Tuesday, 26 March 2019

World Rugby's proposed "Nations Championship" is a terrible idea for "the global game"

The World Rugby crew of Brett Gosper,
Agustín Pichot, and Bill Beaumont
Initially when the New Zealand Herald reported leaked plans for their so called "Nations Championship" the concept was widely denounced by almost every rugby fan and especially those from Tier 2 nations.

There was no way that could possibly go ahead in response to the uproar it caused, but afterwards it then became clear Agustín Pichot's vision included two changes to that proposal which were relegation and Fiji not USA in the Rugby Championship and this was released in an official World Rugby video clip.

Remarkably despite relatively limited alteration all of a sudden World Rugby were selling what was initially a PR disaster in relation to Tier 2 nations and spinning it as for the good of "the global game". However many issues still remain and it's time to go through a few of them here ...

World Rugby are being incredibly dishonest that this is for "the global game"

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont claimed it would "accelerate the development and competitiveness of the global game". WR CEO Brett Gosper also recently appealed to those in the 6 Nations hesitant about the idea to think of the "global game". A few other known rugby media figures (mostly those with high levels of ignorance regards Tier 2 nations or low levels attention to detail in the plan) have been fooled into fully buying this line as well.

In actual fact this is not at all about "the global game" and it is incredibly dishonest and deceptive for WR to repeatedly claim it as such. You would think judging by some of the comments from WR that they had done a lengthy consultation with all the Unions from top to bottom and had the wide support from across Tier 2 nations before coming back with this proposal. The reality is quite the opposite.
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SANZAAR are the chief supporters
of the Nations Championship

A World League was the initial idea of Agustín Pichot and then largely been built and backed by the SANZAAR Unions who wish to milk more money out of international rugby to maintain an increasing unaffordable centrally funded model. That is primarily what this is about.

It has been almost entirely created and decided on by Tier 1 Unions. Outside of that there are WR Council members and Regional Associations who have had no input whatsoever. For example both the Georgian Union and Rugby Europe have said they had no consultation at all on this and learnt of the proposals through reported leaks and then with World Rugby's video much like everybody else.

It's hard to imagine that was any different elsewhere. Yet at the same time WR are claiming a concept that they never consulted or involved Tier 2 Unions on will be great for them and even now selling it to the media on that basis. It's total nonsense. If they truly cared about "the global game" beyond Tier 1 they would have involved them in the process. That is quite simple.

World Rugby still fail miserably on the global calendar

Still World Rugby has been a total failure in getting a globally aligned calendar split between international and domestic windows. This is relevant as it effects Tier 2 nations the worst and above all those who in this Nations Championship are scheduled to play a Southern Hemisphere international schedule whilst much of their squad are based in Europe on a Northern Hemisphere club schedule.

In the case of Fiji in the top division for instance this would include all but one of their first choice starting XV. It would impossible for them to be at 100% throughout all those 11 matches.

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It would be impossible for a team of players
mostly based in Europe to be 100% over
the entire Nations Championship schedule
The European season will run from September to June, there will be internationals in July, Rugby Championship in August and September, plus more internationals in November. That is elite level rugby 12 months a year without any off season. WR say player welfare is a "central consideration" yet they have just designed a schedule that for any European based player in a Southern Hemisphere competition is physically unworkable and something will have to give.

No way could Fiji be 100% for all this. It would be asking too far much for Pacific Island players, who are often from more humble backgrounds than players from most other nations, to make such a significant sacrifice to their value in Europe for full availability throughout an entire season of this competition.

And even if Fiji did hypothetically get full availability of players. Half their team would be going from one of the toughest most attritional leagues in France to months of exhaustive long haul travel up against some of the best in the world. So that would not be remotely close to 100% either.

You may recall between 2012-2015 cycle Argentina fielded weakened sides every June window to rest European based players who were part of the Rugby Championship squad. In the context of a league with relegation Fiji would have to do similar but maybe target certain games to win like Japan or Italy. That would lead to scenario similar to a Tier 2 team at a RWC faced with short turnarounds fielding a weakened team against a top side in order to rest players for a more winnable match. Those matches also tend to be the worst and most forgettable of the tournament.

