One small step for New York, one giant leap for Rugby.
NEW YORK, NY – Rugby history will be made this Friday at MCU Park in Coney Island, with Major League Rugby’s New York franchise (#RUNY) hosting the Toronto Arrows in New York City’s first professional game, and while there will be a strong Irish flavor to the home team on this St. Patrick’s Day weekend, the real history is being made in the Irish capital, Dublin’s fair city.
The Irish capital, of course, is home to World Rugby, who hastily convened a meeting of “stakeholders” to discuss their bold plan to revolutionize international test rugby. As part of their stated desire to grow the global game, they unveiled the second version of their Nations Championship, an ambitious annual competition which would replace the current series of traditional competitions and ad hoc friendlies, guaranteeing an avenue for advancement in the form of promotion and relegation, and generating a massive windfall of $6.6 billion over 12 years from Swiss sports marketing company Infront. Where do we sign would seem to be the appropriate response, but as the Merchant of Venice advised us, all that glitters is not gold.
Initial opposition has come from the old guard countries who comprise the historic Six Nations Championship, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and the parvenu Italians. To be fair, they have competing offers on the table, most notably a reported offer of $500 million for a 30% in their competition stake from CVC Capital Partners, already part-owner of the English club championship, The Gallagher Premiership. It’s not just a bird in the hand that may fuel old world opposition, but also the dreaded prospect of relegation. World Rugby’s proposal requires promotion and relegation, a chance for the underdog to come through the ranks and be rewarded for on-field excellence. With that comes the corollary, relegation to the 2nd tier for a struggling team. While Italy would be odds-on favorites for the drop, Scotland are not much better this year and its only a year since the wheels came off Eddie Jones’ England chariot and they flirted with the disaster that is a Wooden Spoon by finishing fifth. It is understood, however, that it is the Scots in particular, and their Celtic cousins who are the least receptive.
This current imbroglio would seem to be a classic from World Politics 101, a first world v emerging countries economic debate, but there are other geopolitical undercurrents at work. The cash-strapped South, embodied by the flailing Australians and South Africans, and the small-market New Zealand and Argentinian unions are desperate for a bigger slice of that Northern media cash. Other major actors have their own issues, with the cash-rich and hugely powerful English and French club competitions in no hurry to surrender their position, and prime assets (the players), to a World Rugby doing its best imitation of a FIFA power grab. Tier 1 v Tier 2, North v South, Club v Country, tasty stuff indeed. And lets not forget the players, consulted as an afterthought as always, who have their own concerns around the frequency and intensity of games.
So what does this mean for the rest of us, the Americans, the Uruguayans, the South Sea Islanders, the Georgians, the Jamaicans? With the potential size of the American market and the recent successes of both the United States’ Major League Rugby as a viable league in the world’s biggest sports market and the stunning success of its Men’s and Women’s national Sevens teams, World Rugby understand there must be a route forward for the USA.
Equally, the sheer volume of rugby talent produced by Fiji, Samoa and Tonga must reward those countries intrinsic games rather than the indentured servitude and passport-chasing promulgated by the current system. The brute power of Georgian and Brazilian scrums, the joy of Jamaican and Kenyan Sevens, the vast opportunities in China and Russia, all must be allowed to flourish and World Rugby, with this initiative, for once has got it right… well almost. The devil is in the detail. No promotion/relegation in years with British & Irish Lions tours and World Cups (both on four year cycles) effectively limits it to every other year. That needs to be addressed, but a tweak or two should suffice.
So, make history or not? The ancient powers have a clear choice, take the CVC money and feather their nest, or do right by the rest of us and take a chance for the growth of the global game. I am not holding my breath.
Copyright Stephen Lewis 2019
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