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Probyn column: World Cup is still the best way to gain exposure for Tier 2 nations

With what seems like the entire rugby world against the idea of a World League, how on earth did World Rugby manage to get what seems a good idea so wrong?

A proposal that was supposed to give hope and aspiration to all nations, was turned once again into a back room deal to make the rich richer and the poor fend for themselves.

Agustin Pichot, vice chairman of World rugby, said: “My position and my proposal has always been the same since day one. Two divisions of 12 teams with promotion/relegation, with enough rest periods for the players.”

That somehow got changed into 12 elite teams, the usual suspects: the foundation eight with Italy, Argentina, USA and Japan tagged on, with no promotion or relegation.

Is it any wonder there was an outcry? For too long the game has been a cartel with the extra voting rites for the foundation unions and closed shop competitions. Then, just when it seemed that perhaps things were going to change, rumours of the drawbridge being hoisted up again began to circulate.

World Rugby chair, Sir Bill Beaumont, was quick to emphasise that no decision had been made over the long-term plans for the World League but cited “consumer research” as confirming a structured annual competition would make fans and new audiences more likely to watch, attend and engage with international rugby, exposing the sport to new fans worldwide.

The thing is, it’s only speculation that it would bring a new audience to international rugby, as World Rugby’s own release suggests the consumer research found it would make it only “more likely” for a new audience to watch, attend and engage.

As we all know, getting tickets to the best international rugby games is already virtually impossible with most sold out months in advance, which suggests that any new audience would in fact be a TV audience, and although likely to increase the collective revenue it may ultimately reduce the intake for some nations, particularly if pooled and distributed by World Rugby.

The promotion and relegation issue would obviously not appeal to any of the countries already sitting at the top table as it would almost certainly lead to a cut in revenues.

It would particularly affect countries like Scotland and England.

Scotland, because it has the smallest player base of any of the major unions and punches well above its weight, so any loss of top tier status could erode that base further.

England, because it uses its money to finance its deal with professional clubs to gain access to players, so even a temporary reduction of revenue could make it increasingly difficult for the union to meet its financial commitments with a knock-on that would probably cause a similar issue for a number of Premiership clubs.

In many ways it is an impossible situation for World Rugby to balance, with Tier 2 nations desperate for exposure and games against Tier 1 sides to improve their playing standards and financial position.

Rugby World Cup
In the loop: Fiji greet spectators after losing to Wales at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Meanwhile, T1 nations need games that sell-out their stadium at premium prices to help balance the books, and that will only happen with games against other T1 nations.

The World Cup has raised the hopes and aspirations of many nations, particularly in T2, but it sadly remains true that none are currently of a high enough standard, or have the consistency, to compete with the T1 nations.

With all the top eight positions of World Rugby’s ranking almost continually occupied by the foundation unions, it proves that the game is not yet ready to offer a promotion and relegation league style competition at international level and without the opportunity for the T2 to move up, there is no point in creating  upheaval across the game.

Questions that must be asked are: Why Beaumont feels it necessary to invite a ‘select group’ of rugby’s stakeholders to an emergency meeting in Dublin at the end of the month, who are the select few, and what does he hope to achieve?

With the repercussions of any change liable to impact on all members of World Rugby with each and everyone a stakeholder in the game, any private discussions with a select few could be seen as undermining the integrity of any decision made.

At the moment, rugby, despite its profile, is not a big enough sport to expand beyond the confines of its current competitions and must rely on slow, continued growth as a result of various countries’ World Cup exposure to bring more countries and players on board.

North Harbour
Specialisation: Mitre 10 Cup side North Harbour have axed their player pathway programme and give reasons why. Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

Speaking of bringing more players on board, former RFU development office, Terry Burwell circulated an email this week outlining how and why New Zealand’s North Harbour have axed their junior representative programme.

The short version of the reason why is that too many young players drop-out of the sport if they are not chosen for a ‘performance pathway’ and, by removing those early pathways, the hope is to keep more young people playing the game for longer until they become ‘established’ players.

The same is true here with many young players dropping out of the sport if they fail to be signed by an academy, and then those who leave the academies without the offer of a professional contract join the exodus.

The North Harbour official believes that rugby is a late specialisation sport, so putting some young players on early performance and representation (county selection) programmes can be detrimental to their development and enjoyment of the game because of selection at too early an age.

I have to say I have always said players are chosen for the academies far too early in their physical development which I believe leads to so many being rejected.

If North Harbour are right, it could be a game changer in how and when the game develops its young talents.

JEFF PROBYN / Photo: Getty Images

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