World Rugby is proposing a new format called the “League of Nations” which will see the top tier sides play an annual tournament during the latter months of each year. But is this concept the death knell of emerging nations in Europe?

The proposal, led by CEO Brett Gosper and by former Argentinian captain, Agustín Pichot will see twelve teams which make up the Six Nations countries, the Rugby Championship countries, Japan and the USA play against each other in an annual tournament meant to bring cohesion to world rugby on a more regular basis than the World Cup which is held every four years. Expected to commence in July with three games each, It will conclude in November with up to five test matches.

Nice idea but…

The concept however, has been hit with criticism by players, players unions and nations who have been left out, in particular the Pacific island nations of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa who could be hit hard by player defections to other nations if it seems that the will no longer be at the top table. While players across the world, including Irish star Johnny Sexton and New Zealand captain Kieran Read are against the idea from a player welfare point of view, the impact of leaving out any prospects of emerging nations having an opportunity to play against more established sides will be detrimental to the sport on a global scale and in particular Europe, where nations such as Germany, Romania, Spain and Georgia are beginning to take the sport to a higher level in their respective countries. Despite being mostly at an amateur level on the international front, European tier two nations are supplying a considerable amount of players to the professional leagues with over 1000 tier two payers world wide plying their trade on a full time basis.

And while Rugby Union’s international reach is small in comparison to say football, the advent of games being shown live on such media platforms as YouTube is bringing the sport to parts of the world that never saw it before and the same applies in Europe. The result is that more people are playing and following than ever before and if the trend continues, it is only a matter of time before we see the difference in competitiveness become less between nations in Europe.

Closed club tactics

But if World Rugby goes ahead with its plan, the result will be a bigger gap between the established countries and those who aspire to be professional. The new tournament encompasses Japan and the USA but when it comes to finance, there is no problem with the sport being developed in these countries. They already benefit from considerable investment with both nations supporting a professional league. However, nations such as Georgia Romania who have a long history of rugby and are currently churning out high quality players, are losing important revenue due to their test games with tier one nations being scrapped because of date constraints as a result of the new tournament. The recent form of Italy who have failed to win an international match in over fourteen games has brought into question its right to sit at the six nations table while others must watch from outside. Italy’s problems are not short term – they have dismal record in the Six Nations with the least amount of wins at 19 since joining the tounamnet in 1999. Despite calls by Rugby Europe’s President, Octavian Marariu to allow Romanian and Georgian teams to join the Six Nations in 2015, the concept has not been explored at all. The only other avenue for professional test matches annually is through the spring and autumn test internationals but they will be scrapped should the new tournament go ahead.

Is there a breaking of ranks?

It appears so, because responding to questions on Twitter about the details of this move, Pichot said “I will never support a league that doesn’t have a pathway for emerging Nations.”

Pichot went on: “My position and my proposal has always been the same since day one. 12 (Tier One) and 12 (tier two nations) with promotion and relegation, with enough rest periods for the players. Nothing has been decided yet, and I doubt it will, I won’t stop trying. If we can’t make this happen it won’t be because of the people who wanted the growth of the game worldwide.”

To further speculation that World Rugby is now feeling the heat, chairman Bill Beaumont has announced a meeting to be held later this month in Dublin to discuss the future of the international game amidst the obvious backlash over plans for League.

Representatives from all tier-one countries, along with Fiji, Japan, and the players’ union, will gather in Dublin later this month.

In a statement released by Beaumont, he said:

“In light of continued speculation and commentary, I am convening a meeting of Chairmen and CEOs from tier one unions, Fiji and Japan, and player representatives in Dublin later this month to consider the way forward for an annual international competition.

“Contrary to reports, no decisions have been made. This is an ongoing and complex process with multiple stakeholders, some with differing views.

“Only by working together in the interests of the global game can we achieve something truly impactful in this important area for rugby’s future global growth.”

Whatever the outcome, the overall reception to the proposal has not been good and with calls from leading figures and organisations in the Pacific Island rugby nations to boycott the forthcoming World Cup in Japan this year, it looks like the pressure will continue to mount on World Rugby to reconsider their plans. World Rugby has responded by saying that they are withholding “specifics whilst wider stakeholder consultation is ongoing.” which is a roundabout way of saying that they’ve been caught off guard but unusually, this concept is impacting negatively on different levels and if the various factions against it continue to apply resistance, it will be dead in the water.

Hopefully, for emerging European rugby, this will be the case because exclusion is not a long term option if the game is to go to new places.

Ken Sweeney
Committed to idea of supporting aspiring writers and journalists. Serial podcaster.

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