The proposed global tournament from World Rugby looks a good idea in principle – but there are many unanswered practical questions.
What, for example, will be the money split? NZ Rugby have for years decried the fact that the All Blacks are not financially rewarded enough for the power of their crowd-pulling brand up north.
By all accounts, players have dropped their opposition to adding games to an already crowded rugby calendar. But what has been agreed? Will it really alleviate the weakened-side syndrome which sees so many northern touring sides come to New Zealand in the June test window with too many second-stringers and/or undercooked in terms of game time?
The plan is for the Six Nations teams (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy) to represent the north against Australia, Argentina, Fiji, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa for the south. The northern teams would play three matches against three different southern opponents on their July tours down under.
They would then meet the other three southern nations during the November tours of Europe and the top two in each pool would meet each other in a semifinals-finals week.
There are some real positives about this: for a start, it's not so different to the existing calendar and it gives a sense of order and impetus to what have been increasingly uninteresting Rugby Championship encounters which count towards a meaningless world-rankings 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. Action on test day is good but quickly fades from the memory; recall is fuzzied by a flood of matches; anticipation is diluted by the recurring sameness.
It's also good to see Japan and Fiji there. The Japanese announced themselves with that win over the Springboks in the 2019 World Cup; anyone watching the Fijian Drua in Super Rugby has seen the potential for a stronger Fijian test team.
But two more questions arise: How dramatic or compelling will this competition be if there is no promotion-relegation? How will this fit alongside not just the World Cup but the British & Irish Lions tours – which are to be left untouched?
It was the prospect of promotion-relegation which sent the last attempt to launch a global competition thundering down the toilet in 2019. Scotland, Ireland and Italy pulled the chain on that one, not liking at all the prospect of being relegated out of the top tier.
It was Scotland and Ireland, incidentally, who also voted against the innovation of the Rugby World Cup back before 1987 – and that seemed to turn out all right, putting gazillions into the pockets of world rugby, including Scotland and Ireland.
Promotion-relegation adds an extra turn of the screw to the other end of the competition, as football's English Premier League shows every year. The drama attached to those going down almost equals that at the top. It also gives those coming up, who have little time playing against the big boys, a chance to flourish.
Rugby's ongoing self-interest is a large part of the reason why the likes of Georgia, Namibia, Spain, Canada, Portugal, Uruguay, Romania, Russia and Ivory Coast – all of whom have played in Rugby World Cups – have never gone on to amount to much. It's also partly why USA are good at sevens but not 15s rugby (because they can play at the top level in sevens).
So will the lack of promotion-relegation lead to what we have seen in other crowded calendars in top professional sport?
Look at the EPL again. Thirty years ago, the FA Cup was still a glamour event. Not now. It was usurped by the money on offer from the EPL and the Champions League which shower more than $7 billion across 52 clubs between them. The FA Cup, in contrast, spreads somewhere around $45m-$50m across 100 clubs in England and Wales, attracting smaller TV audiences and sponsors.
So, with an already crowded schedule, the clubs deprioritised the FA Cup, populating teams with reserve and youth players. When the product weakens, revenue drops. When revenue drops, it's hard to strengthen the product.
A further reference point: a few years back, when Arsenal won the FA Cup, their financial prize was $9m. For the same club finishing fifth in the EPL in the same year? Close to $300m.
So will the global championship nations do the same if there is no promotion-relegation, if player welfare remains sacrosanct and the World Cup and Lions tours stay the priority?
If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the new global competition (assuming it sees the light of day) will go well for the first year or two; rugby sorely needs this shot in the arm.
But then these outstanding issues will have to be addressed if it is to remain meaningful.