Top Test stars unite to throw "World League" in major doubt

International
by Iain Payten

UPDATE: World Rugby has responded to players' concerns about a new proposed World League, criticising the International Rugby Players for going public with their views.

World Rugby’s top stars - including Johnny Sexton and Kieran Read - have raised serious doubts about the creation of a 'World League' after voicing concerns about the tournament harming player welfare and locking out tier two nations.

In a release issued on Thursday, the International Rugby Players Council said they had serious issues with the proposed format of the World League, which they believe World Rugby and leading nations are keen to finalise with a 12-year deal in coming weeks.

The bosses of tier one nations met in Los Angeles last month to discuss the competition which is designed to have all leading nations play each other once a year.

Along with Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, northern hemisphere nations would tour for three Tests in July, and southern nations would play the balance of games in November up north - along with a potential final.

With broadcasters interested and projections of $10 million-plus in extra annual revenue, SANZAAR nations - including Rugby Australia - have viewed the World League concept enthusiastically.

Details of the proposed models have not been made public and are to be further discussed at a World Rugby meeting in March.

But reports emerged in New Zealand media on Thursday revealing some detail, including the addition of USA and Japan to the Rugby Championship but with no promotion or relegation mechanism: which effectively would lock out the Pacific Island nations from tier one Test competition for the next 12 years.

The Players Council - a group of all worldwide players' unions - subsequently released a strong statement listing their concerns with the proposed World League. It came after a 40-person teleconference call on Wednesday that featured nine of the ten tier one Test captains - including Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper.

"It’s believed that World Rugby bosses are seeking to ratify the deal in the coming weeks, which has raised concerns among the Player Council,” the statement said.

The players said their major concerns with the World League were:

• Player load challenges from multiple top-level test matches in different countries and time-zones in consecutive weeks

• Increased long-haul travel in short time frames

• A lack of real opportunities for Tier Two nations to progress

• Increased conflicts between country and club demands and Regulation 9 release periods

• Potential impact on Rugby World Cup and Lions tours

• The long-term quality and integrity of the international game

“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,” Sexton, the Players Council president, said.

“The issue of player load has never been so topical, however it needs to be properly understood. To suggest that players can play five incredibly high-level test matches in consecutive weeks in November is out of touch and shows little understanding of the physical strain this brings”

Kieran Read is confident he is 100 per cent fit for Saturday night. Photo: Getty ImagesPlayers Council member Kieran Read said in the statement: “After listening to the issues raised by many of the players, we need to be very careful that we balance the commercial needs of the game, with the player welfare needs and ensure the quality and integrity of matches meets expectations.

“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.

“With new technologies, new broadcast deals and new money coming into the sport, this is a crucial moment for rugby and one that many players are generally excited about. However, we have to make sure that the integrity of the game and welfare of the players is protected."

While it was not confirmed, the Players Council statement said it believed promotion and relegation would not be part of the World League, which would mean nations like Fiji, Tonga and Samoa would not be able to play any major nations in Tests. 

Pacific Island rugby identities were deeply angered on Thursday about the potential of being frozen out and claiming World Rugby and the tier one nations were prioritising the commercial value in the bigger USA and Japan markets, over the growth and development of the smaller island nations, who produce a huge number of players.

"This proposed format and structure would mean the death of Pacific Island rugby. Let alone this not recognising our contribution to the game historically, this makes us feel as if we are irrelevant to the future of the game at high levels ," Tongan Hale T-Pole, chairman of the Pacific Rugby Players association, told stuff.co.nz.

Others forecast a glut of Pacific Island players either declaring eligibility for countries like Australia and New Zealand, or simply signing long club deals and quitting Test rugby.

Tongan captain Siale Piutau told stuff.co.nz: "This competition only entrenches the unbalanced tiered system in rugby and widens the gap between the "haves and have nots.”

WORLD RUGBY RESPONSE

Pichot World Rugby Vice ChairmanWorld Rugby released a statement late on Thursday night, criticising the IRP for their comments and suggesting that nothing was set in stone.

"However, the manner the International Rugby Players (IRP) organisation has expressed these is surprising given regular engagement throughout this ongoing process," it read.

"World Rugby’s commitment to player welfare matters is unwavering and we will continue to engage and give full consideration to the welfare of players within the ongoing discussions.

"It is inappropriate to comment on specifics whilst wider stakeholder consultation, including with IRP, is ongoing. However, it is important to note that some assumptions made in the statement regarding the proposed competition structure are inaccurate and that important matters such as playing load and emerging nation opportunities are at the heart of constructive dialogue on the overall concept."

World Rugby vice-chairman Gus Pichot, who was the original champion of the "World League" idea said he wouldn't support a competition that put tier two nations on the outer.

"I will never support a league that blocks the way for emerging nations," he said.

"My position and my proposals have always been the same since the first day: 12 + 12 (two divisions of 12 teams each) with promotion-relegation and with enough rest period for the players.

"Nothing has been decided yet, and I doubt that will be, but I will continue to try. If we do not succeed, it will not be the fault of those who want to grow this sport in the world."

Rugby Australia and SANZAAR declined to comment.