It has been a long time coming, and it will be a long time until its benefits are felt, but rugby’s administrators seem to have finally found a way to untie the Gordian Knot that has seen the game forever hopelessly biased towards its traditional powers.
On Tuesday the governing body World Rugby (WR) proudly announced a series of radical changes they hailed as the “most significant development in the sport since the game went professional”.
That happened in 1995 but in the 28 years since, the biggest nations have become even more dominant, while paying endless lip service to “growing the game.”
WR chairman Sir Bill Beaumont told journalists how he remembered administrators wrestling with the dreaded “calendar” after the 2007 World Cup in France, and failing hopelessly to make any progress.
At the heart of the matter is self-interest. The bigger unions such as England’s RFU rely on the stupendous profits – more than 12 million pounds ($14.59 million) per game – made from Twickenham internationals to finance their entire operation.
They need it filled, and playing the likes of Fiji, as they discovered with a sea of empty seats in August, may be great for the development of the game but it leaves a huge hole in funding.
The same applies to all the big nations, who routinely play each other home and away in June and November with only the token occasional diversion against a Tier Two nation.
The Six Nations, having allowed Italy in 2000, has dismissed any and all suggestions of potential promotion and relegation to give encouragement to the likes of Georgia.
And so, when each World Cup comes around, coaches and players of beaten Tier Two teams use their four-yearly moment in the spotlight to plead for more meaningful matches – between themselves and against the big boys.
Throw into the mix the contrasting desires of leading leagues in England and France, the British & Irish Lions and the ever-growing concerns over player welfare and its influence on the prevalence of matches, and it is no surprise that attempts to bring everyone together have consistently failed.
Consequently, it was probably and understatement when Alan Gilpin, WR’s CEO, said: “This set of decisions have required a huge amount of compromise, a huge amount of movement, a huge amount of collaboration between a lot of stakeholders and we’ve been able to land on something that has been really elusive for rugby for a very long time.”
What they have delivered is a set of competitions starting in 2026 with a biennial Nations League, which will combine the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams, and two others, playing each other in two conferences and culminating in a grand final in Europe.
Crucially there will also be a second division of 12 teams, giving those Tier Two nations regular matches between themselves.
WR say that there is also a commitment for Tier One teams to play more matches against the lesser teams in the non-competition years, but also said that promotion and relegation would not come into play until the 2030 competition.
That will hardly be greeted with joy by a 25-year-old currently playing for Samoa, Georgia, Portugal or Uruguay who can see the 2027 and 2031 World Cups come and go before even one of those countries gets to play regularly with the big boys.
Asked why the process will take so long, Gilpin said: “It’s all about compromise, understanding what each different stakeholder in the game is holding on to and perceived to be giving up.
“It might seem like a long time away, it’s not in the scheme of time. So, promotion and relegation taking effect in 2032 is certainly better than the alternative, which is not to have that competition at all.
“Is it perfect? Probably not. Is it a hell of a lot better than the current situation? Absolutely.”