Plans for the biggest change to test rugby since the advent of professionalism are being discussed in Dublin this week.
The sport’s main unions will meet World Rugby to commit to the new competition – which is expected to be a two-tier format that would reshape the global calendar – by the end of the week.
From there, it is hoped that a formal vote on its introduction will take place in November. But what exactly would this new competition look like, a revamp of the failed Nations Championship that was scrapped in 2019?
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And what are the potential stumbling blocks that stand in its way?
What is the basic format?
So, let’s start with the basics.
The international match would be split into two separate tiers of 12 teams. Every two years, the tournament would result in a grand final and two promotion/relegation play-offs – one for each hemisphere. In that respect, it’s a bit like the Nations League that UEFA introduced to international football in Europe.
It is reported that the lower level – dubbed the “Challenger” level, according to the Times – would start in 2024 – with Tier 2 teams from Europe, Africa, Asia and America. Based on current rankings, this would include Georgia, Spain, Romania, Portugal, Netherlands, Samoa, Tonga, Namibia, USA, Canada, Uruguay and Chile .
The top tier would then begin in 2026. It would consist of the Six Nations teams, the Rugby Championship teams, and then Japan and Fiji.
Above all, it should be noted that there would be no relegation from the Six Nations or rugby league. Points from these tournaments would also not count towards the overall standings of the two tiers – these being instead accrued during the summer and fall tests.
The way these matches work is that each Six Nations team would travel to play three Southern Hemisphere opponents in the summer. They would then host the three remaining Southern Hemisphere sides at home that fall.
In terms of the final, there are three options. The first is simply to hand the trophy to the side that finishes at the top of the table.
The second – and apparently preferred – option is to play a grand final between the top two teams, then two promotion/relegation play-offs between the winners of the lower tiers and the lower-ranked teams in the higher tiers. The third option is for six Northern teams to play their top-ranked Southern opponent at home, similar to what the Autumn Nations Cup did in 2020.
As the tournament is biennial, relegation would work as follows. If a top team from the northern hemisphere – such as England, Wales or Ireland – were relegated at the end of 2026, they would play their usual matches in 2027.
However, it would be in 2028 that the relegation will take effect. There they would then play the Six Nations as usual before playing a summer tour of the Southern Hemisphere’s lower sides before hosting the rest of them in the fall – all with the aim of earning a chance of winning a promotion in 2030.
The reason the tournament starts in even years and is held every other year is so it’s not affected too much by World Cups and Lions tours. During the Lions years, the plan would be interdivisional games — with higher-level teams playing lower-level teams — alongside high-level games.
In that sense, it wouldn’t be too different to what’s happening now, with France playing a Southern Hemisphere giant while the home nations, stripped of Lions stars, take on smaller nations.
What are the sticking points?
So that’s the plan. Unlike the doomed Nations Championship, this proposed competition has a better chance of succeeding – much of it widely accepted by all parties. But there are, of course, some sticking points to iron out before this becomes a reality.
While World Rugby wants a verbal commitment on that plan this week, there are a few areas the main unions might balk at.
The prospect of relegation would certainly be one – although that seems unlikely for many of Test rugby’s biggest sides. Therefore assurances are sought from the Six Nations and SANZAAR sides on the viability of the second tier.
Naturally, in a cash-strapped sport, a year of lost revenue at the second tier would be detrimental to any nation. They won’t be fond of that risk and that’s why the second tier should start two years early – to see how it works before the top nations approve relegation.
However, it is difficult to understand the purpose of these plans without some form of progress for lower tier nations. Otherwise, Test Rugby becomes more of a cramped, closed store than it already is – which will only hurt it financially for years to come.
Matches in the summer could also prove difficult – with different time zones and long journeys ahead. If Wales were called up to face New Zealand and Fiji in consecutive weeks, it would be a headache when it comes to travel.
Then, at the end of the year, the autumn matches would take place over three weekends – which is as many weekends as there are in the test window. Should the competition explore the possibility of a grand final – or any form of activity – in a fourth weekend, the release of players should be explored. It’s a complicated thing.
The other potential sticking point could be revenue sharing between unions.
How would this affect Wales?
As for how it would affect Wales, there are a few obvious things. For starters, summer tours would never be the same again – with a series of different opponents rather than a test tour of two or three from a single nation.
As for the autumn, the three matches on offer would deprive Wales of their fourth annual out-of-window international. This fourth Test has become a fixture of Welsh rugby in recent years – with the national side willing to give up a full squad in pursuit of another game to generate revenue.
Of course, the most notable thing would be relegation. While the prospect of Wales being relegated from a higher tier would normally seem unthinkable, forcing Georgia or another side of their ilk to beat them, Wales’ recent fall means it couldn’t be entirely excluded.
A year of playing against Tier 2 teams would spell disaster in financial terms for Welsh rugby. Given their recent fortunes and the feeling that the chickens are finally coming home to roost after years of lining the cracks, Welsh rugby bosses may not be keen on the risks this new competition would bring. .
Beyond these obvious points, it is ultimately up to the senior brass to decide whether these plans are in the best interests of Welsh rugby and, more importantly, rugby as a whole.