A plan has been hatched for the Rugby Championship as rugby bosses aim to create a genuinely aligned rugby calendar, but could it lead to more top All Blacks heading offshore? Liam Napier reports.
Forging a genuinely aligned global rugby season appears closer than ever but the proposal to bring the Rugby Championship forward by five months to the first half of the year is expected to face strong resistance unless major revenue-sharing concessions are made.
The Covid-19 financial crisis confronting all unions has accelerated the willingness to establish a blueprint for long-term change - specifically the vision for a test rugby window that would run back-to-back in October and November, and potentially pave the way for the Nations Championship concept involving the world's leading 12 nations.
Positive discussions between all major unions were confirmed this week with a joint Sanzaar and Six Nations statement outlining the intent to "eliminate self-interest and recognise that the international and club game have shared mutual benefits that if approached and managed correctly can enable both to flourish."
Consultation is ongoing, but while moving the Southern Hemisphere-hosted July test window to October is understood to be welcomed by most parties, the Herald understands the proposal to shift the Rugby Championship from August-September to March-April has been met with strong pushback.
The concept of staging the Six Nations, which runs from February to March, and Rugby Championship in the March-April window is essentially the same as creating successive test windows in October-November.
Bundling test rugby together would create separate, clean windows in which international and domestic club rugby could thrive in each hemisphere. In a perfect world this would allow nations and clubs to both maximise revenue and create their own narratives by having the best players involved without disruption.
From a New Zealand perspective, though, there appears little upside in moving the Rugby Championship from its existing window.
The reality of starting test rugby in late February-early March, when All Blacks and all Sanzaar players return from summer breaks, would leave them short of conditioning, form and risk undermining the national teams.
In late February-March, the Rugby Championship would also be forced to compete with cricket and complications would inevitably arise around booking major stadiums.
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Establishing clear player release windows, in which clubs must allow their elite talent to play test rugby, may assist the Pacific Islands and South Africa who are increasingly moving towards selecting their internationals from offshore.
But player release windows are not relevant concerns for countries such as New Zealand and Japan. In fact the biggest sticking point around the proposed Rugby Championship move is it would inevitably further devalue domestic competitions thereafter.
Whatever shape Super Rugby takes in the future, it cannot risk losing more fan engagement and downgrading broadcast deals that effectively fund the game.
From a selection perspective New Zealand remains committed to attempting to retain their best players in their competitions. Moving the Rugby Championship to March-April, as has been proposed, goes against that grain by opening the door for more All Blacks to head offshore, skip the domestic season and ultimately erode pathways.
In any agreed global calendar, New Zealand's preference is therefore likely to be for the Rugby Championship to stay in its existing window. This would still allow for the creation of the October-November test window, and for the Six Nations to do as they please with the timing of the jewel in their rugby crown.
The revival of the Nations Championship concept would, however, spark conversations around revenue-sharing in the proposed October-November test window. It would make sense to stage the climax of the test season in the larger northern stadiums, but that then raises questions of how revenue should be equally split.
If agreement can be reached on this long-held sticking point, it may help forge compromises in aligning the season as a whole.
With test rugby on hold for the foreseeable future, finances continue to take major hits yet the overall mood in regards to reshaping the global calendar appears more positive.
There is an acceptance from both hemispheres around the benefits of creating a clear club window, and moving the July tests to October, although European clubs are yet to have their say.
For southern nations the prospect of Super Rugby running - initially a domestic form - from March-July would eventually allow for cross-over matches involving the best teams from New Zealand, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and the Pacific.
This could follow the European Heineken Cup lead in a mini pool format, or a straight knockout concept.
To achieve the long-coveted and inherently complex global calendar, all nations will need to make sacrifices.
At this stage, moving the Rugby Championship five months earlier appears unlikely unless serious revenue-sharing sweeteners are tabled.
The other intriguing development comes as CVC Capital Partners signed off their £116 million ($232m) investment deal for a 28 per cent stake in the European Pro14 competition which includes two South African teams, the Cheetahs and Kings.
Immediate reports from the north suggest South Africa are expected to increase their number of teams in the Pro14 which further clouds their long-term Super Rugby involvement and the push towards an Asia Pacific link for New Zealand.