Private equity investors look for rugby shake up with 12-aside franchise format

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A new 12-a-side rugby union tournament was launched on Tuesday (September 7) with the goal of bringing $344 million into the sport over the next five years, though it is likely to face a tough battle to force its way into an already overcrowded calendar.

World 12s plans to attract hundreds of the best male and female players from across the globe and make them compete in an annual tournament, with the inaugural men’s event lined up for August 2022 in England.

The women’s competition will kick off from 2023 to prevent it from clashing with the women’s World Cup, which has been pushed back by a year to 2022. There will be equal prize money for the two competitions.

“World 12s is a natural evolution for rugby union. We feel that this is a game for our changing, fast-paced world that can excite a global fan base in the way that we have seen with the IPL or most recently The Hundred in cricket,” said World 12s chairman Ian Ritchie, the former head of the Rugby Football Union and ex-chairman of the English Premiership.

The event, also backed by former World Cup-winning coaches Steve Hansen of New Zealand and Jake White of South Africa, will feature eight franchises that will pick 24 players each through an auction. A round-robin format will be followed by a knockout stage to decide the winner.

Coming a few weeks after the widely-criticised South Africa v the British and Irish Lions series, fans might be intrigued by the new competition’s claims to be delivering a much more entertaining product in 30-minute matches. Teams will comprise six forwards and six backs.

“The extra space created by having three fewer players allows both the opportunity for running rugby and exciting tactical kicking,” organisers said. “This will lead to a high scoring, high pressure and attractive rugby being played, whilst keeping the shape and a semblance of the structure of 15s.”

Whether it ever gets off the ground, however, remains to be seen as the game is currently wrestling with player welfare issues against a long-running backdrop of trying to reduce, rather than add fixtures.

A World Rugby spokesperson said: “While we welcome innovative thinking… comprehensive consultation with the organisers is required to understand the viability of the concept, particularly in the context of ongoing global calendar discussions and the priority area of player welfare.”

Ritchie said that “constructive consultation” with World Rugby and other key stakeholders had begun. “We want to get World Rugby approval, we went to engage with the unions and the clubs,” he told a news conference. “Rebel is not a word I would use for this. It is something we want to do on a collaborative basis.”

While organisers said that the new venture would not dilute existing competitions, the release of players is likely to be a sticking point due to concerns over the playing calendar.

“We would ask stakeholders to give it some thought and consideration. It is an exciting prospect for rugby,” said Ritchie.

Players, whose salaries are tiny in comparison with most of their soccer and even cricket counterparts and whose careers are often shortened by injury, might be tempted by the promise of eye-catching payments and prize money.

However, they too will recognise the challenge of fitting in the new tournament when unions and clubs will be reluctant to cut their games and suffer the associated financial impact.