Rugby union is a truly global game which has interest both north and south of the equator, but which league is leading the way?
Is it the more established competitions such as the Top 14 or Premiership, or can the likes of Japan Rugby League One and Major League Rugby compete?
We delve into the best club competitions, which includes the continental tournaments such as Champions Cup and Super Rugby, and decide which ones are thriving and which need some work.
8) Major League Rugby (30/70)
Major League Rugby, abbreviated to MLR, is a United States-based domestic competition which was set up in 2017, with the inaugural campaign taking place in 2018. There are 12 teams in the league, which are split up into an Eastern and Western Conference.
It has been a long road setting up a sustainable professional league in the United States but MLR appears to be a credible competition for the short and medium-term. It obviously doesn’t have the finances of the other leagues, or the history, while the support-base is still developing within the country, but it is going in the right direction.
Obviously, the individual quality isn’t there in comparison to the other competitions on this list, but 2023 was a genuinely exciting campaign, even if the two finalists, New England Free Jacks and San Diego Legion, were comfortably clear of the rest. Those two teams dominated the regular season and met in the final, where they put on an excellent show. It feels harsh to put MLR bottom but, at the moment, it is the only place they can be.
7) European Challenge Cup (31/70)
The Challenge Cup is a competition which includes teams from a variety of different countries, who qualify for it from their domestic leagues. It is the second-tier European tournament, below the Champions Cup, and was established in 1996. In 2022, South African teams were included for the first time.
The Challenge Cup has its place in Europe but really it is a competition no one particularly cares about until the latter stages. Teams, especially English and French, often send out weakened squads and that just diminishes the quality of the tournament. It also reduces the intensity of the matches, which then leads to poor attendances and a lack of interest for both supporters and media.
As for the structure of the competition it suffers from a similar issue to the Champions Cup, which certainly doesn’t help its cause. When it gets to the knockout rounds, there are some genuinely great games, but the large pools in 2022/23 made for a dreary round-robin phase. Hopefully the change for the 2023/24 campaign will bring some life into the Challenge Cup, but it has always been way down the pecking order.
6) Japan Rugby League One (45/70)
Japan Rugby League One is the biggest tournament in Asia and has 23 fully professional teams. It was created in 2021 to replace the old Top League, which was established in 2003, and features three divisions. The top 12 sides compete in Division 1 and are split up into two conferences, while there are six clubs in Division 2 and five in Division 3.
It is a competition which is definitely gaining traction with its fast-paced style, improving attendances and the influx of global stars. There is money there to compete with the Top 14, and many of the great southern hemisphere players, especially in New Zealand, want to play in it. It also has a multi-divisional format where promotion and relegation takes place.
The issues come when assessing the quality of the domestic game in the country as the teams simply don’t produce the talent that matches what is coming in from overseas. There is also a large disparity between the best sides and the rest, with Saitama Wild Knights and Kubota Spears well clear in 2023. If they get those issues sorted then they will be up there with the French league.
5) Super Rugby Pacific (47/70)
Super Rugby Pacific is the latest instalment from SANZAAR (previously known as SANZAR), a governing body which was set up in 1995 by the South African, New Zealand and Australia rugby unions. They formed Super 12 as franchises from those countries competed against each other. It has had various different guises since then before the departure of the South African sides saw Super Rugby Pacific set up. There are five teams each from New Zealand and Australia, with Pacific Island outfits Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika completing the competition.
As a league, it is still incredibly fun to watch with some outstanding skills on show. The top New Zealand outfits in particular remain some of the best teams on the planet, but it is a competition on the decline. The Australians aren’t as competitive as they used to be, while the departure of the South Africans has left a hole.
From the people watching on TV to those who go to the games, they are losing interest and it only really picks up from an interest standpoint when there are big derbies or it gets towards the play-offs. The end of season shake-up is also overkill, with eight of the 12 teams moving into the knockout stages. While the Pacific Islanders have added plenty, they need a bit more for Super Rugby to return to the top table of the sport.