What we have here again is more evidence of World Rugby's lack of thought towards "the global game". The Southern Hemisphere schedule was designed purely with the SANZAAR Unions in mind. If it was about "the global game" then a globally international calendar would have been a priority.
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The REC is unable to be full strength
for a 5 match European tournament
let alone a longer multi continent league

Also if availability for Fiji would be a challenge, then it would be even worse in the second division for a team like Tonga and others. At least Fiji would have the draw of playing against some of the best in the world. The chance of Tonga or Samoa getting all their players to sacrifice their value in Europe and forgo an off season to play on the Southern Hemisphere schedule committing to the long flights around the world that a league spanning 5 continents would entail is very slim.

Likewise some of the lower ranked teams involved are teams with players that are still amateur. Spain or Belgium cannot reliably remain full strength throughout a 5 match REC tournament in one continent let alone a longer season across multiple continents. Not just through pro club commitments, but in some cases work commitments especially for longer away trips.

RWC will become the devalued 15s equivalent to the 7s version

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No matter what WR claim, they would
devalue the RWC as a secondary event
with this Nations Championship

There is no question from this that the Nations Championship in effect becomes like an annual World Cup and renders the 4 yearly version a far less popular secondary sideshow event. If you are crowning in World Champion every year in a Grand Final then entire appeal of the RWC is lost or at least significantly reduced.

It would end up carrying the same prestige and value as winning the 7s Rugby World Cup does when there is already the World 7s Series circuit played every year. If you have such a World Series style international circuit in place then that replaces the World Cup as the top event rather than add to it. Instead the World Cup becomes more of a novelty than a showpiece.

For the Tier 2 nations this is particularly bad news. Whilst currently they can at least every four years take part in the sport's major showpiece event. A huge experience and career high point for many players. Now the RWC would become the lesser event next to the Nations Championship and the opportunity to play on the sport's biggest stage would be reduced to 12 teams from 20.

The relegation pathway is a con

The main way World Rugby have been selling this as great for Tier 2 nations is the proposed relegation (which there is obviously good reason to believe there won't be anyway) that offers a pathway. Whilst this may be preferable to the initial report of no relegation this still remains a bad deal though.

First of all reportedly any relegation would be delayed until 2026. Then not only would it take years of waiting for a playoff to actually take place but the cards would be stacked against those coming up.

This means from 2022-2026 those at the top of the second division will have been stuck there hardly get any opportunity at all to play any higher ranked opponents for several years outside a devalued RWC.
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Teams like Georgia or USA have to wait
years until 2026 for a possible playoff
which would be held only every two years

and they are put at risk of entire careers
potentially passing by having scarcely played
higher opposition outside a devalued RWC

It would be a big ask for that Division 2 winner, having so scarcely played any stronger opponents in years, to then go and win a single one off match (probably away from home) up against an opponent who had far more experience playing years at a much higher level and also far better resourced and prepared through years worth of much superior funding (in trying to get this idea the green light WR have guaranteed Tier 1 all their 6 Nations and Rugby Championship top division sponsorship revenues up to 2033 even if relegated).

So under this proposal for whoever tops the second division by the time they got a playoff in 2026 it could be as long as 4 years since they last got a chance to play a higher ranked team outside a RWC. Then with the relegation playoff being held relatively infrequently only held once every two years if they lose that single one off match, or lose just once or twice and came second in the second division, this could very easily grow to 6 years, to 8 years, and to over a decade or more.

Indeed people talk about possible risk of relegation for Tier 1 nations (which in reality for most of them ranges from very small to virtually negligible one hence why SANZAAR are okay backing it with Japan and Fiji involved). But really the risk for those Tier 2 nations in the second division of this Nations Championship seeing their already limited once or twice a year opportunities to play Tier 1 further reduced or even totally wiped out is a far greater one.

In November we have seen Georgia, Tonga, USA, Samoa all play Tier 1. Only two can get a playoff in 2026 so it is guaranteed at least two of those teams would go at least as long as 8 years without playing a Tier 1 test outside RWC. Entire international careers could pass by in that time. It would crazy for those Unions to take that gamble all for a relegation system that is weighted against them.

