Significant reforms to the international game have been proposed by leaders within World Rugby to address concerns about the future and the financial model of international rugby. So far it has been agreed that the June international window will be moved to July from 2020 to closer align the northern and southern hemispheres’ schedules. However, more radical proposals will be discussed which include World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot’s suggestion of an annual 12-team World League.
Player welfare is under threat due to the strain of the relentless fixture calendar
Change in the international game is welcome, with it having become increasingly stale and under threat from the club game. Over half of international matches remain friendlies, which unions need to schedule to generate income. Consequently, the international calendar has become oversaturated in recent years, with teams such as Wales playing 4 games in November. The milking of the rugby audience is also not a sustainable financial model, and attendances at international matches is one area where a large amount of improvement is possible. Even in the traditional strongholds of rugby such as South Africa, Wales and Australia, empty seats have become a fixture of international matches, especially outside of competitions such as the Six Nations or the Rugby Championship.
Clearer boundaries also need to be established between the club game and the international game. The Wales vs South Africa test match mentioned previously took place outside of the international window, and there has been increasing conflict between club and country over the ownership and availability of players. With the French Top 14 season running from August until June to accommodate international fixtures, player welfare is under threat due to the strain of the relentless fixture calendar.
Leagues such as the Top 14 and Super Rugby have to take long breaks mid-season and often lose their top players to international sides
These are all issues which the proposals that have emerged so far have attempted to address. The subsumption of the June international window into the July window after the 2019 World Cup in Japan will allow leagues in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere to align their seasons. Currently, leagues such as the Top 14 and Super Rugby have to take long breaks mid-season and often lose their top players to international sides during the season due to overlap between club and international fixtures. By establishing clear times in the calendar year for club and international rugby, hopefully star players will always be available to represent their club and country at the most crucial periods of the season.
The introduction of a World League could act to reinvigorate international rugby by providing meaning to matches. It would bring rugby union in line with other sports which have already taken steps to address the issue of a large number of international friendlies lacking greater context. Giving matches a wider significance could also help to increase attendance, and fan interest. This opens up the opportunity for the sale of broadcast packages for a World League, which could ease any financial concerns for national unions.
An extensive, meritocratic World League structure with promotion and relegation which encompasses all teams would be a boost for non-Tier One nations
However, despite probably resulting from cynical self-interest rather than philanthropic concern, the RFU are correct to have some reservations about a World League. A stand-alone 12 team competition with the position of Tier One nations protected would do more harm than good for the growth of the game, and if held annually it would only serve to devalue the World Cup, the most important competition for development and finances. An extensive, meritocratic World League structure with promotion and relegation that encompasses all teams would be a boost for non-Tier One nations such as Georgia and the Pacific Island countries which have suffered from the closed attitude of the powerful national unions and which have no route into international competitions outside of the World Cup. However, this aforementioned attitude and time constraints make the development of such a structure unlikely. Therefore, the future of international rugby would be better served by either a World League having a longer, multi-year cycle rather than being an annual event, or by concentrating on creating more inclusive regional tournaments such as a European or a Pacific Championship.