Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Harpin Points 31 : World League Special

On Wednesday we widen our focus beyond Leinster & Ireland rugby matches, offering views on broader rugby topics and themes


There is much chatter around the ruggersphere about the possibility of a new competition being put together very soon called a ‘World League’, so this week I'm going to devote all my Harpin Points to it and see what I can come up with.


The bones of this idea have been around for quite a while, but just last week we had some flesh applied.  The proposal that seems to be that a 12-team league will be established among the leading test nations, with everyone playing each other once in a calendar year and the top four qualifying for semifinals to produce a league champion, in non-World Cup years.

On first glance this seems like a ton of extra fixtures in the calendar, but actually in practise it shouldn't be.  Apparently the intention is to give matches in both the Six Nations and Rugby Championship a dual purpose, with match points counting on the tables for both the regular competition itself AND the World League.

But arguably the most controversial aspect of this notion is in the alteration of the Rugby Championship, with the addition of USA and Japan to bring it to six teams and give it a fixture list similar to the Six Nations.

So if this panned out, it would mean that the twelve test nations would get five of their World League fixtures from the regular competitions, and the remaining six would be made up in two lots of three during the June and November test windows, with the semifinals and final being held presumably at the end of November/early December.


Right - before I harp on my thoughts on the proposal, let me first outline where I'm coming fro when I look at this issue.

One refrain I see often in objection to this proposal is “If it’s not broken why fix it”.  I completely disagree with the notion that the current rugby calendar is anywhere close to ideal, especially in Europe.

Just look at how the rugby season is structured in the southern hemisphere.  The Super Rugby competition kicks off in February, and with the exception of the June test window, it enjoys pretty much an exclusive run of matches right the way through to July; then the Rugby Championship test nations get to assemble their squads and the remainder of the professional playing personnel are distributed to the domestic competitions of the Mitre 10 Cup, Currie Cup and NPC.

This structure allows for coaches to have virtually full access to their squads from start to finish in each competition, and in the case of the test setups, it means that when they travel north for their ‘End of Season tours’ in November, or as happens this year, for the World Cup, they do so with a set of players well used to each other's company.

Let us compare and contrast that with the way things are here in Europe shall we. Domestic, European and test matches are all staggered throughout a mammoth season from September to May, with coaches having to closely monitor their squads meaning fielding the same XV from one week to the next is nigh on impossible.

When the Six Nations test squads assemble for their own end of season tours (including the supposedly all-important Lions Tours), they must do so right on the back of a month of big playoff matches in the club competitions.

As you can probably tell from my wording in the above paragraphs, I'm not too crazy about the current European set up.   It is a wobbly structure built on the framework of the way things were in the amateur days and it has been due a major reboot for over a decade now IMO, which is probably why I have been harping on it since the inception of this blog.

While I understand that it is by no means easy to make changes that will work absolutely perfectly for everyone on both sides of the globe, I still think that if changes are to be made they should at least address the above concerns.


Now when I outline my concerns above, I am of course speaking primarily as a fan.  The stop start nature of the European rugby calendar affects us IMO because it pretty much guarantees that the selection of players for any one match will be directly affected by another one to be played week's later.

But there are other elements to consider, and these are ones that were outlined in statements made by prominent rugby personalities over the past week.


Speaking for the players, the likes of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell pointed out that the possibility of five massive test matches in November could have a toll on the players, and while this may be true, it is only so if we assume that nothing is to be done to the European domestic schedule.

What if, say, our season began in August and there was a three-week mid-season break in December?  That's just a suggestion off the top of my head right now; I know there are much better ones out there.

The important thing is that there should be set parameters to the amount of playing time professionals are expected to churn out in each calendar year, and this must play a part in any proposed change.


Then there's the crucial area of development.  Rugby's law-making body used to be called the International Rugby Board or IRB, which is an acronym that made it sound more like a bank.  IMO the rebranding to ‘World Rugby’ was a good one, but only because to do so created a self-imposed remit on the body to be responsible for the development of the game all over the globe, not just in the so-called ‘established' or 'Tier One' nations.

So I can totally understand why there would be much consternation with the above World League proposal as it elevates USA and Japan when other strong rugby nations like Georgia, Fiji and Samoa get left in the cold, particularly when the rumours suggest that the new deal could be ring fenced for over a decade. 

On the surface it seems that the best way to be more inclusive would be to introduce the concept of promotion and relegation to a World League, though if they were to adopt the model as proposed above, this could create very awkward complications.  What if a Northern Hemisphere team gets relegated and a Southern one promoted?  Suddenly the scheduling becomes a lot less straightforward.

Whatever the chosen method, there should definitely be a path for a nation keen on developing its game quickly to be rewarded for success at each level, even so far as to join the top table if they achieve the right results.


But like pretty much everything else in this world, we can't ignore the money.  Apparently there is some mysterious broadcaster behind the controversial proposal, and to a network keen on maximising ad revenues, the prospect of including the massive media markets in USA and Japan would be tempting enough to disregard the wishes of Pacific Islands or non-Six Nations.  I'm not saying I'm happy with the greed element to all of this, but I am saying it is something we have to factor in when it comes to making a decision.

And one final point that I have heard around the place - “wouldn't a World League somehow devalue the World Cup?” I honestly don't get that at all.  Leagues and Cups have been played side by side in sports, particularly in Europe, for generations now. 

A league, once done properly, can offer more meaningful matches throughout the year without diminishing the importance of a four-yearly tournament with all teams in the same place competition for the true World title.


As far as I'm concerned, a World League can definitely work, but only if it ticks all the boxes I have outlined, and each in the right amounts (ie not going too much for money at the expense of player safety and development).  For this reason I believe we should remain open minded and take some comfort in the noises being made by the current bigwigs at World Rugby like Brett Gosper, Bill Beaumont and Agustin Pichot.

It seems to me that the leaked proposal was nothing more than a “kite-flying” exercise to get us more used to the idea that some form of big change is coming down the tracks. I'm not saying for a moment that I will just blindly accept whatever they come up with, but I am willing to appreciate that it is a very narrow tightrope World Rugby are trying to walk. At least they're giving it a go - whether they make it all the way across remains to be seen.

Many thanks for sticking with my latest Harpin Points until the end.  Towards the end of the week we will of course be turning our attention towards the big round of Six Nations clashes at the weekend.  Do stay tuned!  JLP


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019