Proposed 'World League' as momentous as birth of Rugby World Cup: Castle

by Iain Payten

Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle has likened the proposed ‘World League’ to the creation of the Rugby World Cup in the mid-1980s, but denied an annual competition between the world’s top teams could end up devaluing rugby’s showpiece.

Castle was among a meeting of chief executives from major nations in Los Angeles earlier this week, where a radical re-working of the global Test calendar was the primary topic of discussion.

Though models and specifics are still being worked through, the World League would see the world’s top 12 teams play each other once a year for points, before a Super Bowl-style final is played between the leading sides from the north and south.

Driven by World Rugby vice-president Gus Pichot, the aim of the proposed competition is to add more context and meaning to Test matches, and via aggregrated commercial and broadcast rights, to deliver a multi-million dollar uptick for all.

It promises to be a tricky global negotiation to push through to reality but Castle said the idea had received in-principle support from all the major nations, and the Rugby Australia chief executive is not only a supporter, she believes it could prove to be one the decisive moments in rugby history.

“It is a really momentous discussion that we are having,” Castle said.

“I put it in the terms of in '85, (former ARU president) Nick Shehadie went to World Rugby and said we need a Rugby World Cup. And that has obviously proved to be true, and that’s now on the agenda and has made rugby own the third-biggest sporting event in the world.

"I think this is the next phase of those types of discussions.

“When you look at it at a principle level, everyone supports it and then the reality kicks in of making sure that it looks like an option that grows everyone’s commercial opportunities.

“That’s a really important part, that we have to be able to make sure we take our own commercial interests and hats of our own 12 countries off for a moment and make sure we do what’s good for rugby.

“And then we have to make sure we look at all of the game and all of us as individuals, make sure we maintain and grow our current commercial positions. When you try and do those two things it can be quite challenging.”

Exactly how a World League would work will continue to be subject of more talks out but six Tests for the Wallabies against the northern teams, for example, would be divided between July and November windows.

Reports in the UK indicate the Rugby Championship would be trimmed back to accommodate two additional southern teams – such as Japan and Fiji. An extra Bledisloe Cup clash could be presumably added outside the ‘World League’.

Asked about SANZAAR’s attitude and willingness to changing the Rugby Championship, Castle said: “Well I think the same things stand as that the view is we have to look at what’s good for the game, and then we have to look at what’s good for SANZAAR and our own balance sheet, so those conversations will imply those two things are exactly same thing.”

Whether semi-finals are played – or just a straight final – is another question, along with where and when. Getting the powerful and cashed-up UK and French clubs on board would be challenging, too.

Castle admitted there are “strategic challenges” around the radical Test shake-up but she shot down theories that an annual ‘World League’ would devalue the Rugby World Cup, which is World Rugby’s massive – and only – cash cow.

“You’re talking about Test matches all over the world in different locations one Test match as opposed to a World Cup where all the countries are gathered in one location, so I don’t even think they’re comparable,” Castle said.

“I think it just brings together two things: value for every Test match, and value for fans around making sure that my Test match with my country, but so might Italy playing France be important because I need to know whether they win or lose to see how I end up in those semi-finals. 

“It brings together more than passing interest in all the Test matches that are going around the world because it will evolve into an outcome.”

Castle said there had already been indications from broadcasters that there would be more money attached to a ‘World League’.

“That due diligence has been done because there’s no point having the conversation at a start point if you don’t think there’s upside, there’s been enough conversation with broadcasters to indicate that they would pay more for this type of joint competition,” Castle said.

It’s unknown if relegation/promotion would be part of a ‘World League’ but Castle said one of the benefits for the idea was giving tier 2 countries more regular exposure to the big nations.

“It genuinely brings an opportunity to those developing countries to be part of something significant, where at the moment if you just continue with Six Nations and Rugby Championship you don't actually help any of those developing countries,” she said.

"This proposal really brings that to the table. If you don't have that part of it, then whilst you're adding value commercially I don't think you get the benefit of not only growing those countries, but potentially those new broadcast markets.”