Rugby at war: international stars criticise World Rugby’s big plan

England captain Owen Farrell, Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton and many other Test rugby stars have voiced their concerns over World Rugby’s proposals to launch a new international competition.

Described by the New Zealand Herald as the “biggest change” in modern rugby union history, the creation of a new “World League” will see 12 teams feature and is planned to start in 2020.

The BBC says that World Rugby, the sport’s global governing body, wants to “revamp” the international calendar to enhance the “excitement, significance and value” of Test rugby.

According to reports the 12-team World League will feature the countries that currently compete in the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, and they will be joined by the United States and Japan.

Sky Sports says that the shake-up has “long been mooted” by World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot. The former Argentina captain previously said that the international game was under threat and struggling financially.

About the World League

A new World League has “captured the imagination of the leading nations” says the NZ Herald. The format of the proposed World League would see all 12 teams play each other once during the calendar year. The semi-finals and final would then take place in late November or early December.

The BBC reports that the World League would not be held during a World Cup year and would not feature promotion or relegation. The Daily Telegraph adds that the format would be set in place for 12 years.

It is also reported by the NZ Herald that an unknown broadcaster has “already tabled an offer to finance the concept”.

The 12 teams
  • Six Nations: England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales 
  • Rugby Championship: Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa 
  • Others: Japan and the USA (who are going to be invited to join the Rugby Championship)

Player welfare and integrity concerns

The International Rugby Players Council has issued a statement regarding World Rugby’s plans and warned that the new competition could have a serious impact on player welfare and the integrity of the sport.

Nearly 40 players and nine of the world’s top ten international team captains spoke on a conference call on Tuesday evening. Concerns over the new proposals include:

  • Player load challenges from multiple top-level Test matches in different countries and time-zones in consecutive weeks 
  • Increased long-haul travel in short time frames 
  • A lack of real opportunities for Tier Two nations to progress 
  • Increased conflicts between country and club demands and Regulation 9 release periods 
  • Potential impact on the Rugby World Cup and the British & Irish Lions tours 
  • The long-term quality and integrity of the international game

International Rugby Players CEO Omar Hassanein said: “World Rugby are failing to respect the players’ views and genuinely engage on the issues. It will be interesting to see their approach in the coming weeks knowing the current proposal does not have the players’ support.”

Sexton, Read and Farrell speak out

Sexton: plans are out of touch

Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton, the president of the International Rugby Players, said: “While players gave this idea a cautious welcome when we met at the end of last year, it now seems like a commercial deal on the future of the game is being negotiated at a rapid pace with little consideration given to the important points we raised with World Rugby in November.

“The issue of player load has never been so topical, however needs to be properly understood. To suggest that players can play five incredibly high-level Test matches in consecutive weeks in November, is out of touch and shows little understanding of the physical strain this brings.”

Read: integrity must be protected

New Zealand captain Kieran Read, a Player Council member, said: “After listening to the issues raised by many of the players, we need to be very careful that we balance the commercial needs of the game, with the player welfare needs and ensure the quality and integrity of matches meets expectations.

“Fans want to see meaningful games; they don’t want to see fatigued players playing a reduced quality of rugby as part of a money-driven, weakened competition that doesn’t work for the players or clubs.

“With new technologies, new broadcast deals and new money coming into the sport, this is a crucial moment for rugby and one that many players are generally excited about. However, we have to make sure that the integrity of the game and welfare of the players is protected.”

Farrell: an already difficult situation

England skipper Owen Farrell said: “This proposal shows no signs of improving an already difficult situation. Players are definitely open to discussing a new global season but what we develop has to work with the club game in order to reduce conflict, deal with player release issues and make sure their welfare is looked after. The proposal presented to us at the moment doesn’t seem to have considered this properly.”

What about Tier Two nations?

One of the major concerns raised by the International Rugby Players was the “lack of real opportunities for Tier Two nations to progress”.

With no relegation or promotion from the Six Nations or Rugby Championship it would mean that countries such as Georgia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga would miss out on regular competition against the world’s leading Test rugby nations.

The NZ Herald says that the Tier Two nations could be “left out in the cold for at least ten years” while the Telegraph’s Ben Coles called the World League plans a “disgrace”. 

Coles wrote: “Everything about the new proposed World League reeks of greed and leaves a bad taste in the mouth.”

Samoa captain Chris Vui said: “For countries in this bracket and for Pacific Islanders in particular, our biggest issue has always been the ‘club versus country’ factor.

“We feel that that a 12-year deal is not workable, particularly when it presents no hope of advancement during that period. This will have the dangerous knock-on effect of luring senior players away from their countries and more towards the clubs, which is the exact opposite of what we’re all trying to achieve.”

World Rugby responds

World Rugby has issued its own statement in response to the concerns raised by the International Rugby Players.

Union’s global governing body says that its commitment to player welfare matters is “unwavering”. It also adds that the structured annual competition would “make fans and new audiences more likely to watch, attend and engage with international rugby, exposing the sport to new fans worldwide”.

The statement read: “World Rugby recognises and values the importance of player considerations and input into the annual international competition discussions.

“However, the manner the International Rugby Players organisation has expressed these is surprising given regular engagement throughout this ongoing process.

“World Rugby’s commitment to player welfare matters is unwavering and we will continue to engage and give full consideration to the welfare of players within the ongoing discussions.

“It is inappropriate to comment on specifics whilst wider stakeholder consultation, including with IRP, is ongoing. However, it is important to note that some assumptions made in the statement regarding the proposed competition structure are inaccurate and that important matters such as playing load and emerging nation opportunities are at the heart of constructive dialogue on the overall concept.

“Consumer research confirms a structured annual competition would make fans and new audiences more likely to watch, attend and engage with international rugby, exposing the sport to new fans worldwide.

“There is also no doubt that a structured annual international competition would deliver significantly greater long-term global media revenue for reinvestment in the global game. This project has at its heart long-term growth and stability, not short-term wins, and that includes greater opportunity for players.

“As instructed by our Executive Committee and the Unions, we remain committed to a process of constructive dialogue with all stakeholders, including the IRP, to deliver a model that ensures the best-possible competition and commercial outcomes for all and a truly exciting and meaningful annual international competition structure that is great for players, clubs, fans and unions.”


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