Richer nations will have to share the spoils if the proposed Nations Championship is to finally get off the ground and change rugby union’s future
Theoretically this was the week when rugby entered a brave new world. It has certainly been a momentous-sounding few days courtesy of World Rugby’s historic decision to hold – for men and women respectively – the 2031 and 2033 World Cups in the USA, the tantalising possibility of a sold-out Twickenham for a women’s final in 2025 and renewed optimism about a Nations League tournament finally becoming reality.
At the very least the tectonic plates of the old sport are shifting. Which sport would not relish a primetime World Cup final framed against the Manhattan skyline or access to a land of opportunity for both sexes? It is a universe away from the pie and pint amateur days when a Barbarians Easter tour to Penarth was pretty much the height of cross-border sophistication.
Progress in rugby, though, remains a subjective concept. The sport has been professional for more than a quarter of a century but paying the bills continues to be an issue for almost every union out there. World Cups in Australia in 2027 and 2029 will be spectacular events but the Australian Rugby Union would have gone bust by now without financial assistance from World Rugby. It has been a similar story in the States, where the union filed for bankruptcy as recently as 2020.
Now, we are being told, the sport is on the brink of a gum-shielded gold rush. Twenty five cities from New Orleans to Washington DC have applied to host matches with organisers projecting that 4.1 million spectators could attend one or both of the tournaments. What if the American dream really can be made flesh and mass US audiences persuaded that gridiron without helmets is a game they might enjoy?
A still-distant fantasy, maybe, but remember all the scepticism when the States hosted the men’s football World Cup in 1994? These days it is the country’s third most-played sport and their women’s team are ranked top of the world. Rugby also now has nine years to get its stars and stripes-draped party absolutely right. World Rugby has received justifiable stick over the years but glimpses of clearer, more strategic thinking are emerging.
And, for better or worse, it has now fired the starting pistol on a pivotal decade set to define rugby as a major international sport. By packaging up the next few World Cups together the game has essentially challenged itself, commercially and popularity-wise, to sink or swim. Bidding for the 2027 World Cup was no vanity project, conceded Rugby Australia’s chairman Hamish McLennan, but an absolute necessity down under. “In truth,” McLennan told the Sydney Morning Herald, “it was the only option we had to save the game.”
The question now is whether the prospect of all these new dollars, both American and Aussie, will be enough to loosen the binding ties of self-interest that have choked rugby’s development as stubbornly as Japanese knotweed? Or, more specifically, to assist those who, hitherto, have struggled in the shadows of the established nations.
Which is why the most intense discussions in Dublin this week have not involved future World Cup hosting arrangements but a mooted Nations Championship, involving 24 teams in two divisions, taking place every two years (in even-numbered years) in the existing July and November Test windows. The idea is to have a grand final and promotion/relegation playoffs, with the second-tier competition potentially starting in 2024 followed by the top tournament in 2026.
It all sounds lovely in principle, assuming you take the view that effectively crowning three world champions every four years does not dilute the primacy of the World Cup. Or that criss-crossing the globe even more frequently is good for rugby’s carbon footprint. Or that it enhances player wellbeing. Either way, it will stand or fall on one key aspect which, crucially, remains unconfirmed. No one, as yet, knows the precise financial uplift the reorganisation will generate and how that revenue will be split. At present the host union keeps the gate receipts, handily ensuring the richer nations with the biggest stadiums receive the most. Will the plumpest turkeys vote for Christmas and agree to a central pot? If they genuinely ever want the game to broaden out and ensure 24 competitive sides at the 2031 Rugby World Cup, they surely cannot argue otherwise.
Even in Wales they have struggled to fill the Principality Stadium during the Six Nations. Domestic crowds in South Africa and Japan have been falling and dreams of rugby taking off commercially in Asia off the back of the 2019 World Cup have stalled, with Covid far from the only reason. The better news is that Fiji now have an island-based team competing in Super Rugby and interest in the women’s game is steadily rising before this year’s World Cup in New Zealand. South Africa’s top provinces are poised to enter next season’s European Cup, the latest move in rugby’s financial drive to survive.
Experts in global rugby economics, however, are holding fire on predictions of a “golden decade” which will smooth away all the game’s cares. Mark Evans, the former Harlequins chief executive who has also worked in rugby league in Australia, is among those yet to be convinced a Nations Championship on its own will transform rugby’s finances. “I wouldn’t say it’ll be life changing,” said Evans. “It all depends whether the cake has got bigger in totality. The argument is that by giving the autumn and summer Tests a clearer narrative and more meaning that will generate more revenue. In some countries that may well be true – and it will need to be.”
Should the promotion and relegation playoff element end up being delayed or shelved it will also massively dilute the overall proposition. As Dan Leo, chief executive of the Pacific Rugby players’ association, observed this week: “It can’t be a financial model that’s good for the All Blacks, Australia and South Africa – there needs to be a way every rugby nation benefits from this.”
Which, along with long-term concussion concerns and player welfare, is rugby’s perennial problem. Evans, though, believes the latest proposal is about as good as it is going to get. “It’s not what you would do if you were starting from scratch but you’re not. Given all the different stakeholders and all the conflicting issues it’s probably as good as they could come up with.” Everything now rests on rugby’s ability to make it happen and, even more crucially, to make it pay.