Rugby chiefs are poised to hold key discussions on Tuesday over the proposal to radically shake up the international calendar and introduce a new global competition to be staged every two years.
Representatives from the Six Nations, Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) and World Rugby are poised to meet for crucial talks in Dublin over a biennial north v south competition, which would fully launch in 2026. It would be the sport’s biggest overhaul since the dawn of professionalism in 1995.
The competition, which would not be played in World Cup or British & Irish Lions years, is a revamp of the Nations Championship which was proposed in 2019. While that was doomed to failure, a well-placed source said the latest format has been “broadly agreed by all parties”, including the players. In 2019 there was significant opposition from the players’ union amid welfare concerns, and while there are hurdles to be overcome, there is optimism progress will be made this week.
The competition would involve the Six Nations – England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales – in the north while Australia, Argentina, Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa would be joined in the south by Japan, even though it is in the northern hemisphere. European teams would play three matches on their summer tours against three different opponents and face the remaining three southern nations at home in November. The top two in each pool would meet each other in a fourth week in November and it is understood there is some support for a finals day involving all teams, rather than a single fixture between the top two sides.
Remaining stumbling blocks include the fact that there are only three official Test weeks in November at present – a finals day would require four and need agreements over player release with the French and English clubs. Insiders believe, however, that because of greater ongoing collaboration with the clubs there is likely to be less opposition from the Premiership and the Top 14 than three years ago.
Other issues to be ironed are believed to be over revenue sharing, while it does not help that the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Bill Sweeney, will be absent from Dublin, after a recent pulmonary embolism, given his role in formulating the proposal to date. There are also concerns in some quarters over promotion and relegation from the competition with a second-tier tournament including nations such as the USA, Tonga, Samoa and Georgia also set to be introduced, possibly from 2024. It had initially been hoped that the top tier league would also launch in 2024 but, as previously revealed by the Guardian, that had come to been seen as overly optimistic.
One of the major fears over the new tournament is that it would mean fewer matches between established and developing nations but it is believed that is not considered something that will torpedo the proposal. Equally significant is that both the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship would remain unaffected, removing the thorny issue of promotion and relegation being introduced to the former.