Is it time the Six Nations packed down behind the Nations Championship concept?
World Rugby’s plan for a ground-breaking annual Nations Championship uniting both hemispheres appeared to have little support when revealed last month but is it actually a concept we should all be embracing?
The proposed competition would utilise results from the Six Nations, The Rugby Championship and existing international windows to crown an overall winner each year.
It was billed as potentially “the most significant development in international rugby since the sport turned professional” when initially presented to unions last year but details were widely criticised when leaked to the media last month.
Much of that comment was ill-informed but World Rugby was slow to defend the plan and emphasise that discussions were ongoing. Instead, doomsayers queued up to label their proposed development as a huge step backwards.
Uproar at the apparent exclusion of the Pacific Islands and also Europe’s developing nations eventually prompted clarification that the competition would include promotion and relegation and so would offer a clear pathway for all to reach the very top of the game.
They also moved to address similar concerns over player welfare by stating that they would play a maximum of 13 matches if their team reached the final, compared to an average of between 12 and 14 Test matches presently, with most teams playing 11 matches.
It appeared to go some way to calming the media storm and instead put the focus on other potential barriers to World Rugby’s desire to grow the popularity of game, reinvigorate the current Test windows and provide a base for further economic growth.
The Six Nations stakeholders are understandably reluctant to jeopardise the ongoing success of sport’s biggest draw outside of the Rugby World Cup.
It is clear that some within their ranks fear the introduction of promotion and relegation will not open the door to exciting developments both on and off the field but instead destabilise a firmly established competition and possibly cost them millions of pounds in revenue.
That outright refusal to play ball appears the major stumbling block for this current plan and perhaps only the promise of greater riches through a new broadcast deal or commercial rights package could tempt a turnaround.
However, Italy head coach Conor O’Shea, whose side would appear to be the most likely to lose out in such a shake-up, has boldly welcomed the idea of promotion and relegation from the Six Nations.
“On the face of it this seems like a really exciting proposal,” said O’Shea, whose team look set for yet another Wooden Spoon this year.
“The one thing we need to do is to grow the game,” he added. “If we just have the couple of rich kids winning everything we don’t have a game. It’s what is good for the game.”
Unfortunately, while they may be the team threatened most by the drop, they may not be the side with most to lose in terms of revenue.
It remains to be seen if his union shares his view or whether other members of the Six Nations are standing in the proposal’s way.
The other major issue is player welfare and specifically the work load for the sport’s leading players and the subsequent impact on their health and wellbeing.
International Rugby Players, the global representative body for professional players, were quick to query the expectation in terms of games when detailed to them last year and they went public with those concerns as the recent media storm raged.
England captain Owen Farrell correctly pointed out that, “This proposal shows no signs of improving an already difficult situation.”
It is true that this plan does not reduce the workload – something largely out of World Rugby’s control given that the leading names play most of their rugby in competitions the governing body does not control.
But it does not appear to add to the workload and instead appears to ask the club game to ease the burden.
For example, to reach the title decider England would have to play five Six Nations fixtures in the traditional February-March window.
Then they would play fixtures against three Rest of the World conference rivals in the July international window – with The Rugby Championship having been bolstered by the two highest sides in the World Rugby rankings.
That would appear an improvement on arguably the out-dated concept of traditional three-Test series that only prove to serve the traditional giants of the game and not the sport in general.
The final three pool clashes against Rest of the World conference opposition – either home or away – would be staged in the November window.
Crucially the semi-final and then the final would follow immediately in the same window meaning perhaps five successive weeks of international rugby – a huge undertaking for the players given the extreme physical demands of the game at the elite level, including the need for long-haul travel.
That would also demand an extension of the agreed Test window for those sides involved which obviously would have implications in terms of player release and the support of the domestic competitions impacted.
The other alternative being the staging of midweek matches, as happens in a Rugby World Cup tournament, but realistically even that would demand an extension to the current window to at least four weeks.
It is still up for debate as to whether this provides “the best-possible environment and opportunities for players” as World Rugby desires given the pivotal role domestic commitments and contracts play.
It is perhaps not surprising that fresh talk of player strikes and threats of industrial action from domestic leagues has surfaced given the implications on both of the proposed plan.
While the merits of the plan will continue to be debated, it is hard to dispute that the international game remains the driving force behind the popularity and future development of the sport.
As a result we must support efforts to ensure that it continues to engage audiences both old and new while ensuring it protects the interests of its most precious commodity – the players.