rugby’s planned World League had the entire game trying to get their ‘head around it’ yesterday.

If correct, the sheer disinterest in player welfare and nonchalant stab in the back for some Tier Two nations would amount to a nakedly brazen act of utter greed.

World Rugby, like all corporate entities, likes to dress itself in flattering terms. Its vision is ‘a sport for all, true to its values’. Its mission: ‘to grow the rugby family’. It’s core values include solidarity, respect and integrity. So why were we hearing suggestions that the Pacific Island nations and the likes of Georgia and Canada were being left in steerage while others were to be flown first-class?

With no promotion or relegation in this reported 12-team league, these Tier Two countries would be consigned to a permanent status of second-class citizens. Aayden Clarke, CEO of Pacific Rugby Players, declared it would be the death of the game in the region.

The injustices are painful. An Italian team ranked 15th in the world would be ushered in for the brandy and cigars. A Fijian side that has worked its way up to ninth, despite all their logistical and financial issues, would be fed on scraps at the tradesman’s entrance. And this for a minimum of 12 years, by which time the have-nots would be so under-nourished as to be no threat at all.

That was just one of six issues highlighted by the International Rugby Players yesterday. Another red line was the imposition of so much more strain on players who are already shedding too much blood and breaking too many bones on the field.

Union president, our own Jonathan Sexton, described aspects of the new calendar as “out of touch”.

“Delusional” and “dangerous” would have worked, too.

“Player welfare is the number one priority for World Rugby and its unions and I believe that we are at the forefront of the sports movement in the important area of injury prevention and management,” said World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont.

That was just 24 hours before this story broke.

Such words are always cheap, but they would be stripped of all value under the World League terms as reported. Rugby has been haunted by the spectre of concussion and the general wear-and-tear of the modern game and the hope now is that the players know the strength of their hand and make use of it.

The coordinated manner of their response yesterday would suggest they do and they are. It’s just 18 months since Billy Vunipola warned of a possible player strike in England if their domestic season was extended. What that episode (and this one) reminds us is that the powers-that-be tend to prioritise finance over both fairness and player welfare until it is made clear that their bluff has been called.

“It’s not about money, it’s about the toil we’re put through,” Vunipola told The Times in 2017. “Something is going to give. Something might happen where we follow the NFL or NBA, where they had a lockout. Something needs to happen for the suits to realise these guys are serious.”

Their response yesterday felt like it was at least the start of something.


Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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