Is the proposed world rugby championship really such a dog?

Most commentators brave enough to put fingers to keyboard before all the details have emerged have panned it or, at best, have sounded sharply suspicious of a proposal which would see 12 nations play in a global league, re-drawing the international rugby calendar.

About time, I say. The World Cup is in rude health; the Six Nations competition is a success, even though we Kiwis traditionally love to deride its lack of colour and expansive play. But the rest of rugby?

Super Rugby's continued expansion has dulled the whole thing; New Zealand derbies are a highlight – but there is a high cost in terms of injuries and credibility when a Kiwi franchise misses out on the finals because of the daft conference system.


The Rugby Championship's repetitive scheduling has seen the supposedly top-end southern competition become a parade of forgettable, sometimes seemingly identical, games clearly subservient to World Cup priorities.

That contrasts with the less-is-more anticipation that used to grow around tours. Few modern fans can remember much about the endless procession of Rugby Championship games; fans of yesteryear knew touring teams almost intimately and could recall key moments and intricate details in clashes made more significant by their comparative rarity.

Nowadays, action on test day is good but quickly slides from the memory; recall fuzzied by a veritable tsunami of matches. The June test window has been devalued for some time; visiting northern teams routinely bring second-stringers or are undercooked in contrast to the All Blacks.

So here is how the World Rugby "Nations Championship" might work: 12 top nations (said to be New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, Fiji and Japan) would play each other in 11 tests, either six at home and five away or vice versa.

There would be second divisions in Europe and the south – the latter maybe consisting of Canada, Samoa, Tonga, USA, and Americas Championship teams including Chile, Uruguay and Brazil. In Europe, teams like Georgia (ranked 13th in the world right now), Romania and Russia might help fill the second division. Promotion-relegation is vital to keep interest high in the lower rungs of the competition.

New Zealand's Rieko Ioane tackled by Ireland's Keith Earls. Photo / Photosport
New Zealand's Rieko Ioane tackled by Ireland's Keith Earls. Photo / Photosport

That means promotion-relegation in the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship while the three-test June tours would be scrapped in favour of one test in three different countries, all for points on the global league table. November tours of Europe would continue, fitting into the global league format.

The big question, of course, is money. There will doubtless be divisions over who gets what; hosting the grand final in Europe will worry those who want top rugby here (in other words, all of us…). Maybe there should be a revolving hosting of the final each year rather than solely in Europe – though that is where the TV money is.

Some are nervous, too, about the effect of an annual global league on the World Cup though professional sport has plenty of examples of knock-out cup competitions run alongside leagues.


Football is the obvious example – though it gives some cause for pause. Twenty-five years ago, the FA Cup still had some of its previous glamour and eager participation from fans and clubs when it used to transfix Britain. Not now.

Why? Money. The English Premier League and the Champions League saw TV rights become a bonza bonanza. Last year, for example, the FA Cup spread $35-45 million across 100 clubs in England and Wales. The EPL showered 20 clubs with $4.3 billion; the Champions League $2.3 billion to 32 clubs.

So, with an already crowded schedule (sound familiar, rugby?), the clubs de-prioritised the FA Cup, fielding teams heavily populated with reserve graders and youth players. When the product is poor, revenue follows suit. When the revenue doesn't measure up, neither does the product.

The imbalance was also clearly seen when Arsenal won the 2017 FA Cup, pocketing about $9m. But for coming a poor fifth in the EPL in the same year? Just over $285m, that's all.

So there is a legitimate worry about gelding the World Cup (which provides the vast majority of rugby's revenue) if the global league takes off and broadcasters turn up with trucks full of cash.

It's worth the risk. Much of international rugby is in a boring place right now. Internationals of importance are where the sport should be. Friendlies against weakened top sides? No thanks. Diverse opponents? Yes, please.

An annual world champion shouldn't dilute the four-yearly crown. Remember how much the rest of the rugby world loved it when the All Blacks ruled supreme – but crashed out of successive World Cups? The world track and field championship is a great annual event – but rates behind the Olympics' four-year cycle.

The global championship is worth a go. Rugby needs the shot in the arm.