World Rugby’s Sydney meetings will struggle to resolve anything

Declining powers Australia and South Africa are losing their allure. Photograph: Patrick Hamilton/AFP/Getty Images

SYDNEY, 28 SEPTEMBER 2018 (THE GUARDIAN) – More than 75 per cent of the income generated globally by rugby union comes from the international game. It is the reason why those who run the sport, World Rugby, are this week gathered in Sydney pondering how to reinvigorate all the Test rugby that takes place between World Cups.

Friendly matches, which make up 56 per cent of Test fixtures, are losing their allure.

Teams arrive on tour at the end of long, arduous seasons, often below strength and not at their most motivated. New Zealand remain a draw but Australia and South Africa, who have lost dozens of players to clubs in Europe and Japan, have mutated from vaunted to vulnerable.

The series of World Rugby committee meetings this week will resolve nothing. Much has been made this week of a plan to establish a 12-strong League of Nations competition in November, played over five weeks.

But it is one of a number of ideas that are being considered before the governing body’s meeting in November. What is eventually decided will look a lot different: a commitment made last year was for more fixtures between tier one and two countries.

 

World Rugby’s Bill Beaumont and Agustin Pichot, chairman and vice-chairman respectively, are leading the push for reform, with the latter the more voluble after declaring that international rugby was heading for the scrapheap unless there was a fundamental overhaul.

At its urging, World Rugby is setting up a professional game committee, made up of tier one and two nations, and is establishing a professional game forum that will meet every year.

It will be made up of delegates from unions, clubs and players’ associations and it fulfils a promise made last year in San Francisco to take a collaborative approach to the issues.

There will be major changes made to the international calendar and making the November and July windows competitive will add to the load on players.

While there would still be three weekends in each month governed by World Rugby’s regulation on player release, coaches would want two weeks of preparation time.

That would make 10 weeks in all which, added to the nine weeks players spend with their countries during the Six Nations, would mean the Test game took up half a season in the non-World Cup years between 2020 and 2032.

Leagues in Europe are attracting the interest of private equity companies who see untapped income in commercial rights. But maximising potential would mean clubs having their leading players for longer than they do now.

There does not look to be any scope for a club competition between the best in the hemispheres.

The need for clubs to be involved in any change is highlighted by a reason the friendly format is failing – the drift of players from the south to the north. It may prove easier to decide what future Novembers and Julys will look like than to resolve a key question: how should the proceeds from more competitive fixtures be shared?

At the moment the match hosts receive all the gate receipts, broadcasting income, commercial deals, apart from a fourth international where the visiting union receives a fee. One reason the All Blacks’ appearances in England and Wales this decade have become less frequent is because of the New Zealand union’s £3m demand.

The southern hemisphere nations have long lobbied for income from tier one matches, including Lions tours, to be pooled and shared out. It would raise the turnover of all four and help them retain players. However the European unions, which attract bigger crowds, have consistently refused to entertain the idea.

A friendly revamp with a competitive element would resurrect the issue, especially if there were an overall title sponsor. Europe has found that its greater financial muscle has weakened the international game to the point where to carry on and change nothing would be to redden balance sheets here.

A new tournament – and that word should be used in the loosest sense because whatever is devised will not be an all-inclusive version of the Six Nations or Rugby Championship – would offer value to backers because it had no past.

The Six Nations continues to look for a new title sponsor two years after RBS gave notice. On the surface, it should be easy to sell: it is the sport’s most popular tournament outside the World Cup, playing to packed houses, it is on terrestrial TV and generates large audiences, it is steeped in tradition and its popularity is not defined by the quality of rugby produced.

Yet, little more than four months before the start of the 2019 championship, they have still been unable to command the price they want. The uncertainty over Brexit is a factor but, as RBS found, the Six Nations, like the FA Cup, does not lend itself to a sponsor’s name in the title and backers expect a return.

The point of the Sydney summit, and Pichot’s outburst this month, was to underline the primacy of international rugby, but at a period of flux it is not that simple. If there is a way out, clubs and unions have to walk along the same path, not on parallel lines.

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