Rugby wrestles with growing pains

Rugby wrestles with growing pains

Afternoon all from Mexico City. It’s 20 degrees, sunny, and thanks to the lockdown, not too polluted. This makes me happy.

I thought I’d have a look today at recent developments in the world of rugby. Like most other sports, the game has ground to halt over the past few months as the coronavirus has taken its toll. There are rumours – as yet unconfirmed – that the respective unions of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are planning a “4 Nations” tournament in November instead of completing the 2020 Six Nations Championship alongside France and Italy. For what its worth, England and France sit stranded at the top of the table with 13 points each from four games. The organisers insist they are still “fully committed” to completing the tournament with rescheduled matches this year, but there is little information relating to when or how that might be possible.

Meanwhile, the wider issue of rugby’s future on the global stage has reared its uncomfortable head once again. Last week, the major southern and northern hemisphere nations confirmed they are in talks to align their respective schedules and create a single international calendar for the post-corona world. This follows an interview last month in which freshly re-elected World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont told the BBC he was “confident” that a solution to rugby international schedule could be found following the coronavirus pandemic. The discussions are still at an early stage, and I would think we are still a fair way from finding an outcome that suits all parties. But this is at least an encouraging sign that progress is being made on an issue that has troubled the game for decades.

Rugby has not done a great job at successfully promoting itself over the years. It is popular in Britain and in a handful of her former colonies, as well as France, Italy, Argentina and Japan. But elsewhere it is basically known for being that bizarre sport involving long, multi-player hugs, brutal tackles and muddy pile-ups. It has not developed a global following in the way that other exports, like football, tennis and, to a lesser but ever-increasing extent, cricket have.

One of the main reasons for this lack of growth is logistics. The sheer distance between rugby-playing nations, and the diverging seasons and weather patterns, has made it difficult to knit together a cohesive international calendar that works for everyone.

There is a compact pocket of countries in Europe, which host the Six Nations every year, and Australia and New Zealand are also close to each other. But then you have places like South Africa, Japan, Argentina and tiny Pacific islands like Fiji that love the game but are miles away from any other country that plays it (to a respectable level).

In fairness, it is not anyone’s fault that the game took off in just a dozen or so countries that are sparsely positioned across all corners of the globe. If rugby had a stronghold throughout Europe, for example, it could have used that to steadily expand elsewhere.

But that does not change the fact that the current format does not offer the so-called “second tier” nations enough exposure to the highest level. Take Japan for example. The country staged arguably the best ever World Cup a few months ago, the hosts dazzling their way to the quarter finals with a thrilling brand of attacking rugby. But they do not have any regular fixture schedule for taking on the big boys. In 2018, for example, they played just five matches throughout the year, including one against lowly Georgia. Despite their talent and passion for the game, its going to be hard for the Japanese to continue improving under the status quo.

The latest in a long line of attempts at solving this problem came in the form of the Nations Championship. This proposal would see a league of 12 teams play each other once year, scheduling additional fixtures to complement existing competitions like the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, with a showpiece final between the top two sides at the end of the year. There would also be a relegation system to open the door for smaller nations to get regular shots at the top teams, in theory reducing the performance gap over time and producing more competitive matches. This proposal, however, was rejected last year after unions once again failed to agree on key points like format and scheduling.

Last week’s news regarding talks between the top teams may, then, also amount to nothing. But there does at least seem to be an acceptance from the relevant bodies that there is a problem, and a determination to put it right. It is vital that rugby agrees on a new calendar that allows more countries to compete all the while respecting the traditions of great tournaments like the Six Nations. A relegation system feels like an effective solution for a more inclusive, cohesive rugby schedule going forward, while a showpiece “final” at the end of the year would appeal to the wider audience. I’d definitely tune in.

Right, that’s all for today folks. Have yourselves a great Sunday.