Rugby is a game steeped in tradition and romance, however it is the same sentiment that holds it back from what it could become. The entire structure of the global game is built around where the sport has come from, and not where it is going; it is heading towards a major juncture in its history.
To my mind, many of the major contemporary issues revolve around the same base point; rugby is entrenched in its traditions. Until it can throw off the shackles of its past, it will never be able to embrace its future.
The two greatest junctures in the history of the sport have undoubtably been those that involve professionalism; the Great Schism in 1895, when the northern clubs ceded from the RFU and created the Northern Rugby Football Union; and in 1995, almost 100 years to the day of the first event, when the IRB declared Rugby Union an open game. When the sport turned professional, it caused a seismic shift that is still reverberating today.
The power within the game has shifted away from those who organise it, and gifted more to those that pay for it, and those that pay for it want more of the same. Competitions such as the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship pull in huge audiences, both at the stadiums, and on television. These competitions remain exclusive however, with smaller nations looking on in envy at the money generated in the top echelons of the sport.
Rugby is continuing to grow the world over however, not least in countries like Argentina, and certainly Japan where many players are choosing to play their domestic rugby. While the inclusion of Argentina in the Rugby Championship has accelerated their growth, it is clear that a burgeoning domestic game has had an effect on the progress of Japan, not least their victory over South Africa at the World Cup, and with the continuing influx of quality players to their league, who would bet against it continuing?
While both Argentina and Japan now have Super Rugby franchises, they certainly feel like they are shoehorned into a competition in which they don’t belong. With increased travel taking a big strain on players, and murmurs of imbalance between conferences, it remains to be seen how long they will last, and perhaps this shows a short term fix, where a long term solution is required.
It is clear that Japan are continuing to improve as a result of the quality players coming into their domestic league, but where can the national team go from here? The Brave Blossoms started 2016 with the Asia Rugby Championship, where they played Korea and Hong Kong, amassing 242 points over four matches, and conceding just 23. With the exception of 2002, and a South Korean victory, Japan have not failed to win the competition since 1992.
This success is reflected in Europe too; in the 14 competitions of the Europe Nations Cup since 2000, there have only been four occasions where both Georgia and Romania were not in the final, and indeed only one occasion where neither of them have won the competition. Where do these teams go from here? They have reached a ceiling, and without playing better quality opposition on a more regular basis, their skills will stagnate.
This takes me back to my origin comments; the tradition surrounding tournaments such as the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship stop rugby from developing itself as a global sport. The belief that the traditions of the sport can be accommodated for the future are a prejudice to the arguments of many; people don’t want rugby to change. In order to move forward however, it must. Moreover, it may have to take a step backward in order to take two forward.
One of the contemporary issues that I alluded to above, is the global season. To my mind, one of the key issues with the current discussion on this point is that the powers that be are trying to take pieces from different existing jigsaws to build a new one. Taking this further, how do we accommodate the Pacific Island nations into a quality competition; do they play in the Rugby Championship? Do Japan join the Rugby Championship? That could be four new teams, which adds more and more fixtures to an already turgid calendar. What about the teams outside those four?
How can the sport maintain full domestic calendars alongside seasonal tours and the major international competitions if they continue to grow in order to accommodate new teams? To my mind, we would go about building a global season differently if we didn't have preconceived ideas about the competitions it should entail.
I believe wiping the slate clean and building new competitions would perhaps be too much of an overhaul for even the most ardent supporter of change, and while it would mean throwing away an incredible amount of tradition and history, sometimes the right decision is the hardest decision of all.
Don’t get me wrong however, I love the Six Nations and the quality of rugby on display, but the competition in its current form ostracises any aspiring rugby nations in Europe, and is precisely one of the tournaments whose tradition holds back the wider game of rugby. For as long as it exists, rugby will never be able to thrive in Europe. Indeed I wonder sometimes at the level of disillusionment that must exist in countries like Romania and Georgia; when do they get their chance?
Well, in short, it won’t be anytime soon; the CEO of the Six Nations, John Feehan recently commented, ‘There's no vacancy. World Rugby have no input. Our primary role is not to develop other unions.’
So, it is clear that the Six Nations will continue to inhibit the growth of European Rugby, but what are the alternatives? Perhaps a European Championship style tournament, with qualification, or a pool system that would allow the inclusion of a wider pool of nations, though it would be important not to add too many more games to the calendar. The same could take place in the Southern Hemisphere, with a Pan-Pacific Cup that includes Australia and New Zealand alongside Japan, Korea and the Pacific Nations among others.
Another alternative, and a discussion that has slowly been gathering pace revolves around the inclusion of relegation into the Six Nations. This has also included talk of a playoff between the bottom team in the Six Nations and the top team in the European Nations Cup as an option. To my mind, this only opens the door enough for the nations of Europe to sneak a peak at the top of the game. It remains as isolationist as if there was no playoff or relegation. Even relegation, to my mind, does not go far enough.
Hypothetically, if relegation was introduced, we could justifiably assume that Italy would be the team to go down. We could, equally justifiably, say that given their exposure to top level rugby, they would win the secondary competition and be promoted the following year. In short, aside from the to-and-fro of Italy, one nation would get a crack at the big teams once every two years; it would most likely be Georgia.
Does that help anyone outside the top 5 nations in the slightest? In truth, it might lead to an even greater rift between the ‘them and us’ that already exists, you just throw Italy into the mix too.
I go back to one of the points I talked about early on; the big downside to disrupting the current calendar with the removal of traditional fixtures, and this includes summer and autumn touring too, is the financial toll this will take on the Tier 1 nations.
The average attendance per match for the Six Nations remains the highest for any sporting event in the world, and the rivalries that have built up over the duration of the tournament ensure the these remain strong. Removing the yearly battle for bragging rights amongst supporters will undoubtably have a substantial impact on the revenues created within the sport, but would the same numbers still turn out for a match between England and Belgium, or New Zealand and Korea?
To begin with, almost certainly not. Give it time however, and as the smaller nations begin to provide better quality opposition, the crowds will grow. Indeed, while the Tier 1 nations will perhaps take a short term financial hit, their loss of revenue will likely be shared out amongst the other nations included in the competition, which helps strengthen their ability to provide quality opposition in the future.
And so this brings me back to my belief, as heretical as it is, that for the greater good of rugby, tournaments such as the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship should be axed in favour of more inclusive tournaments. As I said, I love the Six Nations, but we can’t continue to think about ourselves; something needs to change. While the immediate disruption caused by these changes will undoubtably be monumental, the long term gains for the wider rugby world and the sport as a whole are well worth fighting for.
Though in all likelihood, nothing will change. Rugby will continue to be what it was; it will be a long time before it looks back and realises it has stubbornly taken the longest path to its future.