The sport internationally already suffers from an existing "tier" system that serves to promote an incredibly static world order in its top 20. In the professional era the same 9 Tier 1 nations have held 98% of the RWC quarter final positions and rarely fallen outside top 10 in the rankings. Whilst also the 20 team RWC has never had more than one team change from the previous edition.

Given the rarity of these playoffs, along with the financial and competitive disparities between the divisions, the Nations Championship would further entrench this static world order to an even greater degree than it is now. In terms of potential upward mobility the Nations Championship would be the international rugby equivalent of the English Premiership ... but even worse.

The league format leads to dull, demoralising, repetitive international rugby

There have been demands for more higher ranked competition especially for the best Tier 2 sides. However this manages to do so in the worst possible way in only doing so for two sides.

Ideally teams schedules should be relatively balanced. So unless you are number one that includes fixtures against higher ranked teams to test themselves against stronger opposition, even contests with similarly ranked teams, and also lower ranked teams which can often afford more opportunity to possibly test new players and allows that opponent to test themselves against stronger opposition as well.

If it is too weighted either one way towards better or worse and is like that year after year then for fans the schedule can get dull, demoralising, and repetitive and that is exactly what this Nations Championship format does. It is one thing adding Japan to the Rugby Championship for example, but then to maybe play some lower or similar ranked sides the rest of the year, but this just puts them at risk of being in the Italy position of poorly balanced fixture lists.
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Angelo Esposito has 1 win in 20 tests
which is the joint worst international win
ratio for any player over the last 100 years

Italy this RWC cycle so far have an overall win percentage of 15.78%. Clearly the worst of any top 30 nation. Several modern era Italians are high up on the list of most international losses and lowest career win percentages (Edoardo Padovani for example has one win in 20 caps). That is a result of their fixture list featuring against sides 10+ ranking places above them more often than they do against those ranked either a couple places above or below them. They have played the All Blacks and Wallabies much more than they have Georgia or Tonga.

There is a good case to be made that this has not been at all good for the morale of both players and supporters than if they did have a better balance. The same applies similarly in the opposite direction for Georgia in the REC winning five Grand Slams in six years at a lower level but only getting one off opportunities (and always away from home) against Tier 1.

The proposed third division can only have been created by a total imbecile

Whilst the top two divisions of this Nations Championship are bad enough for Tier 2 teams, spare a though for those such as Canada and Brazil, as the third division is something you can only conclude must be have been created by somebody with approximately zero knowledge of rugby at that level.
The proposed 54 team three division "Nations Championship" ("Belgiumwe" and "Namibiawe" were deleted)
The proposed second division includes five European teams (even though there are certainly better teams left in the third division than the fifth best European team) and five from the rest of the world.
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Brazil and Canada are listed to go down
to a much lower level under WR Nations
Championship proposals which risk
ruining progress towards a 24 team RWC

As a result this would very likely mean at least one of Canada or Brazil get moved down from the Americas Rugby Championship to a much lower level third division which apparently will be a 4 team home and away regional conference.

This is unbelievably stupid. Canada in 6 matches vs Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, & Cayman Islands could score 500+ points. Meanwhile we would see one of the most improved teams in the sport Brazil take a significant step back from competing with USA or Uruguay back down to just playing Chile, Colombia, and Paraguay. Namibia are also left in the African group they dominate.

World Rugby mention "potentially moving to 24 teams in 2027". This would be an overall positive idea we have written about before. However in pursuing the Nations Championship under this format WR seem to be intent on doing significant damage to the chances of the lower nations being credible.

Under this format it's possible that if Canada for example were to lose a playoff against the bottom team in Division 2 (maybe Uruguay or an other), then they could possibly head into such a RWC up against some of the best in the world with the bulk of their fixtures the past few years having been against the likes of the Cayman Islands. The same goes for Namibia, Brazil, and other possible RWC candidates in the third division which would be guaranteed to provide at least two teams to the tournament.

