Rugby in danger of selling its soul with plans for world league

Racing's Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa reacts during the Top14 rugby union match between Castres Olympique and Racing 92 at The Pierre Fabre Stadium in Castres, southern France on February 24, 2019. (Photo by REMY GABALDA / AFP/Getty Images)

Is the dam on the brink of bursting? Is international rugby ready to sell its soul? The haste with which a proposed new 12-team World League is being introduced smacks of panic. There is even talk of the tournament running in 2020. Surely not?

If that does prove to be the case, then just three months after rugby’s newly crowned world champions have been crowned in Tokyo in November, the Six Nations championship will double up as the first leg of the new global tournament in a move that will only serve to dilute the importance of the World Cup itself in the long term.

Let’s be absolutely clear from the outset: this new proposal is all about money. Having toured South Africa and Australia on three test tours with Ireland in 2016 and 2018, along with spending a month on British and Irish Lions duty in New Zealand in 2017, it’s clear that the game in the SANZAR countries faces huge challenges, on a number of fronts.

The shrinking value of the South African rand, coupled with a quota system in selection, has pushed more than 200 South African players to ply their trade in Europe. In addition, safety has become an increasing issue, with former Springbok star Bryan Habana admitting it is a big concern for families living in an increasingly crime ridden society. Having former Munster full back Shaun Payne outline details of his kidnapping to me on that South African trip made that safety threat all the more real.

The game in Australia has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for some time, with the 2013 Lions tour helping to pay off AUS$68m (€42m) of ARU debts. The problem here is the Lions will only tour an individual country every 12 years. That’s not enough to address their issues and, six years down the line, the ARU are back in a financial mire once again.

Even New Zealand is suffering from a player drain as they cannot match the money available in England and France to even their best provincial players. The lure of the famed All Black jersey is no longer sufficient to keep the best young players in the country. Instead, the NZRU are happy for their leading lights to take a sabbatical overseas in the hope they will return in the year prior to a World Cup.

The bottom line is that the Super Rugby and Rugby Championship models in the southern hemisphere aren’t working. Too much travel for the players, too many one-sided contests, too much of a reliance on South Africa who generate 68% of overall revenues and not enough money overall to keep their players at home.

Perhaps the biggest alarm bell is the fact England’s RFU, the richest union in the game, is also facing major financial challenges after a £30m (€34.9m) overspend at Twickenham while, in Wales, the Ospreys are on the brink of extinction as part of a restructuring of the regions.

World Rugby is tasked with running the game globally and has always highlighted its responsibilities in promoting and developing rugby outside the top tier nations. With that brief, it also seeks to maximise revenues from World Cup tournaments hosted every four years as that is what funds the global game for the following cycle.

After the record returns generated by the RFU in hosting the 2015 event, there was a fear Japan 2019 wouldn’t raise anything like the same revenue, hence the pressure on making sure the 2023 tournament would be a cash cow.

Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 World Cup was scuppered primarily for those financial reasons. Once Bernard Laporte and the French Federation promised to raise significantly more cash than a potential Irish bid, we were history. In effect, the French bought the rights. That is why the leaked announcement last week of an elitist World League which completely ignores the aims and aspirations of Fiji - currently ranked ninth in the world - Samoa and Tonga, is hypocritical and will sound the death knell of the game in the Pacific Islands.

As a result, even more islanders will be New Zealand and Australia at a younger age, and end up playing under a different international flag.

When you think of the glut of world class second rows in the game at present — Brodie Retallick, Mario Itoje, James Ryan, Eben Etzebeth — none of them would have the capacity to match what the outstanding Racing 92 lock Leone Nakarawa achieved in being part of that brilliant Fijian Sevens side who won a first Olympic gold medal for the country in Rio three years ago.

When Munster face Edinburgh at Murrayfield next month, the biggest challenge Johann van Graan faces is in trying to subdue the influence of their ridiculously talented No 8 Viliame Mata, another Fijian gold medal winner.

The Pacific Islands continue to produce a disproportionate number of quality rugby players yet, through mismanagement from within and a lack of any real leadership and direction from World Rugby, the island nations have failed to come anywhere close to maximising their true potential.

In an international sport that has only produced four different World Cup winners and is short on any real depth in the number of sides that can dine at the top table, the lack of progress in providing a real pathway for the Pacific Islanders, Georgia, and others is shameful. This latest proposal is potentially fatal to the game in these countries.

Since leaks in the southern hemisphere surrounding the proposed world league last week, and the resulting fallout from all quarters, World Rugby has gone on a face-saving exercise, with chief executive Brett Gosper and chairman Bill Beaumont seeking to defuse matters by calling a hastily arranged meeting with interested parties in Dublin later this month. Oh to be a fly on the wall at that.

Gosper has said that there will be promotion and relegation in the new league which, when it comes to the Six Nations, is simply not going to happen. The SANZAR Nations have no problem with that concept as there is no way they are going to lose out to Japan or the USA.

That is not the case with the Six Nations, where there is a probability of one of the big home countries being relegated at some stage, so there’ll be no turkeys voting for Christmas on this issue.

For all kinds of reasons, I can’t see this proposed new World League happening with either the haste reported or in the format suggested. While the game at international level is clearly in need of radical surgery, especially in the southern hemisphere, there are too many obstacles to be negotiated for this new offering to reach fruition just yet.

The whole issue of player welfare as addressed by the Players Association president Johnny Sexton would have to be sorted along with the impact the increased travel schedule would have on domestic and European club competition. Having a June test window as part of the World League would also prove the final nail in the coffin for Lions tours, despite suggestions to the contrary by Gosper.

Perhaps the most salient point was articulated by New Zealand captain Kieran Read. “Fans want to see meaningful games; they don’t want to see fatigued players playing a reduced quality of rugby as part of a money-driven, weakened competition that doesn’t work for the players and clubs,” he said.

The fact that Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa are now threatening to pull out of September’s World Cup is certain to focus the attention of World Rugby’s committee pretty quickly, given that the pool draw, television broadcast deals and schedules are all in place. As a result, I suspect that further developments on this proposed new global format will be suspended until after the World Cup. This one is set to rumble for some time yet and could get pretty nasty.

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