The attempt by World Rugby to set up an international league makes Brexit resemble a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle by comparison. Players have weighed in, saying the plan would add to their burden while Pacific islanders have in protest at a (false) report that none of their three countries would be involved.
The idea of using the summer and autumn Test windows to align the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship was spawned by World Rugby’s vice-chairman, Agustín Pichot, the former Argentina scrum-half, who recognised that the current tour schedule left the major southern hemisphere nations financially disadvantaged.
All three have been losing players to clubs in France, England and Japan for years, but what started out as a means for players to top up their pension pot as they neared retirement has become more of a career choice because of the salaries they are now offered, sufficiently high to weaken the lure of international rugby.
New Zealand are the only team from the south in the top four of the world rankings, and they have been hampered by the loss of second and third-choice All Blacks in recent years. South Africa rallied last year after two, by their standards, dreadful campaigns and Australia have struggled since reaching the 2015 World Cup final.
Pichot’s would see the Six Nations and Rugby Championship remain annual tournaments: the latter would be supplemented by two countries which, on current rankings, would be Fiji and Japan. For the purposes of the new league, they would become two conferences with home or away fixtures.
They would play the sides in the other conference for points during July and November and the top two in each group would go through to the semi-finals. It would mean teams played between 11 and 13 matches, potentially less than the countries that make this year’s World Cup semi-finals, and each championship would be underpinned by second and third divisions.
World Rugby wants promotion and relegation in each championship, although not in Lions and World Cup years, something that has been resisted by the Six Nations, even though the Rugby Football Union is resisting an attempt to turn the Premiership into a closed shop. went open in 1995, which should have meant access to all, but the amateur flame is still flickering. The European unions have long resisted proposals for revenue sharing and are unhappy with World Rugby’s desire to collectively sell the television rights, even though they have been told the commercial upswing would benefit them by bringing an estimated 35% hike in revenue.
The World Rugby chairman, Bill Beaumont, will meet the unions involved in Dublin next Thursday in an attempt to restart an idea that has stalled. A problem even if agreement is secured is that talks would then have to be held with clubs in England, France and Japan, who in the past have called for a reduction in the number of Test matches.
The International Rugby Players’ Association last week withdrew its support for the Nations Championship, saying it would be detrimental to player welfare. “What we develop has to work with the club game to reduce conflict, deal with player release issues and make sure their welfare is looked after,” said the England captain, Owen Farrell.
The Nations Championship is unlikely to work unless all the unions involved centrally contract 30-35 players. Player welfare would cease to be a concern because they would be managed by one body and not be the rope in a tug-of-war. Their club appearances would be rationed and the primacy of international rugby, the game’s financial driver, would be asserted, to the benefit of the north and the south.
Clubs would resist that. The Premiership and the Top 14 have developed significantly in the past 15 years and would understandably fight any attempt to undermine what they have built up, but international rugby is becoming weaker globally with too many players excommunicating themselves by putting the club game first.
The Rugby Football Union and the French Rugby Federation have in the last decade pursued a policy of co-operation with their clubs which has largely amounted to non-interference, although across the Channel the latter’s president, Bernard Laporte, has in the last year given his sabre a good rattle.
The answer lies with the two unions. They should draft a contract for squad players to present to their clubs, one which obliges them to be released for all national squad training sessions. The clubs would refuse to accept them, but if they were then told that the lucrative agreement they had with their union over player release would not be renewed and the players coming out of contract would be offered central deals, their bluff would be called.
It would get messy but the loss of players during the Six Nations has not affected attendances in England or France this year. What is best for the leading players? The current muddled, lumpen system or one that puts them all first? They would still play for their clubs, just not as often, and their careers, together with earning capacity, would likely increase.
None of the Six Nations teams, including England, can afford to dismiss the increase in revenue that will be presented to them next week. The issue of relegation, given that it would amount to a play-off, should not be a deal-breaker. If they act out of self-interest, it will amount to self-harm.
• This is an extract from our weekly rugby union email, the Breakdown. .