New Shapes for Rugby

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Some glorious hopes, some nonsense

What happened to these five ventures in women’s rugby: The Lions, The Barbarians, International club fixtures, RugbyX, World 12s?

Here we have a motley gathering of different parts of the rugby empire, two of them famous and honoured, elsewhere the mad musings of the over-optimistic.

First, the two that need no explaining:

The Lions

As things stand now, between northern hemisphere seasons, a Lions’ tour looks even more unlikely than when I cast doubt in the early days. My first offering was four years ago @

Now that the WXV has been created, there is even less room for the Lions than before. I had argued that only New Zealand and France were credible hosts. They, like the four home nations comprising a Lions’ squad, will each be busier than when optimists first broached the idea.

A distinguished Lions committee was formed to debate the chances. They in turn called in Royal London to assess prospects. Matters progressed at a snail’s pace. If a Lions’ tour were to come to fruition, there would be a lot of rejoicing, but the odds must remain against.

The Barbarians, established 1890

The Baa-baas are a quite different animal, happy to act quite independently, invitations handed out to delighted individuals from all over the globe. They meet, laugh, do a bit of practice and put on a show to delight the crowd, the opposition and themselves.

They have already played Munster, USA and England, but we’ve heard nothing of future planning for quite a while; not indeed since pre-coronavirus days. It’s still possible for them to gather and play two or three games in a lucky corner of the rugby world, but the chances have reduced with the ever tightening demands of the calendar.

International club fixtures

These were a wild hope for more fun and international sisterhood. Wasps entertained Railway Union (Dublin) and Quins hosted Leinster at Twickenham. Clubs have also met when travelling abroad on pre-season training trips.

That last remains a possibility, but anything more widely based and permanent seems impractical. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the English and French champions could meet annually, alternating the host country!

Currently that would mean a fixture between Stade Bordelais and Gloucester-Hartpury. You could imagine a decent crowd turning out to watch them contest a new trophy. Now, how much is that all going to cost? I’ll check my back pocket.


RugbyX was promoted by ‘RugbyX Limited 2020’. The event took place at the O2 Arena London on 29 October 2019. This was an entirely new concept, presenting a new and entertaining face of rugby. 5-a-side teams would perform in a whirl of excitement, helped by simplified rules*, an enthusiastic PA and loud music.

*A notable one was ‘no box-kicks; chip-kicks allowed but no higher than 10 metres’. And we never realised the O2 had such a low roof.

The official verdict was: ’16,000 fans turned up to witness a true spectacle. Fire, lights, booming music, dancing fans and end to end non-stop rugby was on show at the world-famous venue’.
You get the idea.

It helped that a starry England side claimed victory; names like Abbie Brown, Alex Matthews, Celia Quansah, Heather Fisher, Helena Rowland, Holly Aitchison and Meg Jones.

Despite that success it hasn’t reappeared over the horizon. Of course we can blame Covid, but now that danger is largely behind us, what is stopping RugbyX’s reappearance? Perhaps the sheer success of women’s rugby (and women’s sport) in the intervening period. Innovators may feel it’s no longer necessary to bang the drum with anything so loud and left-field.

World 12s

You only have to think back to September 2021 to recall World 12s. Here we are in quite different territory.

A meticulously developed idea, published in minute detail, and offering vast sums of money for the participants who would come from every corner of the globe. Its scope put you in mind of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in cricket, where the best players are attracted by sums of money beyond the dreams of avarice, to perform in front of worshipping crowds.

For World12s £250 million were on offer to attract a new global fanbase. It was projected to start in August last year. It didn’t.

Why not? For one thing, World Rugby put the boot in: an absolute no-no was their verdict. But the idea was cock-eyed from the start. Wherever you attempt to slot a new venture into the global calendar, it will adversely affect nations in one hemisphere or the other. The opening statement laid unusual emphasis on player welfare; perhaps because they knew it would be tested to the limit by the demands of the new show.

For the women’s version, the projected start was postponed for a year, to avoid a clash with the delayed 2021 World Cup.

Players would be selected by auction. You may be quite used to that notion and happy with it (The Hundred). I’m afraid I cannot join you in your enthusiasm; it smacks too much of the cattle-market.

And yet the whole nonsense was constructed by a number of men (no women) with vast experience in the game*. They even set up a company, World 12s Limited, so oversee affairs.
Just like the one-off RugbyX, a whole set of new rules was established (to make the game easier to understand and faster to play, of course). In both cases the implication was that rugby was too slow and too complicated. No comment.

*The board consisted of: Ian Ritchie (chairman), former CEO at Twickenham, Steve Tew, former CEO of NZR, and Gareth Davies (former Chairman of WRU). That vast sum of money was to come from an unnamed financial consortium.

The one thing these five ventures have in common is their absence. We can take our pick of the ones we most regret, but they go to prove how quickly the face of the game can change.