By Prof Dr Steve Cornelius, Sports Law Centre, University of Pretoria, South Africa
World Rugby looks set to announce a new global competition that will take place every two years.
The competition will involve all the major rugby playing nations in a two-tiered tournament. The tournament is set to involve the six nations teams, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, the SANZAAR teams, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as Japan and Fiji in a top tier. The second tier will involve the USA, Tonga and Georgia and (presumably) other teams. The exact format has not been revealed yet, but it is understood that the process will include matches in June and November, with a final and relegation matches at the end of November.
World Rugby is careful to schedule this new competition every two years so that quadrennial World Cup tournaments and British and Irish Lions tours are not affected. Whilst World Rugby is optimistic that this new competition will not have a negative impact on these quadrennial events, one has to question the prudence of this proposal. There are some clear historical examples that should raise red flags for World Rugby and perhaps they should rethink this carefully.
Someone once said: "If it ain't broke you can't fix it". So, the first question to ask is: "What is wrong with the current global rugby schedule?" Is this a legitimate attempt to address some shortcoming in the global rugby calendar? Or is it an attempt to create another ‘product’ that will be thrown to an already overloaded sports and entertainment consumer market in an attempt to secure a larger slice of consumer spending? All indications are that it is the latter.
Perhaps World Rugby should first take a page from the SANZAAR book. The SuperRugby tournament, which began as the Super 10 and evolved through various iterations to Super 16 before it fizzled out to the current SuperRugby Pacific. There was consistent pressure, particularly from Australian rugby authorities, to expand the format of SuperRugby. In spite of warnings that Australia could not sustain more than the original three professional rugby franchises – both financially and from a player resources perspective – Australia continued to push for expansion and more local derby matches. So, where the three Australian franchises were real powerhouses in the tournament, regularly reaching the semi-finals and finals, even winning on multiple occasions, the expanded five franchises have struggled to even reach the semi-final.
This has also had a negative impact on the Australian national team and Australian rugby in general now clasping at straws to remain viable financially. In the process, it has also to some extent alienated the South African Rugby Union, which has left the SuperRugby tournament in favour of a new competition with European teams. For South Africa, the change has been a clear success, whilst Australian rugby seems stuck in the doldrums.
This shift from South Africa has also had a more significant impact since the South African sports broadcaster Supersport, has thrown its significant financial muscle behind South Africa's European venture and taking much needed cash out of the SuperRugby tournament.
So, what can World Rugby learn from this?
Firstly, consumers only have so much time and so much money. Rugby consumers can only consume a certain volume of rugby before the market gets saturated. A proliferation of competitions will saturate the market and fans will lose interest. It is vital to stop before saturation is achieved.
Secondly, too much rugby will detract from the major showcase events. Why is the World Cup a popular event? Because it happens once in four years – fans and players have to wait for the next spectacle and, by the time it arrives, they are hungry for action. This applies even more so for the British and Irish Lions. Whilst this happens every four years, the rotation of tours among Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, means that each national team only plays the Lions once every twelve years. The result is that British fans, still smarting from the series loss to South Africa in 2020, are already planning their visits in 2032 in the hopes of seeing the Lions win. Similarly, Australian fans are eagerly awaiting the next Lions tour in 2024 in the hope that the Wallabies can avenge the series loss of 2012 and both British and New Zealand fans are gearing up for the 2028 tour after the tied series of 2016.
In short, hungry fans are happy fans. Fans who are saturated with an obese programme loose interest. And once they have lost interest, it is extremely difficult to get them back.
The current regime of Northern hemisphere teams touring the South in June and the South touring the North in November, adds spice to the rugby calendar. I, for one, am looking forward to the test series between the Springboks and Wales. It is a while since they have met on the rugby field and Wales have become a bit of a thorn in the Springboks' sides in recent times. I cannot wait to see how the Springboks deal with the challenge.
I fear another rugby competition, dominated by Southern hemisphere teams, will take more out of rugby than it would add. If World Rugby wants to improve the rugby product, they need to address the imbalance between the North and the South and they need to invest in the USA.
The fact that only one World Cup was won by a team from the North, whilst any one of New Zealand (3), South Africa (3) or Australia (2) has won the Cup more often than all Northern teams combined, is what is wrong with global rugby. Another competition will not solve this. In fact, it might make it worse as financial and player resources are stretched beyond breaking point!