Loose Pass: RWC expansion, club owners and rule changes

Date published: September 12 2018

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with World Cup expansion, club owners and a possible rule change taken from rugby league.

It will be a welcome day indeed for the rugby world when the governing body decides to implement its latest change to the World Cup and increase the number of teams.

25 nations have hitherto appeared in the game’s showpiece, a somewhat paltry return for a – mostly throughout its history – 20-team competition. Discount the number of teams who have made fewer than three appearances and you’re down to the bog standard 20. While those five, and indeed a good four or five of the remaining 20, have contributed to many a special World Cup story, you feel that that number just isn’t quite enough any more.

There’s enough of a groundswell of popularity in places like Russia, Germany, Hong Kong and Chile that the global game will benefit from adding those fans to the mix, and there’s enough good quality coaching seeping around the world that these teams will be far better prepared than the Ivory Coast ever was for its lone World Cup turn. Sceptical of that? Germany’s coach for the November repechage tournament will be Mike Ford, father of George, ex of Bath and Toulon. Two of the other coaches in the repechage are Peter de Villiers and Kingsley Jones, neither of them strangers to top tier teams.

But there is still some debate about when this expansion will come: 2023 or 2027. And we’re going to make our position here indelibly clear: much as we think the expansion is a good thing, it has to be 2027.

Why? Because if it is 2023, there will still be room for project players, i.e. those who upped sticks from places like Cape Town and settled in places like Bucharest for no other reason than to garner a few international caps. While we are all for the expansion, it robs the tournament of some credibility when the newly-qualified teams are furnished with any number of journeyman southern hemisphere reinforcements popping over as they near their 30s to pick up some glory.

The 2027 watershed, on the other hand, means that any such journeymen will have had to qualify through five years of residency and wait a couple of extra years; i.e. probably long enough to get a passport, certainly learn the language and definitely long enough to not stand out so suddenly in squad announcements just after the preceding World Cup.

Rugby’s global popularity has improved in leaps and bounds over the past few years, as has the spread of quality around tier two nations and below. An expansion in 2027, will, in respect of the above, make sure that the game continues to expand to those unions and teams creating sustainable infrastructures within their national borders, as opposed to those nations spending a pretty penny to the detriment of their playing natives.

On the subject of pretty pennies…

If English rugby was not exactly holding its breath this week, it must surely have at least been looking at the heavens with suspicious eyes as CVC circled.

As we go to press the story has broken that Premiership Rugby has rejected the takeover bid from the private equity firm for a majority share in England’s club game, a bid apparently worth some GBP275m.

It’s perhaps an eyebrow-raising decision too, considering the story two weeks ago about how much the Premiership clubs were – mostly – losing weighed up against the GBP17m windfall the CVC takeover would have bestowed upon them.

Leaving aside the reputation CVC has garnered for plundering such assets – Formula One is not one iota better off for CVC’s 12-year ownership – one wonders what the consequences would have been in England and throughout European rugby had that sale gone through.

Further club v country ructions would surely have followed, as would Premiership ring-fencing and the likelihood of a further increase in fixtures: hardly what the game needs right now. The Champions Cup might have suffered – would CVC have tolerated any intrusion on its turf from the likes of Connacht or Pau?

No, if rugby is doing well enough that England’s league is valued at GBP275m, then we can enjoy the status quo, losses and all for a while yet – at least, that seems to be the attitude of the club owners who vetoed the CVC offer. And fair play to them. Almost to a man, they have been the benefactors from whose money the club game has grown, many of them sinking pound after pound into their clubs with little likelihood of return on investment beyond personal satisfaction. But when the cash was dangled before their eyes, they took the satisfaction. As will we.

Interesting…

Ospreys head coach Allen Clarke raised an intriguing suggestion in last weekend’s Sunday Times: that a kick which bounces into touch in the opposition 22 would be rewarded with an attacking line-out.

What it would mean, in theory, is that wingers and full-back would have to hang deeper to defend against such kicks, leaving a near-permanent overlap on the gain-line.

It’s long been a feature of rugby league and we’re struggling to find fault with it, beyond rendering the blitz and press defence near-obsolete. Your thoughts?

Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan