The IRFU has reiterated its commitment to player welfare in the wake of reports that World Rugby is on the verge of introducing a World League format that has prompted a wave of protest from player reps.
Reports in New Zealand claim that a 12-team league involving the Six Nations representatives and their Rugby Championships counterparts, as well as Japan and the USA, would begin in 2020 with teams playing each other once in the calendar year.
As it stands, there would be no promotion or relegation, meaning the Pacific Island sides and countries such as Canada and Georgia would be frozen out for an initial period of 12 years.
The International Rugby Players (IRP) body highlighted six areas of concern:
IRP president Johnny Sexton, New Zealand’s Kieran Reed, and England’s Owen Farrell were front and centre in the ranks of the disaffected.
Sexton claimed the proposals are “out of touch” and complained of an absence of understanding as to the physical demands involved. Reed warned of weakened sides with fatigued players and diluted spectacles. Farrell touched on the club-v-country angle.
World Rugby responded with an expression of surprise at IRP claims that they had not been sufficiently engaged on proposals which the New Zealand Herald claims have been given impetus by a TV offer from an unnamed broadcaster worth €7m-€8m per union per year.
The global governing body declared an “unwavering” commitment to player welfare and claimed that some of the “assumptions” made in the reports as to what a mooted World League would entail were wide of the mark.
Most of the major unions kept mum.
“The IRFU will always prioritise player welfare,” it said in a statement to the Irish Examiner.
“We are aware of the concerns of players’ groups, and benefit from a good working relationship with representative bodies. We will continue to work with World Rugby to discuss all aspects of the game. However, it would be inappropriate to comment on rumour.”
Rugby Players Ireland said they “look forward to World Rugby further engaging with International Rugby Players on the issue”.
The IRP’s council, a body that consists of nearly 40 players and includes nine of the captains from the world’s top teams, discussed the proposals via conference call last Tuesday and the unity of their ranks has been notable since.
“This proposal shows no signs of improving an already difficult situation,” said Farrell. “Players are definitely open to discussing a new global season but what we develop has to work with the club game in order to reduce conflict, deal with player release issues, and make sure their welfare is looked after. The proposal presented to us at the moment doesn’t seem to have considered this properly.”
IRP chief executive Omar Hassanein accused World Rugby of failing to “genuinely engage” with players and respect their views. He said it will be interesting to see the governing body’s approach now that they know the extent of the player’s concerns.
The suggestion is that there has been an attempt to fast-track the proposal and rubber-stamp it as soon as mid-March but there have been warnings that it would all but kill the game in the Pacific Islands and present players everywhere with a choice of declaring for their clubs or their countries.
Under this proposal, there would be no means of satisfying both of those masters.
Opposition from players isn’t the only obstacle a proposed World League would face.
Existing TV and sponsorship agreements across various territories and time zones add to the complexities in introducing any all-enveloping entity into the Test calendar.
The Six Nations alone highlight that. Virgin Media has the rights to the competition through to 2021 in Ireland, for example, which would appear to be a hitch to any plans of instigating a World League with the backing of an “unnamed broadcaster” a year earlier.
The BBC and ITV share the rights in the UK for the same time period, and France Television and DMAX enjoy similiar rights in France and Italy. Add to this Guinness’ sponsorship of the tournament through to 2024.
The prospect of the Six Nations acting as a virtual qualifier for any other event would feel like sacrilege to supporters and it is likely any sponsor would think similarly.
Lets not even delve into the commercial realities involving November internationals, June Tests and the southern hemisphere. Four TV networks possess rights to Wallaby games in Australia alone.