Rugby: Tests may be World Cup seeding

By Gregor Paul

The IRB is expected to unveil plans in Auckland this week to make end of season tours part of a new, two-year compe-tition counting towards World Cup seeding.

After almost seven years of expensive research and debate, Bernard Lapasset, the enigmatic Frenchman who heads the IRB's high performance unit, has come up with a couple of ideas to restore the vibrancy of test rugby.

The prospect of a global season - unifying the Northern and Southern Hemisphere seasons - has been ruled out, leaving only the June and November test windows with which to tinker.

One idea the IRB will put forward on Tuesday is a 10-team competition, played over two years, involving all the game's Tier One countries.

This proposal recognises that traditional competitions such as the Six Nations and Tri Nations are foundation stones that should never be removed and that the stale, mouldy part of the rugby season is the two cross-hemisphere test windows.

Watching European sides venture down here with a host of never-heard-ofs and never-likely-to-hear-of-agains for a one-off test has long lost its appeal. Likewise, there is never any sense of fulfilment from watching development All Black teams gain priceless experience at European grounds while their more experienced brethren enjoy an extended Christmas break.

Because the June window elongates the northern season and the November window reduces the All Blacks pre-season to about three weeks, the rugby in these periods must be meaningful. There has to be a reason for players to front up.

Lapasset has come up with that reason - tests in the new competition will determine World Cup seedings.

Currently the IRB uses the previous World Cup to determine seedings. It's a crazy system that means in 2007, England, ranked seventh after barely winning a game since they bagged the William Webb Ellis, are number one seeds.

So Lapasset's big picture is that New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, France, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy and Argentina play in a structured format where points are allocated. The final points will determine World Cup seedings, providing a major incentive for nations to field their strongest side and take the whole business seriously.

Dovetailing into this proposal is the plan to provide an opportunity for national sides to play midweek fixtures.

Coaches bemoan the lack of opportunities to trial young blood and say they have little choice but to use tests to experiment.

There may be value in scheduling New Zealand to play three tests in the UK in November which will count towards World Cup seedings. That way the All Blacks could take an extended squad and squeeze in mid-week games.

The tricky part in all this is finance. Whatever the IRB say about the need to protect players from excessive demands, the catalyst for the shake-up is a report last year by accountants Deloitte & Touche.

They found that in the 10 years since the game went professional, global revenue had jumped from about £150m to £600m. Costs had risen by largely the same amount, so the sport was barely breaking even. The £600m represented only five per cent of the money soccer was generating.

For rugby to grow in existing countries and new frontiers, it needs money - which can only be generated by attracting external investors. Those investors need something sexy that engages the public.

The great hope is that the new competition will receive serious financial backing. Then the challenge will be for the IRB to share broadcast and sponsorship revenue equitably as well as building a new gate-sharing model.

The message delivered this week will be that rugby sits in view of a brave new world.

But it won't be the first time the IRB have banged on about grand plans. Since 2000 there has been talk about a global season. Coaches, players, medics, administrators, sponsors and broadcasters have been unanimous, for the better part of the last decade, that the season is dangerously long.

There's not only too much rugby, there's too much meaningless rugby and with the athletes on average 10kg heavier and 30 per cent stronger than they were in 2000, the current set-up makes demands that are career-threatening.

The pre-season has disappeared to accommodate the bulging fixture list and players no longer have adequate time to rest, recuperate and prepare.

The IRB have heard all this ad nauseum for the last seven years. But despite acknowledging the validity of the arguments, they have failed to institute change.

It's funny that a few months after a document appeared detailing how the status quo is squeezing the coffers, the IRB get into gear.

It's more funny peculiar than funny ha-ha, but as long as it leads to change, everyone will be laughing.

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