World Rugby’s Nations Championship: the more I see, the more I like

The much-maligned ‘World League’ first reported in a media leak seemed to dash the dreams of World Rugby’s Executives overnight, uniting the international rugby public. But with the sport's governing body having their chance to introduce the ‘Nations Championship' and dispel inaccuracies, it could be the change rugby needs.

By Alistair Stokes
7th March 2019
By Alistair Stokes
7th March 2019

Before you cast your die and nail your colours to the mast condemning any such idea of a writer declaring themselves in favour of the Nations Championship, take a second to clear your mind. Even just for a moment, open yourselves to the idea that there is a chance this radical new project may well be for the better of the game itself.

A bit preachy, right? Well, this is the process I took after watching, reading and contemplating World Rugby’s chance to make their own deceleration and clarification yesterday afternoon, explaining their new international format after half-informed information was leaked.

Where before all I could see was an ill-planned, dastardly attempt to pump up revenues and shaft Tier 2 nations without any real consideration for the game as a whole, I am now of the opinion that this project could actually be a huge step forward for the natural growth of the highest level of the game by enticing new and potentially dormant audiences hiding in plain sight.

While admittedly there are numerous concerns surrounding the idea, including the risk of losing free to air (FTA) Tests and treating players like whipping boys and devaluing the World Cup, the Nations Championship could be natural and obvious next step in an ever-evolving sport’s lifeline.

There is a problem in rugby, and it’s a word many instantly associate with negatively. Revenue. Money, cash, profits. The sport’s governing body makes 90% of its income during a World Cup, the RFU made over 50 staff redundant last year, the Southern Hemisphere are struggling to keep their star players in the country and the Welsh and Scottish are facing the same battle. International rugby is not in what you can consider a complete clean bill of health.

If, as fans, we want the game to continue to be the best possible product it can be whilst simultaneously reducing the aforementioned turmoil and see all nations given a fair shot, the game needs to grow in appeal to a wider audience. The type of audiences that tune in during World Cups and Six Nations are the target demographic, while those yet to fully discover the sport – such as the ‘sleeping giant’ that is the US and Japan, amongst others – are also firmly in the picture.

But how do you attract these potential fans without alienating your current rugby-loving viewers and trashing the game they love? Well, it’s probably something like the Nations Championship.

We love the Six Nations, we love the Rugby Championship and we love the summer and November ‘friendly’ Tests. But would we love the two windows that are technically ‘friendlies’ even more if there was something bigger on the line? Well, I can’t see why we wouldn’t?

Alongside financial shortcomings, rugby has another problem, and it is to rugby as Kryptonite is to Super Man. We do tend to get stuck in our ways. The ‘blazer brigade’ cops plenty of flack for being immovable and counterproductive when it comes to the positive growth and change of the game, and while I wholeheartedly agree with this, we really shouldn’t throw gravel in our glasshouses while lambasting those throwing stones; or at least, we must be more open to realising from time to time we find ourselves hands deep in shingle.

Harsh? Potentially. But it’s very easy to be distracted from the potential of newly formed ideas by the world we have come to know and are comfortable in.

Last week we were united in the support of the Tier two nations when we believed they were being shut out for a whopping TWELVE years, it is not often sporting communities can be brought together in such a short time period. So when faced with an annual tournament of genuine importance and competitiveness that will allow these sides to have a shot at playing with the big boys - for up to eleven times a year once they earn their place in the rankings – why are we so dismissive all of a sudden? Well, I’d suggest a large portion of this is a product of the previous five paragraphs.

Of course, this is not the only reason for the mass disquiet. The ripples that could affect the Six Nations’ broadcasting situation, player welfare/burnout and the potential devaluation of a World Cup are genuine concerns and ones that I share. But we must remember that World Rugby’s proposal is exactly that, a proposal; and it feels like we the more we learn the happier we wil probably be.

The idea will have to be adjusted slightly and assurances will have to be made. It’s not perfect, but added competitiveness to a number of Tests that is actually unlikely to increase by a significant value might become one of our favourite aspects of the international game.

The first issue comes in the shape of the number of games international players must physically endure, with a potential of up to 13 games in a calendar year. The issue of every game suddenly becoming competitive and crucial brings with it an added intensity, stepping up the average demands on a player’s body.

While the increased intensity is without question an issue to be addressed, there is some logic to be seen in the number of annual fixtures in proposal.

Over the last five years - not including games so far in 2019 with the World Cup pool and knockout stages yet to come – the average number of games played by each of the Six Nations and Rugby Championship sides is 13, which would become the absolute maximum a side would face in the new proposed calendar, if they make it as far as the final.

There is a notable divide from Northern to Southern Hemispheres in the number of games played. But when treating the top sides under the same rules to find some semblance of a middle ground, most sides playing just 11 games per season is actually an improvement.

Teams Games Played Per Year
  2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
New Zealand 14 12 14 16 14
South Africa 14 12 13 13 14
Australia 15 12 15 15 13
Argentina 12 12 18 17 13
Ireland 10 15 12 11 12
England 14 13 13 11 13
Wales 12 13 14 11 12
Scotland 12 14 10 11 12
France 10 13 10 11 11
Italy 10 12 11 11 11
Average 12 13 13 13 13

As mentioned above, there are still genuine concerns that must be addressed if this proposal is to go ahead, but the calamity that initially ensued the ‘World League’ leak must be subsided and have little to no influence on rational thought and consideration of World Rugby’s actual plan.

Personally, I now find myself leaning more towards the idea of the Nations Championship. The more I hear about the idea from the horse’s mouth, the more I like it.

The Rugby Magazine

Filed under: Six Nations, Rugby Championship, Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, Wales
Written by: Alistair Stokes
Follow: @alistokesrugby · @therugbymag

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