Go for it! A meaningful Nations League could galvanise rugby and turn Beaumont’s vision into reality
The Nations League concept is now back on the table as a means of galvanising international rugby, but if it is going to make a real difference, this cannot be a half-hearted project.
Sir Bill Beaumont has swiftly followed up his victory in the World Rugby chairman election by making it clear that the Six Nations is not for changing, so it is up to the global governing body to make them an offer that they can’t refuse.
The target must be to secure proper funding, to turn the new global vision into a viable reality – and to move fast.
Sir Bill Beaumont made it very clear that the Six Nations Championship is not for changing
For a Nations League to be truly meaningful, it must incorporate the results of the Six Nations and an enlarged Rugby Championship, rather than just function as a way of structuring north-south fixtures.
If World Rugby can secure the sort of investment they had lined up last year, they could offer an enticing prize-money scheme, but only based on countries signing up to the full terms and conditions, including promotion and relegation.
As part of this bold proposal, the Lions must survive but also move, in order to create a clear two-year block between World Cups. That would allow for each of the 12 teams in the top division to play each other home and away – through two campaigns in their annual championships, along with the inter-hemisphere contests, with a universal point-scoring format.
Whether the current July window moves to October or not can be down to negotiation involving clubs and unions, but either way, the new plan would be for the northern teams to play three southern sides away from home. They would play the other three back at home in November of the same year, then the reverse fixtures would take place the following year, as happens in the Six Nations and as will surely happen in a six-team Rugby Championship.
The Lions must survive but may need to move to create a two-year block between World Cups
For example, England might play Fiji, New Zealand and Australia on consecutive weekends, then host South Africa, Japan and Argentina later in the year. Matches in the Asia/Pacific region could be held in close proximity, whereas games taking place in South Africa and Argentina might have to be spaced slightly further apart, to allow for extended travel times.
Let’s imagine this concept gets off the ground. Next summer is the Lions tour of South Africa, but then the following tour could be pushed back to 2026, to fall the year before the World Cup. So Lions in 2021, a Nations League trial run in 2022, a World Cup in 2023, then the Nations League proper begins in 2024, running until 2025. Then the cycle would continue with the Lions in 2026, World Cup in 2027 and the next Nations League in 2028/29.
When it concludes, there would be a league champion and the bottom country would be relegated. If that is a team from the south, then a southern team would be promoted from the second division and vice-versa if a northern nation went down. This would be real jeopardy, as the up-shot would be four years on the outside looking in, which should galvanise Italy or Fiji or others in the danger zone.
Likewise, it would be some incentive for Georgia or Samoa or others to strive for promotion to the elite level, with four years of marquee matches against the great and the good as the reward. The new system would raise the stakes worldwide, so that long transition and experimental phases, based on the quest to aim for some distant peak, become a thing of the past.
In the new Nations League, there would be incentives for nations such as Fiji and Georgia (pic)
Of course, some could argue that such an event would dilute the importance of the World Cup, but these would be contrasting models; a concentrated, knock-out showpiece staged in one country set against a prolonged test of consistent success in a multitude of locations, home and away. And there could be a major incentive for any team which achieves a Double of World Cup and Nations League glory – a jackpot to strive for and the title of undisputed champions.
The Lions must be part of any overhaul, so it could allow for the creation of a traditional touring year in every four-year cycle. Top division sides would have to play away Tests against teams from the second division, in a month block. Imagine the likes of Uruguay and Romania, Canada and Namibia welcoming the game’s superpowers in a series of transformative box-office occasions. It would also aid their development, a year before every World Cup.
It’s not perfect. There will be flaws and hurdles. Those who fear dropping out of the elite will rail against the relegation aspect. But make them an offer they can’t refuse, or deny them the spoils of the brave new world.
The new nations league would be a different competition model to that of the World Cup