Proposals to form a World League and expand the Pro14 tournament to include more South African teams pose more questions than answers, writes JON CARDINELLI.
World Rugby has had to put out a few fires over the past week. According to CEO Brett Gosper and vice-chairman Agustín Pichot, rankings will determine which teams feature in the 12-side World League – if the tournament gets the green light at all – and the promotion-relegation option remains a key part of the proposal.
The Pacific nations, as well as other ambitious tier-two teams like Georgia, will have the chance to win a seat at the big table.
And so we’re back to the biggest issue with the proposal: player welfare.
Some have cited a potential five-Test stretch over November and early December – for the two teams advancing to the final – as seriously problematic. It’s hard to imagine what sort of shape the southern hemisphere sides might be in at that point, considering the demands associated with a revamped Rugby Championship staged across four – and possibly even five – continents and an even more taxing Super Rugby series.
The big southern hemisphere unions are reportedly keen on the idea. SA Rugby, in particular, is in desperate need of a cash injection, and the World League promises to deliver a big payday for the nations involved in the 12-team tournament.
What would that league cost the respective unions in other areas, though?
A lot of rugby is played up north. More than a few South African players have spoken about the gruelling workload that accompanies any big contract at one of the top French clubs. The brand of rugby is attritional and can take a heavy toll on players over a three-year period.
That said, those who play their club and Test rugby in the north don’t have it as tough as those based in the southern hemisphere with regards to travel. They don’t journey as extensively during the Six Nations and club tournaments.
England went to Cardiff by bus ahead of the clash against Wales. Ireland’s three-hour flight to Rome for a Test against Italy is as gruelling as it gets in that competition.
Compare that schedule to a long-haul trip to South America or Australasia. The Super Rugby teams are expected to negotiate those challenges on an annual basis, and the draw usually affects results and ultimately their final log position.
The same is true of the Rugby Championship, and South Africa, in particular, have faced a significant hurdle since the advent of the four-team competition in 2012. No other side has had to play three-consecutive Tests overseas in a four-week period.
Consider what a revamped six-team Rugby Championship might look like. It’s bad enough that the Boks will only play the All Blacks once a year – and the result will be shaped by where that game takes place. The Boks could well follow up a trip to Australasia with a stop in Japan.
This tournament has had its problems since it was introduced in 1996. And yet the home and away schedule has ensured that every team has had to travel a similar distance and combat similar challenges.
Does this competition have a future, though?
The introduction of Argentina has compounded the travel issues. Every year, we hear rumours about SA Rugby’s plans to leave Sanzaar and take its top Super Rugby sides – and possibly even the Boks – north.
This week, there was a report in a Welsh publication suggesting that the Pro14 plans to expand and include the likes of the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers. Two of these teams could join the Europe-based tournament as early as next year, with the 2020-21 season commencing in September. South African teams wouldn’t have to worry about adjusting to different time zones when travelling abroad for matches.
What would become of SA Rugby’s deal with Sanzaar? Would we see the top South African teams competing in the northern hemisphere club competitions and the Boks continuing in the Rugby Championship?
Would we see each team’s resources split, with one team competing in a ‘Pro16’ and another in the Currie Cup, as has been the case with the Cheetahs over the past two years? That course of action certainly hasn’t benefited the Cheetahs.
We’re unlikely to see the World League getting the green light any time soon. Reports from the north suggest that the member unions of the Six Nations have their own plans for the future, and have no need of a league that could detract from the British & Irish Lions tours and the World Cup.
The biggest stumbling block is the English and French clubs, with the latter already dictating the release of players during Test windows and showing a blatant disregard for World Rugby’s Regulation 9.
So why bother discussing and debating a new tournament or a significant move away from the same old annual competitions?
The game is in trouble, particularly here in the south. It needs something new that will bring back the audiences and align the hemispheres.
World Rugby and indeed all the member unions also need to start putting their money where their mouths are with regards to player welfare. A new format and ultimately a global season must take this issue into account.
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