World Rugby has insisted in a statement that nothing has yet been finalised and that “assumptions made in the statement regarding the proposed competition structure are inaccurate”. Almost 40 international players held a conference call this week, however, and have serious doubts about player workload, increased long-haul travel and a lack of opportunities for tier-two nations. Sexton, the president of the International Rugby Players, said: “While players gave this idea a cautious welcome when we met at the end of last year it now seems like a commercial deal on the future of the game is being negotiated at a rapid pace with little consideration given to the important points we raised with World Rugby in November.”
Read’s view is the standard of Test rugby would suffer if the proposal goes ahead. “Fans want to see meaningful games; they don’t want to see fatigued players playing a reduced quality of rugby as part of a money-driven, weakened competition that doesn’t work for the players or clubs,” said the New Zealand captain. England’s captain, Owen Farrell, has similar reservations. “Players are definitely open to discussing a new global season, but what we develop has to work with the club game in order to reduce conflict, deal with player release issues and make sure their welfare is looked after. The proposal presented to us doesn’t seem to have considered this properly.”
England’s scrum-half Ben Youngs is also unimpressed. “You look at it and straight away you are thinking: ‘Player welfare, more matches, how does it fit into the schedule?’ If you want to grow the game I don’t know if that is the right format.”
“We have seen a presentation from World Rugby on a potential global competition,” said Melville, who will remain in day-to-day charge at Twickenham until the union’s new permanent chief executive, Bill Sweeney, arrives from the British Olympic Association. “Having seen that presentation we asked lots of questions. Our main priority is player welfare. Travel, the rising intensity of the games, more back-to-back Tests … the players will be concerned about all these things and what would happen in a Lions year doesn’t seem to have been addressed either.”
The latest proposals leaked to the NZ Herald newspaper would see the Six Nations and Rugby Championship sides form a league with the addition of USA and Japan. The teams would play each other once during the year, culminating in semi-finals and a final in the northern hemisphere in early December but, crucially, there is no promotion and relegation component attached. This would exclude developing European nations such as Romania, Georgia and Russia, as well as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, prompting fears it could signal the death of top-level 15-a-side rugby in the Pacific Islands.
There are suggestions a broadcaster has tabled a bid and that the plan could be signed off shortly. Melville, speaking in Exeter where England will play their Women’s Six Nations game against Italy next Saturday, says the RFU is seeking further clarification.
“We understand the globalisation of sport but we don’t understand how this competition works. For me it’s under-cooked at the moment. We’ve asked the questions everyone else has probably been asking and we’ve yet to get answers. We’ve got to be very careful. You need to get the competition right first and then say: ‘How do we commercialise this?’”
England have joined the global chorus of disapproval at the latest plans to reform rugby union’s international calendar. A leaked proposal to create a new 12-team World League from 2020 which excludes the Pacific Islands for economic reasons is causing uproar in both hemispheres, with Nigel Melville, the Rugby Football Union’s acting chief executive, criticising the concept as “under-cooked”.
With leading players including Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell and the All Blacks captain, Kieran Read, having already voiced deep reservations about changes to the existing Test schedule, Melville has made clear the RFU also has significant concerns on a number of grounds, not least player welfare.