New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew ramped up the north-south divide on the eve of the World Cup as he accused the Six Nations of putting their own interests ahead of those of the game of rugby.
Tew said that the split between the northern and southern hemispheres had never been greater after the Six Nations rejected World Rugby's proposal to establish a Nations Championship. Earlier this week, it was revealed that the Six Nations, who blocked the plan which would have made tier-two nations more secure financially and offered them the chance of promotion, was instead on the cusp of accepting a £300m (NZ$592m) bid for a 15 per cent stake from private equity firm CVC.
Asked whether he was hopeful of any renewed attempts of establishing a united global calendar between north and south, Tew told the Daily Telegraph: "We all have a responsibility to keep talking about how we better structure international rugby. I have been involved for a very long time so I am not holding my breath."
Tew, who also questioned England's use of the eligibility laws, described the divisive debate as "a Six Nations versus everyone else thing". And while accepting the need for individual nations to look after their own best interests, he said they also owe a responsibility "to make sure the global game also moves forward because they are closely linked".
"How we find common ground is very challenging," he added. "On some issues, we collaborate pretty well together. Around player welfare, for example, there is a common understanding of what we want to achieve. Things like the season structure, we clearly have different views. Other people can decide who is right and wrong, but if you can't get an agreement then you can't move forward."
The outgoing chief executive's comments come as hosts Japan prepare to take on Russia in Tokyo on Friday in the first match of the ninth Rugby World Cup. The All Blacks take on South Africa on a blockbuster opening weekend which also features Ireland v Scotland and England v Tonga. The Nations Championship would have featured a 12-team top league, offering financial security to the southern hemisphere unions as well as an opportunity for tier-two nations to play regular matches against established countries.
World Rugby claimed to have secured equity support worth £6.1bn (NZ$12bn) over 12 years but in June it announced it was abandoning the plan after Six Nations objections to the inclusion of promotion and relegation.
Tew said: "The two critical issues with the proposal in front of us were was the offer in front of us big enough to deliver revenue for everybody involved as long as it was mooted. That was a conversation that had to be concluded. The second issue was whether there was an opportunity for the tier-two countries to join the tier-one countries at some stage and that was a stumbling block for the Six Nations. It is as simple as that.
"We made it very clear that we were prepared to allow for promotion and relegation and we were also prepared to allow the expansion of the Rugby Championship which would have come with some risk. The stumbling block was not with the southern hemisphere."
Currently, the hope of reaching a common understanding seems as far removed as it ever has. That extends to the vexed issue of eligibility laws, with some controversy over Eddie Jones's surprise selection in his squad of New Zealand-born Gloucester scrum-half Willi Heinz.
Despite living in New Zealand for 28 years, Heinz qualifies for England through a grandmother. England head coach Jones has previously selected Kiwis Ben Te'o and Brad Shields before they had played a game in the country. South African Jean Kleyn will represent Ireland in the World Cup after qualifying through the three-year residency rule.
Tew said, pointedly: "If other countries think they can prosper by selecting players who meet certain eligibility criteria then that's their decision."
By contrast, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga are barred from selecting players who have already represented another country. Tew says he would have no problem with former All Blacks Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua playing for Tonga or Samoa respectively at this World Cup, but once again the opposition comes from Six Nations teams who benefit from the current eligibility laws. Again, Tew is not slow to twist the knife in.
He said: "If you genuinely want tier-two countries to be competitive in World Cups, then having international players who have that genuine link and are finished with the countries they first represented would make a difference. We have supported that but we have not got it across the line.
"Yet at the same time we have to maintain the sanctity of international rugby. You see the criticism of countries who pick players very quickly. Eyebrows were raised here when Brad [Shields] was picked, not in a bad way because we were very pleased that he had the opportunity to play international rugby, but to wear a Test jersey before you had even played a game in that country was an interesting concept.
"The rules are the rules. They must be applied according to the way they are written. Then it is up to countries to decide what their jersey means to them."