They also rip up the REC and RET in favour of creating mismatches as well. Rugby Europe said they had no consultation it certainly shows when you look at what they have done to that tournament.
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WR's mad plan for the third tier of
European rugby would see many more
mismatches such as this one last weekend

This year we have seen the most uncompetitive Rugby Europe Trophy to date with apart from the Netherlands a young Portugal side routing everybody. Evidently last weekend there was a big gulf between 13th and 18th in Europe, yet the geniuses at WR decide to change it to a European competition involving 16 teams (4 pools of 4 teams) below the top 11. This is utter madness.

Among those teams they list are places with very little interest in rugby and what are basically park teams. Yet they have them possibly playing sides Germany or Netherlands, who whilst below current RWC level, would still utterly slaughter very low level teams like Andorra, Malta, or Israel. Again this is a concept that would set another recently improved nation like the Netherlands backwards.

Seriously anyone hoping to see RWC eventually to 24 teams and more nations like possibly Brazil continuing to improve and get to the biggest stage should oppose this total abomination.
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Bill Beaumont claims the Nations
Championship was done "with great
care" and "global game at the forefront
of our thinking" which is evidently a
lie when you look at their third division

Bill Beaumont had the nerve to claim on the WR press release that the Nations Championship proposal "has been developed with great care, extensive evaluation and with the global game at the forefront of our thinking". If you needed any more evidence how much of contemptibly brazen lie that is then just take a look at what a complete mess they have made of that third division.

And no it does not matter that it may be just a draft as the main point remains regardless. An organisation which had put one iota of serious thought or care towards "the global game" would not have put Canada in a group with the Cayman Islands, relegated an improving nation like Brazil backwards, displayed bizarre and absurd scenarios such as Hong Kong getting relegated to the North American group, Latvia getting promoted to the second division, or made stupid typos like "Belgiumwe" and "Namibiawe" on their officially released video.

CONCLUSION: World Rugby are a joke and the Nations Championship must be stopped

So just as a reminder according to Bill Beaumont "everyone, not just the established teams, will benefit, accelerating the development and competitiveness of the global game".

Yet it seems the plan to "accelerate the development and competitiveness of the global game" is to put several Tier 2 nations at risk of possibly negligible matches against higher level opponents for years on end. Or to actively put improving countries like Brazil backwards into a division with Paraguay. How the hell is that "accelerating the development" of the global game? It's the total opposite.

We also have quotes from Christian Mueller, the vice-president of Infront Sports and Media, WR's chosen partner for this project. According to the BBC "it believes the proposed Nations Championship would allow rugby union to grow in new markets, such as Germany and the United States".

Yet the plan in regards to the national teams of those two nations appears in the case of Germany to put them in a laughing stock of a European third division with park teams, or the USA risk barely playing any higher ranked opposition for possibly years whilst stuck in a second division with only one other team in their time zone. How exactly does that "allow rugby to grow" there?

In another interview Mueller was saying "rugby has to look beyond its strongholds" whilst advocating a proposal which ... simply looks after its established Tier 1 strongholds.
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Brett "33 million fans in China" Gosper
is one those spinning Nations Championship
as an idea that is great for "the global game"

It is hard to know whether it is flagrant dishonesty, pig ignorance, or if they are simply delusional but everything World Rugby or their buddies at Infront Sports have commented about this concept being about "the global game" is not just wrong but laughably so on the same level as their "33 million fans in China" claim. Gosper even came out and claimed even amidst the outrage of the initial report that "fans were resoundingly positive about concept". That man has an attitude towards reality worthy of Donald Trump.

For Tier 2 nations this "Nations Championship" idea is awful and manages to be even worse than the status quo and the relevant Unions must do everything they can to make sure it does not go ahead. Also the fact WR seem to be trying to cynically use Tier 2 nations and talk of "the global game" as some sort of a media spin doctor effort to try and create pressure on 6 Nations doubters to sign up makes it even worse and their insulting dishonesty and lies on that point needs to be called out.

If this gets through and as a result we see for example this generation of young talents such as Beka Gorgadze, or Hanco Germishuys told they will spend the bulk of their prime years stuck in a second division never playing Tier 1 outside a RWC at least to 2026 (by which time they will be 30). Or that we see that total farce of a third division format introduced. It would be hard to forgive the blazers who to protect SANZAAR torched the growth of the sport all whilst lying about it being for "the global game".