This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the new international competition, tours, the World Rugby U20 Championship and Zach Mercer…
The survival plan
It came with stealth, the news released sometime over a quiet weekend with little rugby being played when many rugby fans’ attention would be elsewhere. And with good reason, as it was bound to cause a storm. The news was reported in the Georgian press first, also with good reason, as it is those excellent players from Georgia whose teeth have been kicked hardest.
No, Loose Pass is not one tiny bit a fan of the new ‘tournament’ unveiled by the Six Nations and SANZAAR. There is a caveat to that which we will come to, but there’s a good hard rant to be had first.
June – or as is increasingly the case, July – were pretty dull anyway. They won’t get any more interesting. Nor will November. Teams will trot around from country to country, increasingly sheltered from the outside world (and most likely still behind a hefty paywall). Series such as Ireland’s enthralling tour of New Zealand last year seem to be done for completely, a terrible shame.
International players seem certain to become ever more the property of the unions and less so of the clubs who nurtured them. It will most likely quickly – certainly by July – become apparent who might win and who will not each time, rendering a lot of the fixtures even more meaningless than they were before. The launch statement said the tournament would create “a stronger narrative around the July and November windows” that would “genuinely excite players and bring new fans to the game”, but let’s assume randomly that Wales and Italy struggle down under in June and July; local fans will not be filling the Stadio Olimpico and Principality Stadium to watch narrative surrounding the battle not to finish last.
The ‘invitational teams’ line trotted out is horribly disingenuous; it’ll be Japan and whoever else can prove that they’ll make the organisers the most cash out of the rest, playing capability is unlikely to be heavily-weighted in that decision matrix. Ring-fencing it for the first four years means that a current generation of young and promising tier two international players can already consider their dreams of regular meaningful top-tier competition dashed – besides brief cameos at World Cups, what else can they aspire to now?
If Fiji are set to be the other team besides Japan, that’s quite a gong to the goolies for Samoa and Tonga, every bit as capable in playing terms. Georgia have little to look forward to beyond cantering away with the Rugby Europe International Championship every year, along with watching all their best players play club rugby in France.
There are, in fact, few positive effects. It now seems unlikely that teams will organise those infuriating ex-window Test matches which made such a mockery of the player release rules – unless of course, they take pity on the tier two teams. It also now seems likely that there could be clearer borders between club and international weekends, not to mention club and international contracts. These are mild positives.
Rugby needs to grow globally into new countries and pick up more young fans.
People have engaged with the rise of Georgia, Chile and Portugal
So, rugby’s answer is for the same 10 teams to play each other
It’s hard to care about this tournament and it’s still 3 years away pic.twitter.com/yD8BTzVQYq
— Ruck ’n’ Roll (@RnRRugby) July 1, 2023
Which brings us to the caveat of the biggest positive: this is also a survival ploy. It’s no secret that rugby is leaking financially from almost every pipe. All of the criticisms above are valid, yet the involved parties also have a duty to their own stakeholders to ensure the financial viability of the game in their respective countries. Considering the struggles Wales are currently facing, considering the struggles hitting England’s sub-international game from the top down, considering the erosion of South Africa’s domestic scene, the attempt to create a new and secure stream of revenue – not least from the broadcasters who will hopefully be queuing up – by the large unions seems a common sense measure.
Despite all of the global viewpoints addressed above, these unions have no obligation to any party which does not make financial sense. In the current economic climate, the times are tough and charity is scarce. This competition is undoubtedly a product of that reality as well.
A shame that so much mismanagement in the years gone by led us to this point, a shame also that many of the mismanagers responsible are still in charge. And woe betide all if the private equity lot get their hooks properly into this and milk it for their own ends as they so often do.
Harking back to that bit about the borders between international weekends and club weekends being clearer: how exciting to have the Crusaders embarking on a pre-season tour in Europe?
And considering it further: would it now become a thing for clubs and franchises to embark on regular tours again? The length of the season, player welfare, media intrusion and the rigidity of league structures have crimped tours, which used to be one of the best parts about playing rugby from top to bottom level, but do we have a new window for tours to become a thing again?
The youngsters impress
It’s safe to say that the sun has not entirely shone in the Western Cape winelands this week past, although the sun is set to shine on the final round of pool matches.
But the sun of rugby’s future has shone bright. Georgia’s downing of Argentina was ruthless, Italy’s effort in beating the hosts magnificent. Japan gave Wales a huge scare before fading at the last (and a wholly unnecessary red card). France are laden with a scarily deep well of talent.
But the quality of rugby has in general been outstanding, in the hard conditions just as much as the easy. Keep your eyes on both Tuesday’s matches and next weekend’s finals.
Where would your head be?
It’s impossible not to feel sorry for Zach Mercer. Montpellier fans gave him a standing ovation as he played his last for the Heraults, before returning to England to play at Gloucester mostly on the basis of making himself England-eligible again. He has clearly been very happy there, as well as successful.
Eligible, tick, a stand-out performer in Europe’s dominant league, tick. Picked? Of course not. In his position, wouldn’t you now be hankering for the south of France again?