A new company formed in 2020 will oversee the introduction of another format to world rugby, 12-a-side.
It brings with it heavy consequences.
It introduces franchises, which is a questionable advance in the game. Twenty-four players would form a franchise, including two from a tier-2 nation and one Under 20 representative, not the most obvious balance for the promotion of a world game. Would these additional players be assured of game-time?
There will be a men’s and women’s competition, but because the women’s World Cup takes place next year, their start will be delayed till 2023.
And the bidding: Player A will be worth £500,000, her team-mate Player B only £100,000. No matter, they will remain friends.
When will the chosen crop get their rest? The current plan envisages a 3-week tournament taking place over three weekends in August and September. The opening event would take place in England in August 2022. That means that northern hemisphere players would have completed a full season two or three months earlier and be in pre-season for the next one. Southern hemisphere players would be in the reverse situation and have to adjust to jet-lag.
Assuming the follow-up event would take place down under (would New Zealand be the next port-of-call?) all those parameters would reverse.
Beyond the dreams of avarice
World 12s Ltd, the company set up to promote this new idea, admits it is following the example of T20 cricket, meaning the India Premier League (IPL), the most financially lucrative in world cricket. There seven-figure sums are paid for players deemed worthy of the expense.
Rugby occupies a bigger share of world sport than cricket, but cricket has the advantage of including one nation of a billion-plus souls, India. And there super-rich businessmen were happy to throw in their lot with the IPL.
World 12s announces backing from a UK-based financial consortium and hopes to provide a £250 million input into the game. It’s good to know that some parts of the British economy are prospering.
This new initiative will be closely inspected by every nation likely to be involved. How will it affect their national team’s prospects? How will it affect their players?
In parallel examples women have tended to come off second best in the division of spoils, most recently in cricket’s latest plaything, The Hundred. There the contrasts in pay between men and women became an embarrassment to the organisers. Gender-equality was assured in prize money and publicity, but the central issue of pay remained a contentious issue. World 12’s statement is careful to insist likewise that women will receive equal prize money. But of course it doesn’t offer estimates of what male and female players will be worth on the bidding floor.
In rugby terms, what would be the value of a leading Black Fern in a franchise auction compared with a leading All Black?
The Global Calendar
World Rugby is still wrestling with the problem of co-ordinating an annual schedule that suits all parties. World 12s will make their task that much harder.
World Rugby had announced the introduction of the WXV competition for women with a world-wide spread. This proposal caught the public’s imagination. World 12s seem to cut right across its bows.
In England the Allianz Premier 15s league began last week with its longest programme, from September to June. If leading England players were to be added to franchises – as they certainly would be – when do they catch their breath? Will they all be retiring from the game by the age of 30?
It’s not as if this is like a 7s tournament or even the RugbyX evening, all over inside two days. World 12s means a 3-week commitment plus time needed for jet-lag before and recovery after.
We have no idea yet of the rewards likely to come the way of the female players. They might stretch to a life of future leisure, free from the need to do another day’s work. But day-dreaming apart, it is hard at this early juncture to see how players from all over the world could come together for so long a period while fitting in all their other commitments at work and play.
It would certainly be one approach to increased professionalisation of the women’s game, but only for the select few.
The chairman of the new enterprise is Ian Ritchie, who resigned from his position as CEO of the RFU in 2017. He had helped the men’s team to recover from an unfortunate performance at the 2011 World Cup, had picked Eddie Jones as the right man to become head coach, and had brought large sums of money into Twickenham’s coffers.
He then became Chairman of Premiership Rugby in 2018 for a two-year period.
He and his colleagues now face the task of convincing vast numbers of interested parties about the rightness of this project.
A new version of rugby needed?
Steve Tew, a non-executive director claims: ‘This is a truly exciting venture in the development of our global game. We believe rugby needs a new, innovative, fast flowing, and exciting concept, but one that remains authentic to rugby’s roots.’
Does rugby need this addition to its crowded calendar? And how close to the game’s roots will it stay, when it will be the preserve of only the very best players deemed worthy of inclusion? Rugby is supposed to be the game for all. Sevens has already chipped away at that old adage; this initiative threatens to diminish it even more.
We are promised 192 of the world’s best (male) players in competition under the new franchises. Will that prove a greater draw than a World Cup offering authentic teams playing for their nation, their team-mates, their families and friends?
How will the public react to the introduction of eight teams brought together at a purchaser’s whim? Can meaningful identities be created?
We await further announcements with interest.