Tomorrow, World Rugby will announce the next Chairman to lead the game for the next four years. Regardless of who wins, the election campaign between Beaumont and Pichot has unleashed the debate on the state of rugby from Pandora’s Box. Rugby has truly found its crossroads. It can continue to serve the interests of the ‘Big 10’ in the form of the Six Nations and The Rugby Championship. Or, World Rugby can look beyond the horizon to the rising sun of Japan in the East to the sleeping giant of the United States in the West. There are a plethora of nations looking to make the leap onto the world stage. At the Rugby World Cup we witnessed Uruguay topple the Flying Fijians in Kamaishi. Whilst in the Rugby Europe Championship, Georgia are on a fourteen game unbeaten streak with a +68 try difference over the last three tournaments. If these nations are to continue their development, a role needs to be found for them.
At RIL, we have proposed an opening up of the Six Nations and an expansion of The Rugby Championship. There is already a pathway of promotion below the Six Nations in Europe with four tiers consisting of thirty-two teams. However, there is no pathway to the peak of Europe’s Everest. For Georgia, it is like climbing to Hillary’s Step and being told they can proceed no further. Understandably, Georgia and the likes might not be quite ready to make the final climb into the Six Nations. Therefore, a straight promotion-relegation should remain off the cards for the moment. However, Georgia and Italy have met just twice since 2000. Both matches were played in Italy and both matches were kept within two converted tries. How can a team like Georgia develop if they rarely have the chance to play tier 1 sides? Equally, how can we expect Italy not to stagnate if they don’t have the hot coals of Georgia burning at their feet? The solution should be in the form of a playoff match between the team that finishes at the bottom of the Six Nations and the team that finishes top of the Rugby Europe Championship. There are a number of benefits from this game:
- Revenue – Money raised from the playoff match can be invested back into the two respective sides allowing them to compete with the richer unions.
- Development – Italy have become the whipping boys of the Six Nations. They haven’t won a game in the Six Nations since 2015. A playoff match would give them a game they can win and prepare for. There will also be a greater incentive to try and avoid being the bottom team of the Six Nations. Equally, Georgia needs tougher opposition, as their unbeaten runs shows, and Italy would provide them with a match that is more competitive.
- An Open Europe – There would now be a pathway to the top of European rugby.
In the Southern Hemisphere we would suggest a similar solution but with an expansion of The Rugby Championship to six teams. This would initially mean adding Japan and Fiji. Despite Fiji providing many players to national sides and clubs around the world, over the last decade only two tier one sides have bothered to visit the Fijian Islands; Italy and Scotland. By adding Fiji to The Rugby Championship, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina will travel to the islands every two years, providing much needed revenue for the rugby mad nation. It is also worth noting that despite Argentina being ranked 10th in the world and Fiji 11th, they have only played each other once since 2000. The expansion of The Rugby Championship would provide revenue and an opportunity for regular game time against top tier nations. However, World Rugby should not stop there. They also need to look at developing a pathway into The Rugby Championship. Unlike Europe, there is no tournament structure below. Due to the costs of travel we believe the best solution would be to create East (Asia, Africa and Oceania) and West Conferences (Americas). The top of both Conferences would then have a playoff match and the winner of that would then proceed to have another playoff match with the team that finished bottom of The Rugby Championship. These proposals would provide a space at the top table for Japan and Fiji and provide regular competitive fixtures for the likes of Tonga, Samoa, Uruguay and the USA. This second tier to the Rugby Championship would be the first step. In the longer term, the vision should be to create further tiers below. In Madagascar, national games have attendances that are over 30,000 and there are 92,500 players there. World Rugby should be looking to bring these rugby outposts into the game.
It is not just the international game that needs nurturing. As the saying goes, ‘if you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves’. There should be equal focus on the club game. Currently there are four dominant leagues: the Gallagher Premiership, the Top 14, the Pro 14 and Super Rugby. Over the next five years, new leagues should be mentioned in the same breath. In the United States, after many unsuccessful attempts, it now appears that a successful league has been established in the form of Major League Rugby (MLR). MLR has now entered into its third season and is starting to attract big names including, Ma’a Nonu, Chris Robshaw, Ben Foden and Mathieu Bastareaud. Heading into the fourth season, in true American fashion the first collegiate draft will be held in June 2020. This is a whole new world for rugby!
On the other side of the Pacific, Japan’s Top League has been running since 2003. With Japan’s miracle match in Brighton in 2015 and the even greater success of a home World Cup, Japan is now on rugby’s radar. Players including Kotaro Matsushima, Kenki Fukuoka and Shota Horie have become World Cup stars and have plied their trade in the Top League. Now, clubs in Japan are offering lucrative contracts to some of rugby’s biggest stars, including Dan Carter, Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick. Sooner or later the Top League will begin to mentioned in the same breath as the four dominant leagues.
Whilst the MLR and the Top League have received increased publicity, one league that has proceeded entirely under the radar is the Top 12. Italian Rugby on the surface appears to have been tied to the Pro 14, yet when you look into the depths of rugby in Italy you will discover a fully functioning 12-team league. If Italian Rugby really wants to grow in popularity, the Italian Rugby Federation should invest heavily into this league rather than throwing all of its eggs into the Pro 14 in the form of Benetton and Zebre. A product needs to be created for Italian rugby supporters. It must be difficult for Italians to get excited about taking on a Welsh, Scottish, Irish or even a South African team each week. Instead, if you create a domestic league, rivalries can be built and a product can be sold to Italians to get behind. We have spoken to a rugby player out in Italy who has told us that the clubs of the Top 12 can be more attractive than the Pro 14. This is because the Top 12 clubs are not controlled by the Italian Rugby Federation, but instead have rich investors. The same player said that the Top 12 clubs “can pay better, attract bigger crowds and face less travelling.” Therefore the development of an Italian domestic league can help spur on the growth of the game in Italy.
The game of rugby is truly at a crossroads. The world is the oyster for the next World Rugby Chairman, whether that’s opening up the Six Nations, expanding The Rugby Championship, creating additional tiers to The Rugby Championship, or developing domestic rugby in the USA, Japan and Italy. The next Chairman of World Rugby must look to unlock these areas of the game. There is enormous potential. But to unlock that potential, new and brave decisions will have to be made. Maybe the ideas are the easy part. World Rugby has to embrace the opportunity and make a positive change.