3) Premiership (49/70)
The Premiership is the only fully professional league in England. A round-robin format was set up in 1987, known as National Division One, before it became the Allied Dunbar Premiership in 1997. Various sponsors have come and gone, with Gallagher the latest to tie their name to the competition in 2018. The 2022/23 season started with 13 teams but, following the demise of Worcester Warriors and Wasps, it was reduced to 11, before London Irish were also placed in administration after the campaign had finished.
The product on the field has arguably never been better, with the balance between physicality and dexterity making fascinating watching. As a result, there is also a nice variety in styles between the teams so, all things considered, the Premiership should be thriving. However, it very much isn’t and, due to financial issues, a shocking three teams fell by the wayside in 2022/23.
There are obviously issues at the top, with Premiership Rugby failing to attract sponsors and more financially lucrative TV deals, while clubs themselves are seeing a reduction in attendances. It ends up becoming a vicious circle and impacting everything. At the moment club rugby in England is not fiscally viable and something needs to change if they are to get back on the right path.
3) United Rugby Championship (49/70)
The United Rugby Championship (URC) is a 16-team league which comprises of teams from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and South Africa. Started as the Celtic League in 2001 with sides from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it has gone through several changes since then before four South African outfits joined to create the URC.
The PRO14 was a serviceable league but the Irish teams’ European focus did rather detract from the competition. As a result, it tended to lack intensity and it was very much behind the Premiership and Top 14 in terms of what it brought to the table. However, the introduction of the South African outfits and everything they bring, from their quality to the TV money, has gone some way to changing all that.
Leinster still rather treat it as a second-rate competition, which is disappointing, and their third choice 23 is still too good for most sides in the URC, but they may take it more seriously after their semi-final defeats in 2022 and 2023. As a concept, it is improving and becoming more and more competitive, although the financial issues with the Welsh regions is a worry for the short and medium-term.
There is also concern over the TV deal in the UK following Viaplay’s fiscal problems, which reduces its marketability at the moment and puts it joint-third with the Premiership, but we’ll see how that plays out.
2) European Champions Cup (53/70)
The Champions Cup, previously known as the Heineken Cup when it was governed by European Rugby Cup, is a top tier tournament for clubs based in Europe and South Africa. Established in 1995, teams qualify through their domestic leagues. It initially involves a round-robin phase before going into the knockout stages.
The best quality of club rugby in the world still takes place in this competition but there is no doubt that the hierarchy have done its best to ruin it. This assessment is based purely on the last few years, so the new format may well change things around, but the alteration the EPCR made following Covid has had a negative impact.
Their decision was initially understandable considering the circumstances of the pandemic but to not change it for the start of the 2022/23 campaign was odd. The governing body did eventually relent and altered it for 2023/24, but still made it unnecessarily complicated. Going back to the pools of four, where the teams play each other home and away, is a tried and trusted method.
1) Top 14 (64/70)
The Top 14 is the top division of the French professional system and, unlike the Premiership and the United Rugby Championship, it involves promotion and relegation. It is the oldest of all the leagues having been established in 1892, but it has unsurprisingly gone through a number of changes. It was called the French Rugby Championship until the start of the Millennium when the league was renamed the Top 16. That became 14 in 2005 and it has been remained that way ever since.
French rugby keeps going from strength to strength and it has been a brilliant season in the Top 14. As evidenced by the final between La Rochelle and Toulouse, it is the most physical and intense league in the sport. That can sometimes lead it to becoming a little too attritional at times, but it is still often high quality rugby, with some of the best players in the world featuring.
With a large TV deal in place, fans coming out in force to support their respective teams and sponsors flocking to get involved, the Top 14 continues to grow. They also have two fully professional leagues, which means promotion and relegation works well, and the play-off system often brings out the best in the teams.