International Rugby flipped on its head after 'historic' announcement

Tue, Oct 24, 2023, 4:33 PM
Nathan Williamson
by Nathan Williamson
Sir Bill Beaumont and World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin reflect on a landmark day in the sport. Photo: Getty Images
Sir Bill Beaumont and World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin reflect on a landmark day in the sport. Photo: Getty Images

ANALYSIS: As Australia slept, World Rugby issued a series of reforms that will transform the future of Rugby heading forward.

The two main revelations came in the creation of an aligned global calendar and the expansion of the World Cup to 24 teams.

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The discussions to align the calendar have been happening for close to two decades, with the vote reportedly narrowly accepted at World Rugby meetings on Tuesday.

With this, World Rugby can go ahead with the creation of a tiered biennial 12-team competition for both men and women. The top division will see the Six Nations and SANZAAR nations (along with two more to be confirmed by SANZAAR) facing off in games during the July and November international windows from 2026, with the winners of each hemisphere facing off in the Final.

Belong them, will be a 12-team second division competition that'll likely include the likes of Georgia, Portugal, Uruguay, USA and the Pacific Nations teams that miss out on the top division.

"We have had a number of failed attempts to put in place a global competition that provides more opportunity, more pathways, for all," World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin explained to reporters.

"Coming out of COVID, there is a greater understanding of the rugby ecosystem. We are in this together. If rugby is going to thrive and flourish as a sport, we have to work together. At the international level what this process is shown is that we have to work together with domestic clubs, leagues, everyone that is investing in the game. 

"This has taken compromise by every stakeholder in the sport. No one has come away from this thinking they have got everything they wanted. Maybe that's a tribute to a good deal. Everyone has had to give something to get to where we are.

"People have been more prepared to do that and been more prepared to be part of that conversation as - certainly in our experience - never before."

The main criticism of the proposal has come from emerging nations, who are stuck in the second tier of competition until 2030 when promotion/relegation will be brought in.

Gilpin confirmed there is no possibility of bringing that date forward as teams look to settle into the new competitions.

World Rugby looked to increase the level of exposure for these nations by announcing the expansion of the Pacific Nations Cup to include USA and Canada, although teams like Uruguay remain on the outer.

They are adamant the increase in fixtures between teams from both divisions will help bridge the gap.

"With the focus on this idea of cross-over fixtures between established nations and performance nations and what will become a group of 12 in that global competition, then the next group of 12, then into regional competitions, it's important to say that just because promotion between division one and division two will start in 2030 and take effect in 2032, it doesn't mean that has to be the case in the second division with pathways between the regional competitions," Gilpin said.

"There is more work to do on that. But we are really keen to make sure that happens as quickly as possible once the competitions have had the chance to become established.

"This is about looking at other years - traditionally what we have called 'Lions years' and the Rugby World Cup years - and populating those periods with fixtures that allow those possibilities and that the high performance unions agreeing that some of their Rugby World Cup warm-up matches have to be against those other teams."

"(Uruguay) will have the opportunity going forward like everybody else to get involved in them. We are immensely proud of what Uruguay have done. They were outstanding in this World Cup," World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont added.

"Look also at a team like Portugal. Without something like this (they) are hampered with the quality of fixtures that they've got. Now, going forwards, it doesn't start immediately but it gives Portugal a really great opportunity now to plan forward, and other countries who didn't qualify for the World Cup as well. Samoa have not got a fixture next year [at the moment]." 

For emerging nations, the increase of participants in the 2027 World Cup is a boost, rising from 20 to 24 teams.

It will cause a change to the format: six pools of four teams, with the round of 16 added before the quarter-finals, consisting of the top two teams from each pool and four third-place finishers.

Despite this, the tournament in 2027 will be one week shorter thanks to the return of mid-week games.

In a major boost for the sport, the tournament window will shift back almost a month from its current position, providing clear air from the NRL and AFL finals.

"We have looked at a 24-team expansion for the Rugby World Cup many times in the last decade or so" Gilpin notes.

"You can always convince yourself it's not the right time to be that bold. As is happening with so much in the game, what we've done with the women's game is leading now what are doing with the men's game. We took that step to expand from 12 to 16 teams in the women's game and understood you have got to work hard then with the competition models that surround that to bring those next four teams to the right level of competitiveness.

"In the men's format, and in a 24-team tournament there are many formats, if you move to a format of six pools of four teams so you have three pool matches rather than four for each team, and you add a knockout round-of-16, you can basically still have the minimum five-day rest period to bring that schedule back into a tournament that is six weeks, seven weekends long, rather than what we're seeing here - seven weeks and eight weekends long."

Ultimately, the pair of announcements has the potential to create a seismic shift in the sport across the world, one of the biggest developments in Rugby Union in the 21st century.

"If rugby is to become a truly global sport, we simply have to make it more relevant and more accessible to more people around the world. With that in mind, we have reimagined our SVNS series, introduced WXV, revamped our Rugby World Cup hosting model, we have led the way in welfare innovation and we have reshaped our governance. The calendar was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle," Beaumont believes.

"We said at the beginning of the tournament that we did not want to leave France with an uncertain future, the status quo. Positive momentum has been building since the pandemic brought the game closer together as a whole, and today is the culmination of that unity.

"...This is not about World Rugby, unions, competitions or North or South. This is a decision by the game for the game and it is that collaborative spirit that I am most proud of.

"The future looks bright and the stage just got a whole load bigger!"

"This set of decisions have required a huge amount of compromise, a huge amount of movement, a huge amount of collaboration between a lot of stakeholders and we've been able to land on something that has been really elusive for rugby for a very long time.  I personally believe this is truly a historic day," Gilpin added.

"As Bill (Beaumont) said, a lot of people have worked very hard for a long time to get us to this point and we have a better future for men's 15s rugby, and we have a better future for women's 15s rugby to build on the pathways that we've already put in place in sevens rugby."

Gold Coast & District Rugby Union (JRU)

Gold Coast & District Rugby Union (JRU)

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